Why apologies matter at work

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Apologies in the workplace are hitting the headlines once again due to frequent incidents of inappropriate workplace behaviour forming the topics of recent news stories. One high-profile example is former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s apology to Kathryn Borel, as part of an appearance in court that saw a count of sexual assault against him dropped. The case was enough to spark a national conversation about consent and sexual assault, as well as the handling of allegations of sexual violence by the justice system.

E-mails and Twitter feeds are buzzing with analysis of what makes a good apology. Recently passed workplace-related legislation, covering both human rights and workplace health and safety, outlines that employee behaviour, both at work and away from work, is the responsibility of the employer. People working together over a period of time are bound to get into conflicts based on personalities, power differences, resources, and simple human error. Chances are that everyone will offend someone at some time. There are clear guidelines that describe what constitutes appropriate behaviour, as well as requirements for employers to investigate complaints, conduct speedy reviews, and resolve concerns.

But the laws are not very helpful in guiding employers on how to fix the situation after identifying inappropriate employee behaviour. All employee behaviour relates to performance. Termination for misconduct is not always an option, because the employer is expected to give the offending employee the chance to fix the problem—so the employer has a responsibility to help the parties return to work as normal.

Everyone seems to agree that an apology is a significant and valuable phenomenon in repairing the harm done as part of the strategy to return to work, but not many people understand why. The deconstruction of an apology helps to evaluate whether the apology has the “right” components and this analysis is what helps to explain why apologies matter.

Whenever anyone is injured by a coworker, either physically or emotionally, there is a combined response of shock, anger, and fear. Anger comes from the violation of personal safety created by the injury. Fear comes from feeling diminished as a human being and the new vulnerability to being injured again; any sense of security is gone.

Injury creates an imbalance in the workplace that mars the equilibrium of day-to-day activities. If the balance is not regained fairly quickly, energy that should be directed towards work will be directed towards anger and fear; productivity will diminish, employees will be conscious of any tension, and over time, good employees will leave. Regaining safety and security are the goals of the injured person, but employers can take the lead in restoring balance and ensure that the offending party’s apology addresses the necessary components.

Step one is acknowledgment

To relieve anger, there must be acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Such an acknowledgement justifies the bad feelings and anger of the injured party, and can prompt the dissipation of these negative emotions. Conversely, an apology that does not address the actions that created the injury can leave the injured party feeling that others do not believe their injury to be significant.

Every good apology starts with a clear and direct acknowledgment of personal responsibility for the harm done. Remember to skip over any form of justification. It completely erases the acknowledgement that has just been offered.

Step two is restoration of security and safety

To restore security, a good apology also includes a strategy for the offender to repair harm done and to mitigate the risks of future harm. The plan for safety may include training, counselling, keeping a distance from the injured person, or probationary conditions for the offender. These components of the apology are what moves the issue from what happened in the past to what should happen going forward, and allows the team some resolution. This move to face the future is why an apology is so significant at work.

Some apologies include a request by the offender for forgiveness. This is a delicate issue. It can be seen as a strategy to shift the responsibility from the offending employee to the one offended. If I ask you for forgiveness and you don’t grant it, what does that say about you? But offering forgiveness is a statement of acceptance and a return to balance, which enables employees to move forward carefully.

A good apology at work plays a significant role in rebalancing and providing closure, allowing employees to return to work without fear and with a renewed sense of understanding and optimism.

Dr. Barbara Benoliel is the academic program coordinator in Walden University’s Barbara Solomon School of Social Work and Human Services. Her research interests include human and social services, criminal justice, and social and health services. Based in Toronto, Dr. Benoliel is also a professional mediator and president of the company Preferred Solutions Conflict Resolution, where she specializes in conflict management systems and alternative dispute resolution in organizations. Her current research and practice focus on the many applications of restorative justice processes in the resolution of disputes.
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