Don’t apologize for being sorry (Editor’s notes)

Employers shouldn't fear apologies

I have a decades-old beef with Peter Cetera. Yes, that Peter Cetera. The former lead singer of Chicago who, in 1982, rose to the top of the charts with “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” As a kid, I never understood that song — what’s so hard about apologizing?

After all, it’s one of the first things we’re taught as children. You do something wrong, you say sorry. It doesn’t completely solve everything, but it makes things better.

It’s a lesson grown-ups shouldn’t be forgetting, especially in the business world. Far too many executives and organizations are hesitant to say “sorry.” There’s an underlying fear of litigation and that apologizing is tantamount to a guilty plea that can and will be held against you in a court of law.

But there’s a movement afoot to change that. More than 30 states in the United States have enacted apology laws that let people say sorry without fear of it being used as evidence against them. In the Great White North, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have enacted similar laws. And now Ontario is ready to embrace the concept, with a proposed Apology Act on the table.

The legal system has made it increasingly difficult for people or organizations to apologize, Chris Bentley, Ontario’s attorney general, told the Canadian Press. And he’s heard from numerous people that they wouldn’t have bothered to sue if they had simply received an apology.

There are some interesting real-life examples of the impact of a corporate apology. In 2005 a Southwest Airlines jet skidded off a runway, killing a six-year-old boy.

Within hours of the accident, the chief executive officer stepped up to the microphone and said: “There are absolutely no words to accurately state our grief and sorrow over the tragedy.” That’s what the public needed to hear. And, frankly, Southwest employees probably wanted to hear the same thing.

While it may sound cold to discuss stock price in relation to an accident that killed a child, experts point out Southwest’s stock plunged 1.5 per cent immediately after the crash, but rose 3.5 per cent within a few days of the CEO’s heartfelt apology.

Earlier this year, 20 people were killed by listeria-tainted meat produced by Maple Leaf Foods. Just like in the Southwest example, the CEO stepped up and unconditionally apologized.

It was the right thing to do. It let the public know the company wasn’t hiding or shirking its responsibility, and it reassured employees they weren’t working for a corporate monster that didn’t care about people.

But apologies aren’t limited to CEOs at press conferences. Managers should be encouraged to apologize to staff for any gaffes. It can go a long way towards building engagement. Nobody is perfect, and building a culture of saying sorry also builds a culture of taking responsibility for actions.

Perhaps I can convince Martin Gore — Depeche Mode’s longtime songwriter and a guy I don’t have a beef with — to pen a hit titled, “Easy to Say I’m Sorry.” It’ll be a chart topper with the boardroom crowd. And it will put Peter Cetera in his place.

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