How to Apologize in the Workplace

Apologies are always difficult, and this is especially true in the workplace. In an environment mixed with different personalities, where individual responsibility and ownership for a project’s success or failure are under constant scrutiny, knowing how to apologize for an error or offense is a skill within itself. But understanding when and how to apologize is not always clear.


Apologize Face-to-Face

Apologize in person, not over email. Face-to-face apologies are much more meaningful, and it is also easier to gauge emotion and acceptance of your amends if you can see the person. If the employee you need to apologize to is remote or in another office, ask if he or she has time for a chat via phone or video conference. Your ability to interpret this individual’s vocal tone and facial expressions are key to know whether he or she accepts your apology and how serious he or she considers the consequences of your error. While much of our communication today is centered around technology, an apology is something that is better when executed face-to-face.

Prepare Beforehand

Yes, you should prepare what you’ll say beforehand. Writing out what you hope to communicate will ensure you use the best words to convey the intended meaning and that nothing is lost in translation or left unsaid. You get one shot at apologizing. Sometimes when you are upset, you don’t phrase something as eloquently or you lose your train of thought. Compiling your thoughts beforehand can help you convey exactly what you’d like to say.

Keep Your Composure

Being able to keep your composure no matter the individual’s response to your apology is also a skill. Depending on the severity of your offense, it’s not guaranteed that an individual will accept your apology; others’ reactions are unpredictable. If you take the time to compose a well-thought out apology, you should maintain your composure no matter how this individual reacts. We are all human and make mistakes, and one hopes the individual receiving your apology will be forgiving with that idea in mind.

While it’s difficult to know whether what you say will ensure an individual will accept your apology, you can use science to your advantage in phrasing your repent. According to research done by Peter H. Kim on the effects of an apology versus denial, which he summarizes in his article in The Washington Post, people are more likely to accept an apology about a bad decision that they think was made as a mistake. Few people take into account others’ perceptions before apologizing, which can be critical in framing your offense and subsequent apology in a way that the receiver is most likely to accept. Also, Kim’s research shows that you should ensure in wording your apology that the recipient knows the original offense was entirely unintentional and accidental because people will have more faith that the flaw will be corrected in the future.

Crafting the Perfect Apology

Each situation is unique, so every apology you ever make should be different. That said, three components should be included in every good apology.

  • Be specific. All apologies should include a “what.” An apology is not meaningful unless the person knows what it’s in regards to.
  • Convey how what you said or did was wrong. If you are apologizing, you should convey in a humble manner that you accept responsibility for a specific action or wrongdoing. Showing culpability is a sign of maturity and professionalism.This is also the time to consider specifying that the the bad decision was entirely a result of error, to combat any presumptions by the hurt individual that you did anything intentionally.
  • Show forethought into the future listing alternatives for how you would handle a similar situation next time that show how you should have acted in the first place. This is the really satisfying part of your apology, and it may convey the most meaning because it shows you’ve put some thought into creating a change and that your apology isn’t just a retroactive approach.

The apology template:

I apologize for what. I realize now that how what you said or did was wrong. Next time, I will scenario for what you will do in the future.


When An Individual Is Clearly Angry

Sometimes it is difficult to gauge the gravity of your error or offense. Something you may consider a big deal another person will barely think twice about. So what do you do if you are unsure whether an action or wrongdoing merits an apology? Communication is the key. If you are really unsure if someone is angry about something you did, ask them. This can help put your unease to rest. And if you apologize and something is really not a big deal to that individual, at least you know it is out in open, and they will brush it off. And, yes, you should still apologize when you accidentally bump into someone in the hall.

You Missed a Deadline

There are several reasons an apology could be necessary. While many companies have loose deadlines that are frequently pushed back, if you forgot about or failed to meet an important deadline on a large project, an apology is probably needed. This is especially true if someone was counting on you to deliver by a certain date and you promised to do so.

Your Action or Error Led to Substantial Consequences

While every role and industry is different, if you made an error where you incorrectly conveyed information, such as calculations on published data or information sent to the wrong people, it is worth apologizing for this mistake. If you made an error on one component of a project that led to further fallout because someone relied on your information for the larger assignment, or if your mistake affected the quality of another individual’s work, a mature apology is in order. You should also consider apologizing if you took an action that went against direct orders that led to negative consequences.

You Offended Someone

If you said something that offended someone, it is worth apologizing to help clear the air with this individual. If you have an ongoing working relationship with the person you offended, it is better to act quickly in correcting an offense than have it linger and tarnish a relationship and cause resentment.



If you are overridden with guilt or anxiety about an especially significant goof, you may feel compelled to apologize more than once. Don’t do it. One well-worded apology is much better received and meaningful than a few that contain tears, jumbled words and lack of composure. Over-apologizing can also lead to more harm, as the event can become a much larger ordeal than it was originally if you continue to mention it.

Saying “I’m Sorry”

While it never crosses the minds of most individuals, there is a difference between “I apologize” and “I’m sorry.” The word “apologize” is used in a more intellectual capacity. If you can avoid using the phrasing “I’m sorry” your apology will be taken more seriously in a professional capacity. “Sorries” are for when an individual is experiencing sorrow and is a word charged with emotion and empathy. It is more appropriate to use when someone has experienced a death in the family or accident, not for the workplace. Your wording in apologizing is key to convey the correct meaning.

Being Passive-Aggressive

“Geez, I apologize!” – Apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you are being sincere. Pay close attention to your vocal tone, and if you are angry about something, avoid apologizing until you calm down. The worst thing you can do is apologize in a passive-aggressive manner because this will intensify the annoyance and anger of the other individual. It can also signal that your decision could have been intentional, which would really exacerbate an already tense situation.

Making Excuses

An apology full of excuses comes across as defensive and insincere. There is a difference between explaining the rationale behind your actions and simply listing excuses for the error.

While apologies are difficult, this important component of communication can actually help strengthen relationships and showcase maturity in the long run.