Real Apologies: At Work and Online

In a recent conversation with a woman-friend, she told me about an apology she did not receive in the workplace, some years ago. Then, she mentioned that one of her problems with social media was that people might apologize, but often did not act to reduce the harm they caused.

About apologies:

I have written about apology and non-apology apologies before. Below are some highlights.

A true apology has most or all of the following characteristics:

  • Is freely offered without requiring conditions or minimizing what was done
  • Conveys that the person apologizing understands and cares about the hurt person’s experience and feelings
  • Conveys remorse
  • Offers a commitment to avoid repeating the hurtful behavior
  • Offers to make amends or provide restitution if appropriate

Source: Dan Neuharth, PhD, MFT

That is the formula for a true apology, even without ever using the words, “I am sorry” or “We are sorry.” In three steps:

  1. Establish the context of the conversation.
  2. Acknowledge that you did harm (or someone else did harm in your name that you benefited from).
  3. Pledge to do better.

No Apologies at Work

The story:

I would not be surprised if some of my readers are nodding their heads at the end of this, thinking, “This happened to me, too.”

Once upon a time, a capable woman was on a team that was working on a project. The project was not going well; it hit a snag. She suggested a different way to approach the problem, which came at it from a different angle. To implement it meant starting over, rather than modifying from the current point.

She was berated in front of the entire team by someone in authority. Not just once.

She subsequently left that project. She heard years later that the authority who berated her eventually adopted her plan. He admitted to others that he had been wrong. That apology only reached her ears secondhand. When she heard it, it didn’t make her feel any better.

The “apology”:

I would not be surprised if some of my readers hear an apology in the admission of being wrong. He didn’t have to admit he was wrong. He probably felt better about himself for seeing he was wrong. He might feel that was growth. The apology was given freely, admitting guilt. However, it was significantly incomplete. Key parts of an apology are missing here. Namely:

    • He did not apologize to the injured party. He did not show any care for the injured party. He personally harmed her reputation, and possibly her income by berating her at work. His apology was in the service of improving his reputation.
    • The apology demonstrates no understanding of the consequences for his former team member.
    • The apology does convey remorse only in regard to his poor work performance. He cost his company time and money by disregarding his colleague and pursuing the project ineffectively. 
    • He did not commit to listening to his team member’s ideas without berating them.
    • He did not make restitution. Since he did not apologize, he also did not offer to write a recommendation or to correct the false statements he had made publicly about her work.

No Apologies Online

Recalling this incident brought my woman-friend to another ineffective apology style that she saw on social media, far too often.

The very-common story:

Someone sees a post or link online, then posts or forwards it. Sometime thereafter, the information is shown to be false, or even damaging. Many people will take down a post. Many people will take no action regarding an email or other forwarding that isn’t on social media. This is a non-apology.

So, you made a mistake online or with an email forward. How do you apologize?

Suppose you just posted that some movie star is dead, then find out that he died three years ago. Taking down the post might suffice, since there is little harm in that kind of clickbait mistake.

More serious errors, or errors that can’t be unsent, require a correction.

  1. Remove the post. If you sent an email, send a correction.
  2. Post or email a correction. When you correct, avoid repeating the false information. Why?
    1. What you put on the internet is there forever. Don’t increase the number of times the falsehood is out there.
    2. When you repeat something, you increase the chances that the falsehood will be remembered, not the corrected material.

For the movie star mistake:

“I just removed a post/sent an email about the late, great So-And-So. He was a great hero of mine because… He died in May, 2018.”

For more important factual matters, a full retraction, with an apology is in order.

“I apologize for a recent (removed) post about nutrition. I have since found out the claims are from a questionable study funded by the Orange Growers Association of Brazil. I wasted your time by spreading advertising, in the name of science. I will be more careful about what I share from now on.”

“I apologize for sending you the email, subject ‘Oranges and Cancer Prevention.’ Please disregard that information. I have since found out the claims are from a questionable study funded by the Orange Growers Association of Brazil. I wasted your time by spreading advertising, in the name of science. I will be more careful about what I share from now on.”

Why the difference? Because if the post is removed, the reader can forget about it. Therefore, you do not need any reference to it again. However, your email might still be saved in their system. You want them to remember to disregard that specific email, hopefully, unread.

These retractions serve as complete apologies. They admit an error, remove the possibility of further harm, and admit the harm done, and promise to improve to avoid repeating this error.


May you be treated well in 2022. If not, may you get the apologies you deserve. 






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