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The best way to apologize when you’ve screwed up at work

Scott Steinberg

Q: How can I apologize to my boss when I’ve overslept, missed an important task, or made a big mistake in my work?

Dear Oops I Did it Again,

Alright, so you screwed up and missed a deadline, blew a presentation, or otherwise dropped the ball at work. It happens to us all, but if you take accountability and learn from the mistake, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

Granted, apologies can be difficult. But when presented sincerely and in well thought-out fashion? You may be surprised at how quickly you can transform a negative experience into a teachable moment that builds teamwork and trust amongst all parties involved.

First, a few ground rules to note:

  • Apologizing is not a sign of weakness on the job.
  • Taking responsibility can be a way to demonstrate strength – and that you’re aware of an error, are taking steps to fix it, and remain both capable and in control of any situation.
  • Over-apologizing for minor hiccups (i.e. showing up two minutes late for a meeting, or forgetting to drop your coffee mug in the dishwasher) is unnecessary when a simple “I’m sorry” will suffice.
  • Frequent, extraneous apologies can create the appearance of being insecure.

That said, some common scenarios in which apologies are warranted include:

  • Neglecting to perform an assigned task.
  • Failing to provide insights, feedback, or deliverables by assigned deadlines.
  • Delivering work product that is not up to specifications and standards.
  • Snapping at or otherwise speaking out of turn to a coworker.
  • Undertaking actions that inconvenience employers or potential employers, e.g. you accidentally sleep through an interview or flub a new business pitch.
  • Providing incorrect or insufficient information to colleagues or clients.
  • Inadequately preparing for workplace scenarios and situations.

Each apology you make should be unique, and must take into account both the context of the error and perspectives of all parties involved in the gaffe. However, saying “I’m sorry” on the job doesn’t have to be as difficult as it seems if you acknowledge your mistakes and exercise a little more thoughtfulness in terms of next steps.

There are some simple rules you can follow for making each expression of remorsefulness count:

  • Take time to stop and think. If it’s a large error you’ve made, or important transgression, give yourself and others time to calm down, process the situation, and consider an appropriate response.
  • Don’t let issues fester. Apologize as soon as possible (preferably immediately following the hiccup if it’s a minor transgression) so as not to give others time to jump to conclusions or misread your intent.
  • Accept responsibility for your mistakes. Restate the issue, claim ownership of the mishap, and make it clear that you understand what went wrong, so as not to give the impression of insincerity.
  • Validate others’ feelings. You may disagree with these opinions, but it’s important to respect their positions, which will promote understanding and empathy while minimizing conflict.
  • Don’t make excuses. Avoid using words like “but,” “however,” or “if”—take blame, acknowledge the shortcoming you’ve engaged in, and explain why you agree that it was wrong.
  • State how you’ll fix the problem. Make it clear why the concern won’t arise again, and the specific steps you’re taking to correct it, whether this means checking in with supervisors more frequently or seeking regular feedback from peers. Then follow through promptly on these action steps.
  • Be considerate when making contact. Big and/or sensitive mistakes should be discussed and dealt with face-to-face; lesser offenses might be handled via a hybrid method, including an emailed apology note with an offer to meet and discuss issues in-person if they’d like to chat further. A sample email template that can help is as follows:

Hi Zoe,

Hope you’re doing well. I just wanted to take a minute and apologize for forwarding the most recent draft of our research to the client before you’d weighed in. I thought I was being proactive, but I realize that I should have checked with you first. I apologize sincerely, and I’ve instituted an online approvals and review process with our communications and IR teams so that it won’t happen again. Is there anything else I can do to help get things back on track? I’d be happy to discuss at your convenience.

Sincerely,
Taylor

Ultimately, the best way to handle a mistake is to promptly and positively address it, learn from the scenario, and move on. Apologizing can be an uncomfortable process, but the more you lean into it, the easier it becomes.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible. Find more of his work advice here.

Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit it to Scott by emailing work@qz.com.

 

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