How To Apologize In The Workplace, And Mean It

apologizing in the work place


Picture this: You’re typing away at your computer, working on the latest sales report your boss asked you to take point on. Suddenly, you see a Slack message pop up from a coworker. They’re saying you made a mistake at the latest weekly meeting, and now the consequences are falling on them. Yikes! While you didn’t mean to do anything wrong, now you need to apologize.

When and how to apologize at work

While apologizing is an important human ability to have,  you also want to make sure you’re using “sorry” wisely. It can definitely help you create bonds and build trust with the people you work with, but words can lose their meaning if repeated too much. Apologizing for every single small mistake or misunderstanding can actually have the opposite effect of what you’re hoping for. Kind of like the story of the boy who cried wolf, but with less lying. Apologizing when you mean it can be much more powerful and sincere if done correctly. 

This is not to say if you return someone’s pen later than you said you would that you should just throw it on their desk and walk away. But, there are degrees of apologies that are applicable to the situation you’re dealing with. For example, if you bump into someone in the hallway a simple “oops, my bad” will do. If you show up late for a meeting, you might want to go with something with a bit more weight like “I’m really sorry, I lost track of time”. But, if you make a mistake big enough to affect a coworker’s ability to do their job, you’re going to need to bring out the big guns.

What makes a good apology email

The idea of an apology is to make it as personalized as possible. However, there are definitely a few tips you should follow to make sure it’s a sincere one – and that it comes across as such.

  • Doing it immediately. In general, letting a significant amount of time go by before you apologize is not a great idea. While the wronged person might need some time to cool down, too long without a “sorry” may mean it’s too little too late when you finally talk to them.
  • Take responsibility. The first step in fixing a mistake is admitting you were wrong. The next step is to pointedly state what happened. This is a great way for the person reading the apology message to know that you truly understand what the issue was. And, that you’re not just saying sorry for the sake of it. Depending on the issue at hand, you can also ask how to make amends. This gives the wronged party the chance to decide for themselves how they’d like you to fix this.
  • No excuses. While explaining what caused the issue in the first place might be helpful in order to add context, be careful that it doesn’t come across as excuse-making. Don’t point a finger at someone else, and don’t get defensive. Make a point of actually saying “I’m sorry”, and state what exactly you are sorry for. Extra points for being able to explain why it was wrong.
  • Fix it. This is the time to explain how you’re going to fix the problem at hand if the other person hasn’t told you exactly what they’d like you to do. Have an action plan, and share it in the message. This will convey that you’re serious about this and that you’re taking ownership of the situation by really thinking through what are the steps needed to resolve the problem.
  • Bonus Tip: What not to say. What you shouldn’t say is just as important as the things you should. Phrases like “I’m sorry you feel that way”, “I’m sorry, but”, and “What about the time you…” should never make it onto your apology message. They will negate all the effort you put into the rest of your apology and are absolutely going to make the other person feel like you’re being insincere. 

Example of an apology email

Understanding the concept of how to properly apologize is a great place to start. But, we tend to find it useful to also see concrete examples. Below, we collected all the tips we shared into a concrete apology email example. We used the example of the opening of this article as the situation we were apologizing for. 

Hi John, 

I wanted to take the time to properly apologize for the incorrect information I shared in the last weekly meeting. While I didn’t realize how this would affect you, I do understand that the consequences of the mistake I made ended up falling on your lap.

I should have made sure to double-check the information before presenting it, and I’m really sorry I didn’t. That said, I’ve already set two reminders to pop up before the next meeting dates which will help me be sure to confirm the numbers are correct beforehand. 

I’m really sorry, again, and I appreciate you bringing this up to me. 

All the best,

Apologizing as a manager vs. as an employee

In general, an apology is an apology regardless of who the people involved are. However, when it comes to apologizing as a manager vs as an employee there are a few subtle differences. If you manage an employee who made a mistake, you might end up having to apologize in their name. When doing this, it’s important to remember that what your employees do is a reflection of your leadership abilities. Be mindful of not blaming the situation on them. Taking ownership of the issue as if it was something you did yourself will create a closer bond with your team. They will see this action as you having their back, and will be more willing to communicate with you.

On the flip side of that, when apologizing as an employee to a superior you want to make sure you really focus on the no excuses and fixing it tips mentioned above. Your manager will be ok with you making mistakes, but they need to know you’re learning from them and understand how to not do them again. 

Related readings about apologizing in the workplace

Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in entrepreneurial leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:

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