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How to Apologize Like a Professional
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How to Apologize Like a Professional

What to do when you make a mistake at work.

October 2, 2020

We all make mistakes—it’s part of being human! But messing up at work can feel especially stressful. While your job may not be on the line, your reputation may be if you aren’t prepared to apologize professionally.

Despite the discomfort of saying “I’m sorry” to your boss, colleagues, or customers, it’s much better than the alternative. Avoiding an apology after making a mistake only makes matters worse. Instead, demonstrate your ability to communicate at work by owning up to your mistakes and acknowledging their effect on others.

Not sure how to get started crafting the perfect apology? Below are a few situations you may find yourself in, and some thoughts from supervisors in various industries about how to apologize like a professional.

How to apologize for missing work

Talk about awkward!

Whether you overslept, misread your schedule, or were dealing with a personal emergency, missing work often leaves your team members to pick up the slack. This can seriously strain work relationships and ding team culture.

Sincerity is very important here. Absence can be taken as a sign that a team member doesn’t care about their job.

If that’s not the case, your apology for missing work will serve as damage control. Explain your absence honestly without making excuses, apologize for it, and if applicable, offer details about how you will prevent it from happening again.

“Own your mistake. Don't make excuses for yourself, just say you're sorry. If it's a situation that allows for you to actually fix the problem, let them know how you plan to fix it and then get started on that plan ASAP.”
—Heather West, Program Director, Louisiana Outdoor Outreach Program

How to apologize to your boss

Of all the potential apologies to make at work, apologizing to our bosses might just be the toughest. Supervisors are some of the people who gauge our performance, professionalism, and talent in the workplace. It’s understandable that we want to maintain a good impression!

Make that impression with a genuine and professional apology. Own your mistake, apologize to your boss for it, and either get to work on fixing it or ask for help to do so. During this process, be open to feedback, but also keep in mind your value to the team.

“Don’t let failure be an opportunity for someone to demean you. If your boss is so heavy-handed that you aren’t allowed the space to make mistakes and learn you aren’t being valued. Make sure to have a good understanding of your strengths in these times because if you aren’t being supported work will feel like hell. Know the value you bring to the table and don’t let them take that from you.”
—Mike McKeon, District Coordinator, San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services

While you’re feeling apologetic, also consider whether anyone else was affected by your actions. 

“Usually, if you need to apologize to your boss, there is someone else who really needs the apology. Did you miss a goal, deadline, lose an account? Then you owe an apology to yourself too. “I’m sorry I let you and myself down.” Is there a customer who is dissatisfied? “I’m sorry I disappointed you and Ms. Jones.”
—Kathy N. Barenbrugge, Sales Training Manager, Marriott International

Including all affected parties demonstrates that you’ve really reflected on the situation and are offering a sincere, professional apology.

How to apologize for being rude

Being rude in the workplace seriously erodes your professional image. More importantly, it can damage relationships with coworkers and supervisors that affect your work environment.

To rectify this, apologize for being rude as soon as you reasonably can. Don’t give bad feelings and impressions time to fester and set in. Not making excuses for yourself (“I didn’t know,” “I was having a tough day,”) can be extra difficult, but important, here. Acknowledge that your words and/or actions were unacceptable, or at least unprofessional. Promise to do better, and then follow through.

Don’t be surprised if it takes others a while to feel comfortable around you again, depending on the situation. Your apology for being rude will need to be followed up with consistently better behavior to be meaningful for affected team members. That being said, don’t overdo it by gushing affection.

“Do not use obvious and overdone flattery, and do not under any circumstances offer or ask to ‘hug it out’. I have had both of these occur they were very off-putting.”
—Ollie Morin, Librarian

How to apologize professionally in an email

The art of the apology email is especially important for those of us working from home. Without the tone and nonverbal communication of a face-to-face apology, saying you’re sorry through written communication can be particularly challenging.

Knowing how to apologize professionally in an email might be the difference between relationship building and bungling. Here are some tips:

  • Explain what happened simply. While there’s no need for a detailed play-by-play, your recipient does need some context about what happened.
  • Acknowledge your error. Don’t tiptoe around this. You messed up—it happens. Take responsibility
  • Apologize. Use “I apologize for my actions,” “I’m sorry I didn’t meet expectations,” or any variation of those phrases appropriate to your situation.
  • Commit to doing better. In the future, what will you do to prevent this from happening again, if possible?
  • Close gracefully. “Thank you for your understanding,” “I appreciate your understanding,” “Thank you for this opportunity to learn and grow,” are just a few options to wrap up your email.

Whatever happened to require an apology, always remember that you are not your mistakes. You are the person who comes out on the other side of your mistakes more knowledgeable and more prepared for challenges to come. Apologize professionally, and demonstrate that you are capable of handling hiccups with grace.


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