I have lots of experience in apologies. I give them, I take them – probably a few hundred times a year. They range from the ephemeral “Sorry” after brushing by someone in a store to the heartfelt, guilt-stricken mea culpa when I really mess up. I give some apologies better than others, and I don’t always recognize it when I make an awkward one. Even when I do recognize it, I don’t always understand why I bungled it. It turns out that apologizing is more complicated than I thought. There’s even an emerging “science” of the apology.
Last year researchers published a paper titled “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies.” Their study found that the best apologies contained these six elements:
- Expressing regret
- Explaining what went wrong
- Acknowledging responsibility
- Declaration of repentance
- Offer to repair or compensate
- Request for forgiveness
Not all six elements have equal value. The most important by far was acknowledging responsibility. The second most important was offering to repair or compensate. The least important was asking forgiveness.
Accepting responsibility can be difficult because it conflicts with our self-image of being a good and competent person. We may prefer to blame the other person or we want to point to extenuating circumstances because we don’t like being wrong.
In the workplace apologies can be very effective in restoring employee trust, especially in cases of termination or discrimination which involve deep feelings and emotions. Let’s look at a case where a bad apology cost the company $2 million.
Frank was a supervisor at a global bank in New York. Carlos was a Mexican-American employee (and Cornell graduate) who had been working in the Mexico City office. He was transferred to New York for a three year stint and placed in a training program to learn about high risk lending. He and three others were assigned to Frank for a week. Frank had a reputation for edgy and cutting humor. People tolerated it because he had a big personality, made lots of money for the bank (in high risk junk bond lending) and had worked there for eighteen years.
In an orientation meeting Frank introduced his four interns. He made a “humorous” comment about each person. He went too far when introducing Carlos:
“Carlos was in our Mexico City office. He’s lucky he got across the border before the Wall was built. He’s here to learn what innovative businesses want from their bankers. Carlos, I can tell you they love your burritos and office cleaners but they’re not real happy about your Mexican drug dealers.”
Carlos didn’t react or say anything. A week later he was in a Human Resources workshop. He mentioned Frank’s comment to one of the instructors who notified Kathy in the HR department. Kathy talked to Carlos and then called Frank and asked him to apologize to Carlos. Frank told Kathy an apology was ridiculous but three days later he talked to Carlos.
According to Frank, he told Carlos he didn’t remember making the comment but still said, “I’m sorry if you felt insulted.” Frank said Carlos accepted the apology. Carlos remembered it differently. He said the apology was completely insincere; that Frank had complained that HR told him to apologize for what was just some friendly ribbing. He also said Frank implied that it wouldn’t be good for Carlos’ career in New York if he didn’t learn to take a joke.
Four months later there was a job opening in the high risk junk bond section (where Frank worked). Carlos applied for the job (which paid very well). He didn’t get it, even though he was well-qualified. He heard through the grapevine that Frank may have undermined him. He wrote to HR complaining. Six months later the bank announced widespread layoffs. Carlos was included. He sued the bank alleging retaliation. Four years later the case settled. A bad apology and an un-chaperoned meeting cost the bank $2,000,000 (including legal).
Frank never acknowledged responsibility. He viewed his “ribbing” of people as in good fun and he did it to everyone. He often said sharp tongues and elbows are part of the New York culture. Furthermore, he didn’t see himself as a bigot. He was Irish and raised in South Boston, but his parents came from Northern Ireland. He was a Protestant. In Catholic South Boston being Protestant made him a target of childhood taunts and ridicule. He saw himself as a victim of discrimination and couldn’t imagine discriminating against others.
There are many ways to mess up an apology and this case had two of them. There is the Fake Apology. Frank told Carlos he was sorry if Carlos felt hurt by what Frank said at the meeting. This is not an apology. In Frank’s mind he never meant to hurt Carlos and thought this made him largely blameless. Frank was avoiding responsibility and shifting the blame to Carlos (Carlos over-reacted).
Then there is the Coerced Apology. For example, “Mark, tell your brother you’re sorry for hitting him in the head with your catcher’s mitt.” This never has credibility with the victim. The apology wasn’t voluntary. That is one reason why Frank’s apology was so ineffective. Carlos saw it as being ordered by the company.
If this case had gone to trial, how would I prepare Frank for his testimony? First, I would get him off thinking that being a victim of childhood “discrimination” exonerated his comments. The jury will be focused on his words and how he and the company responded. It will not dwell on his motivation and state of mind. Second, I would teach him the difference between a genuine apology and a half-hearted or selfish apology. Finally, I would help him craft the words of an effective apology (that wouldn’t expose him to any more liability or risk than he already had). He can’t change his original comments but he can make a public apology. Juries love stories of remorse and redemption – even from jerks.