Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.
Conventional wisdom holds that if there's a potential legal claim against you, don't apologize, because that could be deemed an admission of guilt or liability and increase claim risk.
In my experience, however, the opposite has been true: Proper apologies tend to prevent claims or lead to amicable resolution.
The key is how you apologize.
Many years ago, I represented a property management company in a sexual-harassment and retaliation claim. A leasing agent, "Sheila," had a checkered performance record. The property manager, "Doris," had sent her home on multiple occasions for wearing overly revealing clothing.
One day at work, Sheila informed a group of co-workers that she had taken a weekend job at "Buddy's," a local club known for its exotic dancers.
A maintenance worker, "Sam," asked, "Will you strip?"
Sheila did not reply. Instead she went to Doris and said, "Sam sexually harassed me. He asked me to take off my clothes in front of co-workers."
Doris next called Sam into her office and explained Sheila's complaint.
"I didn't ask her to strip in front of us!" Sam exclaimed. "I was only asking about her job at Buddy's."
"Well," Doris replied, "I think there's been a misunderstanding. You should go to Sheila and apologize."
Sam went to Sheila and said, "I'm sorry that I asked you if you would strip."
Before Sheila could reply, Sam said, "But you misunderstood. I just asked about your job at Buddy's." He added, with a chuckle, "Of course, given how you dress around here, I probably didn't need to ask."
Sheila did not accept his apology. Instead, she went to Doris and demanded that Sam be fired. Doris refused. However, she did issue Sam a reprimand.
Two weeks later, Sheila had yet another disciplinary incident and was fired. Shortly thereafter, she sued my client, the property management company.
The 'MIDAS Touch' Apology Technique
Sam fell into the "but" apology trap—the almost irresistible urge to follow "I'm sorry" with justification, excuse or counterattack.
When I coach people on giving apologies, I urge them to apply the MIDAS touch:
- M means acknowledging you made a mistake.
- I stands for "injury," as in, "My mistake caused you harm."
- D stands for "differently," as in, "I won't behave this way again."
- A stands for "amends"—your gesture to show your apology is heartfelt.
- S means "silence"— stop talking and thus keep your "but" out of your apology.
Here's an example.
I once served as office managing shareholder in an international law firm. I got a call from a partner in one of our East Coast offices. "Tom" was furious.
"Jathan," he said, "I have a complaint to make about one of the partners in your office, 'Lisa.' " Tom explained how Lisa had dropped the ball on a project. The client was so upset that it threatened to take its business to a competitor.
Tom explained that Lisa had compounded the offense with an e-mailed "but" apology. It pointed out mistakes others made and stated that her mistake was minor and caused no substantive loss to the client.
I told Tom I would look into the matter.
I went to Lisa and told her about Tom's call. Lisa became angry. "I wasn't the only one who made a mistake!" she said. "Tom dropped the ball himself, as did the client's general counsel. I'm being singled out! This isn't fair! If Tom has a problem with me, he should've called me, not you. I have a good mind to give him a call and let him know what I think!"
I said, "OK, Lisa, what do you think will happen if you call Tom and give him a piece of your mind? I predict he'll become even more upset and take his complaint to the firm's board of directors, as he threatened to do in our conversation.
"And what happens when the board gets the complaint? Although you said others made mistakes, you acknowledge that you made one, too, so your record won't be clean. How will that look to the board, especially when it learns a large client may take its business to one of our competitors? How will your approach help you achieve your goal?"
"Oh," Lisa said. "I hadn't thought of it that way."
I explained the MIDAS touch apology and suggested she give one to Tom.
"Acknowledge your mistake and say nothing about the other mistakes. Acknowledge the injury your mistake caused in the client's becoming upset and threatening to take its business elsewhere, and in Tom's anxiety and stress about potentially losing his biggest client.
"Tell Tom what you've resolved to do differently to prevent that mistake from happening again. Offer to make amends. And then be silent. Don't say another word."
To keep to the script, Lisa wrote "MIDAS" on a sticky note and said, "I'll have this in my hand when I make the call."
Two days later, Lisa walked into my office and said, "I called Tom and made the apology."
"What was his response?" I asked.
"To my great surprise, after I stopped, he made points I wanted to make—that he and others made mistakes, as well, and that the client wasn't materially harmed."
"What else did he say?"
"He accepted my apology, said he thought we could keep the client and that he'd be happy to continue working with me."
"Problem solved. Thank you."
Lisa turned to leave but then said, "One last thing: If I didn't have that sticky note in my hand during the call, I probably would've blown it. By the time I got to the 'S,' I didn't want to be silent!"
One last point, noted by best-selling author Daniel Pink:
"With apologies, timing can be everything. The best approach is to apologize as quickly as possible after the underlying offense. Often, the longer you wait, the more the aggrieved party will stew and the less sincere your apology will seem."
Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of the Oregon Organization Development Network and was named in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to JathanJanove@comcast.net.