How to apologize to someone at work

Having the courage—and humility—to say “I’m sorry” goes a long way.

How to apologize to someone at work

Admitting a mistake is not a sign of weakness.

Summoning the words “I’m sorry” when you’ve made mistake isn’t easy, especially when apologizing to a co-worker. “Vulnerability is always difficult,” says Stamford, Connecticut-based executive coach Anne Marie Segal. “We don’t like to admit we made a mistake.” But learning how to apologize to someone you work with is an important part of office life.

It’s a lesson that can take some time to grasp. Sometimes, a company’s culture can make it even more challenging for employees to apologize to their peers. “Many workplaces have created a culture where perfection is rewarded,” says Henna Pryor, an executive coach in Philadelphia, “and because of those frameworks, employees feel that admitting they made a mistake is a sign of weakness.”

Being able to deliver a genuine and thoughtful apology when appropriate, though, goes a long way in terms of mending relationships and maintaining a good reputation at work.

“Apologizing for a noteworthy mistake shows a strong amount of integrity and honesty, and it builds credibility for future interactions,” says Eli Howayeck, CEO of Crafted Career Concepts in Milwaukee.

Follow these tips to learn how to apologize to someone in seven common workplace situations.

You made a mistake that hurt your co-worker’s reputation

We all strive to build and maintain a positive image of ourselves at work, which is why damaging someone else’s reputation warrants an apology.

Let’s say you provided your co-worker data that he included in a pitch to a client, but your numbers were incorrect, and it caused your colleague to lose his contract with the vendor. Because of your actions, your co-worker looks bad in front of your boss.

Own up to your mistake, and say what you’re going to do to help mend your colleague’s image.

Example: “I am so sorry this happened. I claim full responsibility, and I’m going to let our boss know that this was my mistake, not yours.”

You didn’t respond to a pressing email

Forgot to reply to that time-sensitive email from Jim? Contact him immediately and offer your assistance, recommends Courtney Templin, president of JB Training Solutions, a Chicago-based learning and career-development firm.

Example: “I just realized I missed your email. I am so sorry. I’m going to drop everything to address this. What can I do to help?”

You were late to a meeting

“If you know you’re going to be late to meeting, provide advance notice to the person who is running it—that way when you show up late it’s expected and not rude,” Howayeck says. If you show up late without giving the organizer a head’s up, you should apologize for being tardy, since “being late shows disrespect to the leader of the meeting, as well as the people in the room who showed up on time,” says Howayeck.

When apologizing, you’ll want to reinforce that you’re not going to show up late in the future—but don’t make excuses, like “I forgot to put this in my calendar.” Keep things simple.

Example: “I’m very sorry I was late. I won’t let it happen again.”

You missed a deadline on a team project

This is a case where your actions will speak louder than your words. “You need to apologize, but you also need to roll up your sleeves and do what you need to do to get things back on track for your team,” says Templin.

Example: “I know a missed an important deadline, and I apologize for that. I plan to work on this assignment over the weekend to make up for lost time.”

You're dealing with an unhappy customer

One of the job duties—and plights—of being a customer service professional is having to apologize to customers when someone else made a mistake. It’s not fun, but offering a sincere apology can help you retain the customer.

“The bottom line is you need to walk in the customer’s shoes,” says Howayeck. “You need to understand what the mistake was and why the customer is upset about it, and then offer a solution.”

Example: “I’m very sorry you experienced that. That is not what our customer experience is all about, and I’m going to do everything I can to make things right.”

You regret the words or tone you used

“You need to separate the content of your message from the tone of your delivery” when apologizing, Howayeck says. By doing so, you’ll be able to express remorse for your behavior without undermining your concerns.

Example: “Sue, while I meant what I said when we spoke earlier, I really regret the tone that I used, and I’m sorry for that.”

Your co-worker caught you gossiping

Workplace etiquette frowns on trash talking for a reason—gossiping can damage relationships and create a toxic work environment. Therefore, if a colleague finds out that you talked negatively about them behind their back, you need to address your bad behavior head-on, and show that you’re committed to rebuilding trust.

Example: “What I did was completely unacceptable. I want to apologize, and I can assure you that I won’t let it happen again. I know it will take time for me to regain your trust. If I have any issues with you in the future, I will come to you directly.”

What if it's really not you, it's them?

Knowing how to apologize to someone you work with is as important as knowing when to do so. But be conscious of how often you're apologizing for situations that aren't in your control. If it seems like an inordinate amount, the problem could be the job, not you. In that case, it's time to look for a better one. Could you use some help with that? Join Monster for free todayAs a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox to cut down on time spent looking through ads. Don't hang around a difficult boss or co-worker; let Monster give you a hand on finding a new job that is less problematic.