Apologizing on the job

When and how to say you're sorry at work.

Apologizing on the job

Career success is all about relationships. And when something goes wrong, it's important to fix it. That may mean an apology is in order.

"Getting back on the right path as quickly as possible is what makes you a good employee," says Anna Post, an author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute.

Post and others offer advice on how to handle apologies in six common workplace situations:

You made a mistake that causes problems for your colleagues

This is a clear-cut case where an apology is called for. You could simply say, "I'm sorry," followed by an offer to fix the problem.

If the situation is complex, use your apology to show you understand the effect of your actions. Meryl Runion, a speaker and author of six books on communication, suggests saying, "I regret that you have to do X, Y and Z because of my mistake. I'm sorry. It won't happen again because in the future I will..."

Someone in your company made a mistake, and you're dealing with an unhappy customer

You don't want to pretend you did it, but you may want to issue a clear apology on behalf of the company. "There are times when you need to take one for the team," Post says. "Somebody needs to apologize." You'll look better making the apology than casting blame on your coworkers.

You're not sure whether you should apologize

Perhaps you sensed during a meeting that your comment had upset a colleague. Before apologizing, try to find out what's going on. Post suggests saying, "'I felt some tension in that meeting. Is everything all right?' If they say they're fine, then you don't need to apologize."

Or maybe you want to express sympathy for a colleague's situation without appearing to accept responsibility for something you didn't do. "Say, 'I regret that it happened this way,'" Post suggests. "What you don't want to do is to apologize for mistakes that really aren't yours."

You contribute to your team missing a deadline

This is tricky, since you want to accept the responsibility you deserve but no more than that.

"Definitely avoid sounding like you're pointing fingers," Runion said. "You might say, 'It wasn't one of our team's finer moments. I can see several things that I could do differently in the future to contribute to a more effective team effort.'"

You regret the words or tone you used, but you were expressing legitimate concerns

In this case, Post suggests saying something like, "I apologize for my tone of voice. I do have some serious concerns. I would like to address those now."

You find yourself apologizing frequently

Make sure you're not apologizing over and over for the same mistake. "Just because you're going to apologize later doesn't give you license to behave badly," Post says.

Nor should you apologize for nonmistakes—this can be taken as a sign of insecurity. "People want to work with people who are confident," Post adds.

And when you do apologize, do it briefly for a small problem and save the long explanations for the big problems.

"If you over-apologize," Runion says, "that is a sign of deference and weakness rather than accountability and strength."