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Sorry, Not Sorry: Can Apologizing Too Much Hurt Your Career?


Whether you’re a high-ranking executive or an entry-level employee, being too remorseful could negatively affect your reputation as a professional and cause others to perceive you as weak. We’ll examine how too many apologies could leave your career in a sorry state of affairs.

I'm sorry

(Photo Credit: Craig Sunter/Flickr)

Many successful companies abide by “[t]he customer is always right” philosophy, according to The Five Languages of Apology in the Workplace, by Dr. Gary Chapman and Dr. Jennifer Thomas. Chapman and Thomas encourage employees “to apologize when a customer complains,” regardless of the reason. However, while it may be beneficial for businesses to have a more accommodating and forgiving approach when it comes to customer service, there seems to be an opposing “rule of thumb” in the workplace.

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“In academic terms, apologies act as a transfer of power from the offender to the victim,” says Janet Paskin in her Businessweek article, which refers to the 2012 Australian study Refusing to Apologize Can Have Psychological Benefits (and We Issue No Mea Culpa for This Research Finding). Paskin goes on to say that, “Neglecting to apologize means we don’t have to admit we’ve done anything wrong,” therefore, there’s nothing to be sorry about. Right? Well, no really. 

One study argues that “apologizing is more effective than not apologizing,” especially “when the apologizer is a male, a manager or is a male apologizing to a female.” What’s more surprising about the study’s findings, “Apologies are less expected from managers and males than from subordinates and females, and the less expected they are, the greater their effectiveness.” Ladies, it looks like there’s one more thing to add to your career to-do list after “lean in” and “sit at the table”: “Stop apologizing.”

Is being unapologetic really the best way to climb the corporate ladder, after all? As it turns out, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing – there is a happy medium. You don’t want to be too apologetic, because then people will view you as a weak and a willing target. On the other hand, being unremorseful or putting the blame on others can result in a poor reputation in your profession, and that’s the last thing you want for your career. Therefore, the happy medium is to choose your battles (or apologies) wisely and know how to effectively apologize to your co-workers in order to move past the situation smoothly. 

A good rule of thumb to determine whether a “sorry” is in order is to take a step back and look at the situation from an objective standpoint. Are you at fault? Did you commit an egregious act that offended or hurt someone? Did your wrongdoing cost the company a substantial amount of money? If you simply showed up late, forgot about a meeting, or committed some other minor transgression, then it’s safe to save your apology for a much greater offense – like accidentally sending out the executive’s payroll spreadsheet to the entire company. That’s why it’s a good idea to not apologize too often because a “miserly attitude toward apologies helps make them valuable” and more believable when you need them most. 

When an occasion arises in which you feel an apology is in order, consider following these six steps to express your remorse.

1. Accurate expression of the offense: “Yesterday, I said…”

2. Recognition by the offender of responsibility: “I did not think before I spoke.”

3. Acknowledgement of the offended party’s pain or embarrassment: “It’s understandable that you were upset.”

4. Judgment that the offending act was wrong: “It was insensitive for me to say that.”

5. A statement of regret: “I am very sorry.”

6. A statement of the offender’s future intentions: “In the future, I will…”

(Source: I’m Sorry: Effective Workplace Apologies post)

The average employee spends more time in the workplace than at home, so it’s crucial to develop a healthy work environment to ensure the success of each employee, as well as the company. “Learning to apologize is good business. The employees live with less stress and anxiety, while the company profits from their increased productivity,” according to The Five Languages of Apology in the Workplace. Therefore, it’s important to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em when it comes to saying sorry in a professional setting because you don’t want to be perceived as a jerk, but you also don’t want to be known as the office pushover. 

Tell Us What You Think

Are you an over-apologizer in the workplace? Has your eagerness to show remorse had any affected your reputation in the office? Share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Leah Arnold-Smeets
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