Should "sorry" be banned from the workplace?

Not if I have anything to say about it.

Is it bad to apologize at work?

Rachel Feintzeig of the Wall Street Journal had a column this week saying we -- especially women, but all of us -- need to quit saying we're "sorry" so much. Her column is behind a paywall, but I hope this embedded tweet from Elon Musk's new social media company will get you there:

If that link doesn't work for you, I'm sorry. (Get it?) I think you'll get the flavor of her column from my post.

Anyway, Ms. Feintzeig thinks we go overboard on the apologies. Like when we say "sorry for the delay" when we reply to an email in 15 minutes instead of instantly.

I agree that a 15-minute lapse between the receipt of an email and the transmission of a reply requires no apology. But if you think your correspondent expected a faster response, is there anything wrong with saying you're "sorry" that you didn't reply as quickly as they wanted you to? Not in my book.

Here's a snippet from the article: 

"Don't give away your power," counsels Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of a book about commanding authority at work. Apologizing in business, especially when you've actually done something wrong, is just asking for trouble, he says. . . . "You can either conform to what people want you to be, or you can decide that you are going to risk offending people," he says. "Life is about trade-offs."

I guess Professor Pfeffer isn't familiar with the term "social lubricant," and I don't mean alcohol.

When people work together, they are frequently going to rub each other the wrong way, and I don't mean sexual harassment. We all come from different backgrounds, and we all have our own personalities. We all have our faults and quirks in addition to our good points. Words like "Please," "Thank you," and "I'm sorry" help us smooth over our annoying differences.

For example, some of us will consider an email reply to be timely as long as we receive it sometime in the same calendar month in which the original email was sent. Others will expect a reply on the same business day. Others will be down at your cubicle asking whether you saw the email they just sent you 2.64367 seconds ago. 

Assuming your co-worker is the third type, which response is more likely to maintain harmony in the workplace? 

CHOICE A: "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm in the middle of this project, and I haven't had a chance to check my emails. I should be done in about half an hour, and then I'll get caught up and be back in touch. Thanks!"

CHOICE B: "I'm busy."

I vote for A. The "sorry" validates your co-worker's desire for an immediate response, and you've provided a brief explanation for the "delay," but you've still stuck to your guns about getting your other work done first. Your co-worker will go back to her desk placated, if not 100 percent satisfied. Choice B is one step away from saying, "Get lost." Not the best way to interact with someone you see and work with every day.

Apologies in more serious disputes

If you have an argument with your co-worker, or do something really wrong, then all the more reason to apologize. Sincerely, of course. Can an apology be used against you in a court of law? Of course. But could the fact that you sincerely apologized keep you out of a court of law altogether? Of course.


From Love Story (1970). I do not endorse this philosophy.

What if you don't think you did anything wrong? Should you apologize then? In my opinion, it depends. In the case of the antsy co-worker and the email reply, I don't think it does any harm to apologize. On the other hand, there may be a more serious disagreement -- maybe about principles, or the way you handled an assignment or situation -- and you firmly believe you did the right thing. In that scenario, even I would not apologize. You can't say you're sorry for what you did because you're not. The old "I'm sorry you were offended" is worse than no apology at all. So in that case, you're probably left with, "I did what I felt was best."

Apologies are awesome!

Think about the effect other people's apologies have on you. Let's say you're at a stoplight behind another car. The light turns green and the other driver doesn't move. You need to be somewhere, you're really annoyed, and you're almost ready to lean on your horn. But before you honk, the other driver suddenly wakes up and gets moving, and gives you a wave. 

Did that "apology wave" make you feel better? It always works for me.


Or, if I may riff on an example Ms. Feintzeig uses, you're at the supermarket turning with your cart into the next aisle, and another shopper is coming out of the aisle you're trying to enter, and your carts almost crash. You both laugh and say, "Excuse me. I'm sorry." Everything is cool, right? But when the other shopper just ignores you or glares at you, you're mad about it for at least another aisle's worth. And then you get home and realize you forgot to get potato chips because you were mad at that other shopper and not thinking straight.

Apologies make the world go 'round.

The comments

If you read this blog very often, you know that I'm a sucker for the comment sections. Ms. Feintzeig's column was no exception. Did her readers agree with Professor Pfeffer, or with me? 

This comment was my favorite:

I'm sorry I wasted my time reading this article.

LOL. And here is a more substantive comment:

This is just straight-up horrible advice and one of the factors contributing to our societal problems. As a team leader, I gain greater trust -- and therefore power -- when I admit my mistakes and own them and commit to learn from them. 

Full disclosure: Quite a few commenters agreed with the Professor. One guy even thought we say "thank you" too much.

Not-quite "sorries"

There are a lot of "sorries" that are not apologies.

First, we have the sympathy "apology." Your co-worker says to you, "My dog died this weekend." You say, "Oh, I'm sorry." And your co-worker says, "Aw, thanks, but it's not your fault."

And you're thinking, "Well, duh! I know it's not my fault! I didn't kill your dog -- I'm just sorry that she died!"

But to be kind to your grieving co-worker, you bite your tongue and say, "I just meant that I feel bad for you and your family. Losing your dog is hard."

Second, we have "Sorry, not sorry," which is a middle finger, not an apology.

Finally, we have what I call the "Southern sorry." Here's an example:

BOSS: "Son, that is the sorriest danged excuse for a memo I've ever seen."
EMPLOYEE: "I'm sorry."
      BOSS: "I know."


I guess you could call this post an apologetic for the apology. Te-he. 

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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