There are lots of times when it makes sense to apologize. But in a professional setting, things can get a little bit complicated. Because of workplace norms, expectations, and social conditioning, sometimes it’s unclear when an apology is necessary and when you should let a mistake go. And when it comes to work, apologies can be nerve-racking and awkward.
To help you navigate this vital question, here’s what you should know about apologizing at work, including when to apologize, common situations when apologizing doesn’t make sense, and what to say instead of an apology.
When to apologize at work
At a basic level, it seems simple: You apologize if you make a mistake. But the scale of the mistake matters, too. After all, no one wants to be the person who’s constantly apologizing for small mistakes, like making a typo in a presentation or being two minutes late to a meeting. It’s unnecessary, and it can even be disruptive. Conversely, you don’t want to be the person who refuses to apologize for anything.
Here’s a quick framework to help you figure out when to apologize and when to do something else instead:
1 Did you make a mistake? If the error in question was out of your control, something other than a mistake, or caused by someone else, then you don’t need to apologize. If you did make a mistake, then an apology may be warranted—but not always. (Move on to question two.)
2 Did the mistake impact someone else? If, for example, you caught and fixed the mistake before it could impact others, you don’t need to apologize. However, if it did have an impact (like it made someone else’s job more difficult or hurt someone’s feelings), then you should apologize.
Tips to avoid over-apologizing at work
Apologizing by default, even when you didn’t do anything wrong, may feel like the safe choice. After all, maybe your apology will smooth everything over. But over-apologizing can reflect poorly on you, making others perceive you as lacking confidence or as being uncomfortable or insecure. The framework above can help you determine when it’s generally necessary to apologize and reflect on whether or not something is your fault. But another aspect you should consider here is context.
For example, if you recently had a family emergency, you likely don’t need to apologize for suddenly taking the day off or having a delayed email response. Those are totally reasonable things that happen in those circumstances, and reasonable people wouldn’t hold you to strict workplace etiquette during those times. And if your gut reaction to apologize stems from some insecurity or fear of a negative reaction from someone else, recognizing it and stopping that reaction can help you combat it. That way, you’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of over-apologizing going forward.
On the other hand, you may not immediately realize that you’ve made a mistake, or you may have done something that negatively impacts someone else without intending to. While intention matters, it’s always important to recognize the consequences of your actions. For example, if someone offhandedly says something offensive, they may not realize it’s offensive in the moment. But the person who is offended is still harmed in that interaction. It’s important to acknowledge such a mistake and own it with an apology.
In the event that it seems like an apology isn’t needed, however, there are other ways to acknowledge what’s going on.
Here are a few common instances when you don’t need to apologize. You don’t need to say sorry if you’re:
- Asking for help or clarification
- Sharing your opinion during a meeting
- Delegating work (assuming it’s done appropriately)
- Taking time off from work
- Requesting additional information
- Having tech issues that are impacting your work
What to say instead of “I’m sorry”
Even when you don’t need to apologize, the word sorry may be reflexive: you say it out of habit. But it’s important to say what you actually mean. In fact, overusing the word sorry can ring hollow and, in extreme cases, even foster resentment. It can help to have backup phrasing ready that better communicates your sentiments.
For example, if a project is taking longer than you originally predicted because of a supply-chain issue, you may instead choose to say, “Thank you for your patience.” (The thank-you method also works for accepting feedback on your work.) Or you could go the appreciation route, saying something like: “I appreciate your patience.” Often, demonstrating understanding is enough when expressing your regret for an inconvenience. For instance, when you say something like, “I understand that this delay has impacted you,” you’re showing the other person that you haven’t overlooked their experience.
You may choose to simply acknowledge what has happened. For instance, someone who sent the wrong link in an email but caught it before the email was read could say, “It looks like I sent the wrong link in my earlier email. Here’s the correct one.”
If you’re asking for help with something, it’s important to be gracious about it and recognize that the other person always has the right to say no. For example, you could say something like: “Do you have time for this?” or “I’d love to get your input here.”
Examples of “I’m sorry” alternatives
1 Situation: Looking to check in with a colleague about your joint project.
Don’t say: “Sorry to bother you, but I was hoping to get a quick update about your end of the project?”
Do say: “Is now a good time for a quick check-in about our project?”
2 Situation: Volunteering your opinion in a team meeting.
Don’t say: “Sorry, but I disagree with that approach.”
Do say: “I have a different opinion about that approach. I’m not sure X would work because of Y. If we do Z, we can avoid that issue.”
3 Situation: Asking for more context about a new project at work.
Don’t say: “Sorry, but could you clarify X?”
Do say: “Could you give me more information about X? I want to make sure we’re on the same page about the project.”
4 Situation: You’re taking a vacation, but a client has just requested a deadline while you’ll be OOO.
Don’t say: “Apologies, but I’ll actually be on vacation during those times. Any chance X deadline would work for you?”
Do say: “I love this project idea, but I’ll be OOO [from X to Y dates]. Can we schedule this for an EOM deadline instead? Happy to discuss more options if that doesn’t work for you.”
5 Situation: Receiving negative feedback.
Don’t say: “I’m so sorry X didn’t meet your expectations. Is there anything I can do to remedy this?”
Do say: “Thanks for your feedback. I’ll be sure to look out for X going forward. In the meantime, is there anything I can do to work on this?”
Key takeaway: If you don’t have to apologize, some alternatives include acknowledging the situation, sharing your appreciation or thanks, being gracious in asking for help, and clearing up questions when assigning a task.