Apologizing to Clients, Vendors and the Public: When to, When Not to and How to

Author: Gina Hall | September 23, 2015

Donald Trump has made headlines a lot lately and not just for insensitive or offensive comments but for refusing to apologize for those statements. It’s important to remember, however, that in an election cycle — particularly a primary involving a large base of alienated voters — the rules that would normally apply suddenly don’t; they certainly don’t in the business world.

There are “do’s” and “don’t’s” when it comes to formal apologies, especially as it regards your business. And while each situation is unique, there are a few guidelines that should make it easier to navigate these tricky waters.

Operational Errors
You didn’t meet a deadline; you shipped the wrong item; your estimate was short; etc. These are mistakes that, unfortunately, happen in the course of doing business. And while they are regrettable, as long as they are not intended with malice, they are to some degree understandable. Furthermore, the wronged party has recourse options to be made whole, which might take the form of a discounted price, negating the contract or seeking recompense in the court system.

An informal, “Sorry about that, let me make it right” often resolves such matters. A good-faith gesture never hurts and says that you care about your reputation and the relationship. A company-issued formal apology is generally not necessary unless there are aggravating factors that raise the level of egregiousness, keeping in mind that each case is unique.

Ethical Breaches
What separates this category of faux pas is that there is a degree of intentionality. Making this area even dicier is that ethical principles are generally unwritten, being merely understood to exist. And while the realm of business is often a gloves-off affair, it doesn’t involve salting the earth behind you.

In terms of apologizing, the problem here is that you’ve likely knowingly broken an unwritten rule to take advantage of a situation. An “I’m sorry” is going to ring hollow. And if you were willing to commit the ethical violation in the first place, your remorse afterward doesn’t negate it. An apology could backfire and be taken as insult to injury.

A formal apology would only be appropriate in this situation if you truly have seen the light and your policy on such violations will change going forward. If that’s the case, issue a statement to that effect with an acknowledgement of your wrongdoing and commitment to being above reproach going forward, and again, a good-faith gesture is a welcome sign of your sincerity.

Insensitive/Offensive Actions/Statements
No distinction should be made between insensitive and offensive behavior. Neither does it matter if that behavior came in the form of an action or statement. And if you think you or someone in your employ might be guilty of it, you probably are. Luckily, someone will probably tell you (and in less uncertain terms).

As hard-nosed as the business world is, people are touchy outside the ring. Keep it clean and above the belt. Offensive behaviors come in a variety of shapes and sizes but they tend to have in common something that targets a person as part of a group, not simply as an individual (if you called someone a “jerk” you might be OK, as there is not yet an Americans Jerks United subclass). And if you’re guilty of this, chances are, you owe the whole group a formal apology in writing and promises of company-wide changes.

While the individual might accept your spoken apology, word will undoubtedly spread about the incident and others might not be so forgiving. Your business will then develop a reputation as hostile to whatever group the person was identified as belonging to — whether it be race-based, gender-based, weight-based, etc., and now you’ve got a real mess on your hands. Nip that in the bud.

Get out in front of the situation by issuing a sincere statement and get it published, hire a consultant to teach sensitivity to your entire staff and maybe consider a donation to a charitable organization that aids the group you’ve offended. Learn something from the experience and promise that it won’t happen again. And then, don’t let it happen again. That’s just good business.

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