Sorry? Appropriate Apologising at Work

by Mark Ellwood

Sorry Notes

There will always be certain circumstances at work where we will need to make an apology. For example, when you have hurt the feelings of a co-worker or maybe you said something that was offensive. But there are often circumstances where we shouldn’t really be making an apology – for things that are beyond our control or outside the scope of our responsibilities. And yet many people will say sorry for these things, often as a way to quickly defuse a situation or to soften the blow of bad news or feedback to someone.


However, these unrequired apologies can come across as a sign of insecurity and weaken perceptions of resilience at work. In this post we’re taking and look at when, and when not, to apologise and the appropriate actions to take.



When to apologise



Of course, there are always situations that warrant an apology. These can include:

  • Losing control/temper at work

  • Producing poor quality work

  • Being late for a meeting



But, even under these circumstances, we don’t want to just say ‘sorry’ and leave it at that. All these scenarios warrant a brief explanation. Most staff training consultancies will advise on a variation of the formula of the 3 A’s; Apologise, Acknowledge, Address.


How to apologise


Apologise – make a specific apology to person or people who were affected

Acknowledge – that you understand how your actions affected them. Also briefly acknowledge the circumstances without it sounding like an excuse (you misunderstood some information, or maybe your car broke down)

Address – finally, explain what actions you’ll take to remedy any problems that have occurred and to ensure you’ll act differently in future


This is the professional way to apologise and it’s the kind of apology plan you see brands following online – for example if they publish an advert that comes across as offensive.


But more than this, a genuine apology is actually a sign of strength. As Ilene Strauss Cohen, writing in Psychology Today explains:


“A genuine apology requires empathy, security, and the strength to admit your faults and weaknesses”.

In other words, a genuine apology can demonstrate a level of soft skill and emotional intelligence that might not otherwise be so apparent.



When not to apologise.


“I’m sorry this is disappointing for you”

“I’m sorry, I won’t be able to meet you tomorrow”


We’ve all used some kind of apology like this before. However, we should not apologise when something is not our fault or not our responsibility, and we should certainly break the habit of apologising just as a cover for insecurity for feeling uncomfortable – there are others ways to deal with this, such a the apology alternatives (see below). In fact, in stark contrast to being genuinely sorry, apologies that are not needed can make you appear submissive, weak or at least make you appear unsure of your actions.


Psychotherapist Beverly Engel, in her book “The Power of an apology”, wrote that over-apologising is similar to over-complementing; while you think you’re coming across as a nice and caring person, you’re actually sending the message that you lack confidence and are ineffectual.


Other times you might be temped to say sorry include:


  • A meeting was arranged with no notice, so you didn’t prepare

  • You gave genuinely constructive feedback to someone and they took it the wrong way

  • You need someone to do something for you



Apology Alternatives.

What are some other ways to frame what you want to say, without apologising?


Perhaps the best way is to demonstrate that you understand how something effects the other person.


“I know you’re super busy, but we really need to get that report out”

“Your application has been rejected. I know that must be disappointing for you”

“Thanks for helping out at such short notice, that really is appreciated”


Again, you are acknowledging how the situation affects the other person, but now you are not putting yourself in the equation as someone responsible for those feelings, rather someone who understands and cares – which is a much more powerful and empathetic position to be in.


If you do over-apologise, reprogramming yourself will take a bit of practice but the results should improve both your projection of confidence and your wellbeing.