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Corporate Responsibility: It’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry
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Corporate Responsibility: It’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry - Executive Leadership Articles

Corporate Responsibility: It’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry

Executive Leadership Articles

Corporate Responsibility: It’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry

It happens to nearly every company. Someone messes up, and someone is called upon to apologize on behalf of the organization. The larger and more visible the firm, the more urgently a heartfelt, well-composed apology is needed, but while time is of the essence, a hasty but poorly thought-out apology, no matter how nobly intentioned, is worse than not saying sorry at all.

Researchers at the Ohio State University presented different forms of apologies to subjects, quantifying their responses to each. Apologies contained one or more of these elements:

  • Expression of regret
  • Explanation of what went wrong
  • Acknowledgment of responsibility
  • Declaration of repentance
  • Offer of repair
  • Request for forgiveness

The study determined that the best apologies contain all six elements, but the elements are not all weighted equally in importance. The most important, according to respondents, is the acknowledgement of responsibility. Too often, public figures or their spokespeople use a variant of the passive “mistakes were made,” which doesn’t own up for the transgression. People want someone to say, “This is on me,” and one would think that with how quickly public apologies are dissected in today’s social media climate, professionals would realize this by now.

Subjects identified the offer of repair as the second most important element: you did this to someone, but what will you now do for this someone to make up for it? Reparations may come in the form of reimbursement for time, money, damages, or inconveniences, but this is not always the case. Some people who are transgressed upon by large companies request instead some kind of public contribution to a charity, indicating that the reparations need not be profitable to the injured parties, but a gesture in good faith can go a long way toward mending relationships.

Three elements tied for next-most important: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, and declaration of repentance. The least important is the request for forgiveness. The more of these elements an apology contained, the more positive the response from respondents.

The importance of apologizing for errors, misconduct, miscommunication, poor judgment, or unfortunate events cannot be overstated. In so much of our business transactions, everyday people feel the powers are stacked against them, which is one reason a public screw-up can spread so quickly and generate so much ill will nowadays. The screw-up may not have affected any of us directly, but we sympathize with the victims because we’re sure the same can happen to us at any time, and we want to believe that our time, money, and feelings matter.

Also because the social media response can be so swift and sympathetic, the public will tear, vulture-like, into public apologies for any reason. Too often, public apologies either sound formulaic, as if they were copied and pasted from the last time a company had to apologize for something, or they’re so careful to avoid admitting legal liability that they don’t actually apologize for anything at all. People can spot phoniness and insincerity in a second, so an insensitive apology can be worse than no apology at all.

When composing your apology, write it from your heart, with your sentiments. Even if someone else is writing it for you (not a bad idea, in most cases), stress the importance that the words need to sound uniquely yours, not as if they were photocopied out of some apology manual. Also, it cannot be underlined boldly enough that if your apology begins “I apologize if...,” “I’m sorry that you…,” or “To anyone whom I may have…,” it’s not an apology at all because it doesn’t assert responsibility. There are no ifs or mays: you wouldn’t have to make this apology if there’s any question that someone was hurt, offended, inconvenienced, or otherwise injured. It begins and ends with you, which is why the first word in “I’m sorry” is “I.”

Be specific about what you’re apologizing for. This is an extension of the “declaration of repentance” element, but it slants toward your personal understanding of the injury you caused. “I apologize for my actions and words” is not bad, but “I am sorry for hurting you with my thoughtless words” is better, and “I should never have done X, Y, and Z, and I’m sorry” is better still.

Our focus here has been on public apologies, but everything pretty much holds true for private, one-on-one apologies as well. Connect with your stakeholders and make them see that you are actually repentant and will work to make amends. Thank your lucky stars if so far this has never been necessary for you and your company, but be ready to respond quickly and sincerely when it is. It can make an enormous difference for your business, but more importantly, it can make such a difference in your relationships with other human beings.

Link reference:
The Ohio State University: https://news.osu.edu/news/2016/04/12/effective-apology


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Corporate Responsibility: It’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry - Executive Leadership Articles

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