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How to apologise when you’ve messed up at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Although it’s important to apologise if you’ve messed up, it’s also essential to avoid punishing yourself too much. Photo: Getty Images

There’s no feeling quite like the one when you realised you’ve made a big mistake at work. Your stomach sinks, you begin to sweat and you wonder what to do next - whether to try and rectify the situation yourself, or to involve your boss.

If done in the right way, though, owning up to an error and making it clear you want to resolve the problem can help save you if your neck is on the line.

No matter how on top of things you are, everyone makes mistakes. So what should you do?

“An apology is about showing respect. It shows not only your human side, but also that you’re mature enough to admit when you’re wrong on top of caring enough to rectify the problem,” says Jolene Foley, HR Manager at Vouchercloud.

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“Sometimes it’s as simple as acknowledging what you’ve done wrong and saying the word sorry.”

Do it as soon as you can

When apologising, do it as soon after the event as possible and take ownership of the mistake, Foley says.

“This may mean apologising in front of other co-workers, or sometimes it will be one to one. It’s important to judge the situation and know which is more appropriate,” she explains. “When you offer an apology you should be doing it with no expectations.

“Depending on the person and the act, you may not be forgiven but the apology isn’t about you or how you felt about the situation - it’s an admission of responsibility.”

Engage in damage control

Another important first step is damage control, to reduce the impact of the error. “If this mistake is still having a negative impact, you need to tell someone immediately and solicit their help in finding a solution,” Foley says.

“Just remember that we’ve all been there, and mistakes are a part of normal working life - it’s how they’re fixed that separates the good employees from the great.”

Once the mistake stops being an active problem, it’s crucial to start crafting that apology.

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“The key ingredients are: Identify what happened and why, take responsibility for the issue and explain how you’re going to stop it happening again,” Foley says. “To do this in person requires a lot of confidence in yourself and your abilities - but your superiors will certainly notice.

“An alternative is to set the same points out into a brief email to avoid the face to face portion. The most important point is to not stick your head in the sand. Own up to the issue and face it head on.”

Avoid self-flagellation

Although it’s important to apologise if you’ve messed up, it’s also essential to avoid punishing yourself too much, Foley advises.

“How you handle the apology is almost as important as the apology itself. Be succinct and detailed, but don’t fall into the trap of self-flagellation,” she says. “I guarantee that people are more interested in a solution than to watch someone beat themselves up over something.

“Remember, you shouldn’t keep apologising for the same thing over and over. If this is happening repeatedly, you really to look at your behaviour and make a change.”

Make sure you actually need to apologise

Whilst it is important to hold your hands up and apologise when you’ve made a mistake, it’s just as important to know when not to apologise.

“Do not apologise for speaking up in a meeting - as long as you’re not talking over people,” Foley explains. “Do not apologise for asking someone to do their job or the responsibilities within it. Do not apologise when asking for clarification - unless this has been explained to you clearly, more than once. Do not apologise when you’re looking to start a conversation, ‘Sorry, may I speak with you for a minute?’.

“For more significant issues, provided someone has been briefed on the problem, an apology would be inappropriate if it distracts the person or team actively working to fix it,” she adds.

“If you see people working flat out, and don’t have any more critical information to offer towards the solution, keep tight-lipped until it’s done.”

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