Companies & Industries

The Ethics of Apologies


These few simple rules will help you give apologies meaningfully and accept them gracefully

Every day, it seems, we learn of an apology from a prominent executive, celebrity, or political figure in response to an indiscretion of some sort. Those in the public eye have an unfortunate tendency to apologize only after they have been found with a hand in the cookie jar. When this happens, it is only natural for a skeptical (or cynical) public to wonder, "Are they apologizing for their conduct, or simply because they were caught?"

To make matters worse, the wrongdoer will often use the passive voice in his or her apology: "Mistakes were made," rather than "I made a mistake." It is more comfortable to use the passive voice here, but doing so relinquishes any sense of personal responsibility. It is a non-apology and is not very meaningful.

Of course, it's not just those in the public eye who readily offer an insincere "I'm sorry." You probably have at least one such person in your life. It may be the person working for you who spends too much time making personal phone calls or surfing the Web while at the office. Perhaps it is a friend who consistently cancels lunch dates at the last minute. Maybe you even find yourself offering apologies more than you should. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the need for the apology, and whether you need to make one or feel you deserve one, the following questions arise:

What makes an apology meaningful?

Does apologizing make us look weak?

How should you respond if you can't avoid repeating the mistake?

What may we rightfully expect from someone who apologizes to us?

To answer these questions, it will be helpful to keep two ethical principles in mind: "Be Fair" (what I have called Life Principle No. 4) and "Be Loving" (or Life Principle No. 5). Recall that fairness or justice requires, among other things, that the punishment should fit the crime, and some forms of wrongful conduct are so serious that a mere "I'm sorry" isn't enough of a response. To be loving and compassionate in our professional and personal lives calls upon a different set of skills: We should do what we can to honor a person's sincere apology, even though our anger pulls us in the opposite direction.

With these two principles in mind, I propose the following guidelines for giving and accepting apologies:

When You Owe an Apology

Admit your mistake quickly and take personal responsibility for it. Don't say "We made a mistake" when you mean "I made a mistake."

Apologize first to the person you have wronged. That is the person who matters most.

Speak from the heart. An insincere apology is as bad as no apology at all. People can tell when you really mean it, even if you think you're a good actor and can fool everyone.

Realize that "sorry" is just a word. For that word to be meaningful, you must do your level best to avoid repeating the mistake. This means coming up with a strategy and sticking to it.

Understand that a meaningful apology is a sign of integrity, not weakness. Anyone can blame others, or deny that he or she did anything wrong, or lie about what really happened. Only a strong, self-possessed person can own up to their mistakes, and only such a person commands true respect.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you can't do something well on your own, invite others to work with you on the problem. If the problem is beyond your grasp, consider asking someone else to take it on, if it is appropriate for you to do so.

When You Are Owed an Apology

If someone has done something wrong and apologizes to you, accept the apology graciously. However…

You are also justified in expecting the person to avoid repeating the behavior that required an apology in the first place.

Depending on the situation, you might need to make clear to the other person what the consequences will be if he or she makes the mistake again.

"Three strikes and you're out" is fine for baseball, but in other areas, it may take only one strike for someone to be justifiably banished from being a player. Some mistakes are so serious that you should not grant a second chance. For relatively minor slipups, however, or if the task at hand is unusually difficult, it might be unfair not to allow more than three opportunities to get it right.

If the apologist continues making the same mistake over and over, you may have to say, perhaps regrettably, "I can't in good conscience give you another opportunity to slip up," no matter how much that person continues to apologize.

The 1970 film Love Story featured the memorable line "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Even if this were true, there are many other areas where we do have to say we're sorry—and mean it. The challenge for all of us is to admit we've made a mistake, to do our best to ensure that we don't do it again, and to forgive others who sincerely regret their own poor judgment. No one is perfect, but most of us do have the capacity to right our own wrongs and to accept the imperfections in others.

Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D. is the corporate consultant, author, and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy. He has appeared on numerous national television shows and is the author of several books on ethics. His “Ask the Ethics Guy!” appears every other week on businessweek.com/managing/.

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