From small indignities such as not giving credit where credit is due to much larger dignity violations such as sexual harassment or experiencing bullying behavior from a peer or supervisor, most of us have experienced a workplace conflict in which an apology would have gone a long way toward making amends and helping a relationship and/or project get back on track.

An effective apology seeks to ease a person’s emotional burden and put right the relationship, which is precisely what is necessary to maintain a healthy working environment. A well-delivered apology, should seek to achieve three things: 

  1. It should focus on the needs of the injured or harmed person. 
  2. It should seek to repair harm. 
  3. It should create an opportunity for forgiveness. 

Focus on the Needs of the Injured Party

This seems like a no-brainer, and yet too often an apology can add insult to injury when what is intended as an apology shifts into an excuse. This usually sounds like: “I am really sorry but …”, “I am really sorry you feel like that way …”, or “I am really sorry if …” If a person believes he or she is apologizing to someone and the apology opens with one of these three lines or something similar, it is quite likely what the person is actually doing is offering an excuse for his or her behavior. That person may walk away feeling better, but the injured party most likely will leave the conversation feeling worse.

Seek to Repair Harm   

An apology is more than words. To be truly effective, it must seek to repair whatever harm resulted from the person’s behavior. And, most importantly, only the person who has been harmed understands what is necessary to repair the harm. This means that when we make an apology, rather than explaining what we will do to repair the harm, we must ask the injured party: “What can I do to make this right?” When we make assumptions about what is necessary to repair the harm, we run the risk of creating even more harm and deepening the person’s injury. In other words, we can make the situation worse.

Create the Opportunity for Forgiveness

Ideally, we want to be able to restore relationships in the workplace, regain trust, and move forward in a productive manner in which all parties are free from judgment and condemnation. We want a clean slate. Depending on the egregiousness of a person’s behavior, this can be a big ask, which is why an apology — when delivered effectively — can only create the opportunity for forgiveness. It does not create an expectation or a guarantee of it. Asking for a clean slate is asking the other person to make a significant leap of faith that a person’s apology is sincere and truly indicative of a change of heart and a change in behavior. While seeking forgiveness is appropriate and a sign of hope for a better future, it cannot be expected or demanded. 

Delivering Effective Apologies in the Workplace

Offering an apology is not something that should be taken lightly, nor is it something that a person should go into without fully preparing for it. There are very specific components of an effective apology, and each component should be taken seriously and delivered honestly if the relationship is to be restored. 

The components of an effective apology are … 

  1. A clear “I’m sorry” statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that expectations, protocols, and/or social norms were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of the actions on the injured person.
  5. A request to repair the harm.
  6. A request for forgiveness.

Delivering an effective apology can have a transformational effect on the relationships of the people involved as well as on the working relationships of their colleagues. Conflict between two parties has a spillover effect into the professional lives of those who must also engage with the parties in conflict and this ultimately has a negative impact on productivity, morale, and employee engagement. Choosing to deliver a heartfelt and sincere apology is a sign of professional maturity. It is a show of leadership. And, it can positively transform professional relationships and the overall working environment. 

An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator with expertise in restorative justice and transformative mediation models, Robyn Short works with individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. In addition to her mediation and conflict training practice, Robyn is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University in the Master of Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution program, the Master of Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University, and El Centro Conflict Management program. She has guest lectured at Pepperdine University and Creighton University. Robyn has authored three books on peace building and currently serves on Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson’s advisory board for the Women of the World for World Peace conference and on the board of Peacemakers, Inc.