When and How to Apologize at Work

Sorry on computer keyboard
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Apologies can be difficult and even awkward, especially in the workplace because you are dealing with personal feelings in a professional setting. However, apologies are almost always appreciated when they are well thought out and sincere.

While some people believe apologies, particularly in the workplace, are a sign of weakness, they can demonstrate that you are capable and in control, as they establish that you recognize an error and how to fix it.

When to Apologize at Work

While apologies are important, you want to avoid constant apologies for every small mistake you make at work. If you give a formal, elaborate apology for every minor transgression, coworkers and employers may view you as weak and insecure. So, if you accidentally leave your coffee mug in the kitchen sink, or show up a minute late to a coffee date with a colleague, a concise “I’m sorry” ​at the moment might be all that is needed.

On the other hand, if you were late for work when you really should have been present, an apology may be in order.  It is important to seek a balance between over-apologizing and not apologizing at all.

When to Apologize During a Job Search

If you have done something to inconvenience a prospective employer, such as arriving late or not at all to an interview or not handing in application materials on time, you should apologize. The entire job search process is your chance to demonstrate your personal and professional qualities. If you have demonstrated a quality that you do not think is appropriate, such as tardiness or rudeness, you need to address the issue.

How to Apologize

Every apology will differ in method and content, based on the issue for which you are apologizing, and those to whom you are apologizing. However, the following tips can make almost any apology more effective:

  • Apologize as soon as possible. By issuing an apology quickly, you are acknowledging that you made a mistake and truly regret it. Sometimes, especially for minor transgressions, such as arriving late to lunch with a colleague, an apology is accepted quickly. However, when apologizing for a particularly awful transgression, you might need to wait a few hours or even a day for everyone involved to process the situation to accept the apology.
  • Give no excuses. By giving excuses for your mistake, you are not taking responsibility for your actions. Be sure to say the words “I am sorry” or “I apologize” to express your remorse clearly. Including reasons for your actions makes it seems like you are excusing yourself from the mistake and not really sorry.
  • Take responsibility. After saying you are sorry, clearly and concisely acknowledge what it is you did wrong. For example, you can say “when I did not hand in my assignment for our group project, I let down the entire team.” Admit to the rule or norm that you violated to take responsibility for your specific mistake.
  • Explain how you will fix the mistake. In addition to saying why you are sorry, explain how you will prevent the issue from reoccurring. For example, if you missed a deadline for a team assignment, explain to your colleagues that you have organized your schedule in a way that will prevent you from missing future deadlines. Solely telling others that the mistake will not be repeated is not sufficient unless you explain the steps you will take to ensure it doesn't reoccur. You might also consider asking the person to whom you are apologizing if there is anything you can do to remedy the situation.
  • Keep your word.  If you say you will work harder at responding promptly to emails, then stay true to your word to show others that your apology is genuine. By following through with your solution, you are also showing others that you can be trusted.
  • Consider the method. Some apologies need to be said in person. For example, if you made a large mistake with your boss, you may need to meet in person to discuss the transgression in detail. However, if you are uncomfortable dealing with these situations in person, or if you may become too upset or say something incorrectly, you may want to send an apology email. You can also choose a middle ground, for which you apologize via email and ask the person if they want to meet in person to discuss the matter further.

Sample Apology Email to a Coworker for a Mistake at Work​​

The following email can assist you in writing your own apology to a coworker. The email is also available as a template that can be downloaded for use with Google Docs and Word Online.

Screenshot of a sample apology email to a coworker for a mistake at work
©TheBalance 2018

Sample Apology Email to Coworker for Mistake at Work​​ (Text Version)

Subject: My Apologies

Dear Brian,

I want to apologize for mixing up the files for XYZ Company and ABC Company. My careless mistake hurt our sales pitches, and almost lost us two key clients.

When we work together on a sales pitch, I realize it is important that we can confidently rely on each other to complete our assignments. When I made a mistake, I let you down.

I am currently developing strategies to ensure that I never make that kind of sloppy error again. I have developed an even clearer organization for my online client files that will make it impossible for me to confuse one file for another. I have also spoken with our supervisor and explained that the error was completely my fault, not yours.

I understand that I have damaged our working relationship. However, I greatly value you as a colleague, and I believe that we have worked well together as a sales team in the past. I hope that you will be willing to work together in the future. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to make this possible.

Sincerely,

Mark

Mark Williamson
Sales Associate
Paper Supply Company
555-555-5555
mark.williamson@email.com

Sample Apology Email to an Employee for Behavior

The following email is an example of an apology from a manager to an employee for inappropriate behavior at work. Depending on the severity of the offense, the manager might want to either meet with the employee in person—perhaps with an HR person present—or write a formal written letter.

Sample Apology Email to an Employee for Behavior (Text Version)

Dear Brandon,

I am very sorry for my behavior in the staff meeting this morning. I cut you off in the middle of your presentation and criticized your performance in front of the staff. This was not only unprofessional but also simply disrespectful. I let my stress about a personal matter impact my management of the office.

I have always said to you, and to all my employees, that I want this office to be a place where you all feel comfortable sharing ideas with one another. When I yelled at you publicly for a small error in your presentation, I damaged that collaborative environment.

I am taking steps to make sure I do not lose my temper in that way again. I am working to manage my stress so that I do not let it impact the way I interact with my employees. I also know how capable you are of conducting a terrific staff meeting. I would, therefore, love for you to lead the staff meeting next week.

I am very sorry again. Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this matter further.

Sincerely,

Luis Nery
Manager
East Bay Company
555-555-5555
l.nery@email.com