A coworker came up to me. “I’m sorry for snapping at you yesterday after that meeting.”
“Huh?” I stalled. At that time of the morning, I was not fully conscious.
“I hope you weren’t upset because of it.”
Ah, that. My brain shook off its slumber to dredge up the memory. We were discussing a problem. My answers weren’t good enough, or the questions weren’t clear. It doesn’t matter. The result was — my coworker gave up in a fit of frustration.
“It’s ok. We’re all under a lot of stress right now,” I replied. I was being honest. The incident had barely registered on my radar. Like I said in my response, I’m sure it was due to circumstances and not because my coworker is a short-tempered asshole. (For the record, my coworker is not a short-tempered asshole.)
“Hey, got a second?” Another person interrupted us. My apologetic coworker shuffled off.
About a minute later, I realized I had fucked up accepting the apology. And that got me thinking about the nature of apologies and taking responsibility for problems.
The subject line of the email read, “Important Information – Unauthorized Intrusion.” It piqued my interest. Either it was elaborate spam or a poorly written subject line that was actually serious.
I opened the email.
IMPORTANT INFORMATION. PLEASE READ IN ITS ENTIRETY.
We regret to inform you that on XX XX, 20XX, Company, Co. detected an unauthorized intrusion into its systems.
“Unauthorized intrusion…” You got hacked? Wow. I am soooooo regretful that you got hacked.
Why the hell should I care?
The answer to that question was at the end of paragraph one, in bold, because really important information should always appear at the end of a paragraph in bold. “Your information may have been involved in this incident.”
You can almost see the CEO holding this smelly apology at arm’s length, pinching his nose as he reads it aloud. He buried the lede in an attempt to soften the impact. My personal information and credit card number may have been stolen, and it’s his company’s fault.
That last sentence should have been the email’s entire first paragraph. “Your personal information and credit card number may have been stolen, and it’s our fault.” And how should he have written the subject line?
“We fucked up.”
I cringe every time I read something like “I regret to inform you.” Trite apologies are so… trite. “I regret to inform you that your dog is dead.” That’s believable when said by the veterinarian who tried to save my dog’s life, but it doesn’t work if you’re the person who killed my dog. (“I regret to inform you that I ran over your dog.” — see?)
Same thing applies when your website gets hacked. If my info is stolen, then it’s your fault, not the hackers. “Regret” is not an appropriate response. Instead, take the blame — as in, “this was my fault” or “we messed up” or “I broke your guitar when I threw it onto the plane.”
Fall on that sword.
And then apologize. And apologize with a sincere, personal apology. “I’m really sorry.” Not one of those corporate, dismissive apologies: “we apologize for the inconvenience.” “The” inconvenience — not even “your” inconvenience. How can I believe your company’s apology when you can’t admit that “the” inconvenience happened to a person?
When appropriate, offer a remedy. “Here’s a gift basket of smoked meat products and local hard cheeses because we really love you.” Local hard cheeses wouldn’t make me feel better about my wrecked guitar, but might make me feel better if it appeared in my hotel room after you’ve fixed my botched reservation (and after giving me a free upgrade).
What’s the worst thing you can do? Blame others. For example (actual quote here) — “a third-party criminal actor used hacking technologies to access our databases and may have accessed your personal information.” Fail. How about… “Our inadequate security allowed hackers to access the private information which you trusted to us.”
Don’t blame others, and don’t make me feel like I’m the one who’s wrong. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you.” That little act of disowning the blame puts it squarely on my shoulders. There’s plenty that you can do for me, but you choose not to do it. Liars 😛
Get the picture? There’s truth, and there’s truth. One is sincere, and one is not. One is “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and one is “I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.”
If you can’t be honest in your apology, then do us all a favor and don’t apologize.*
Finally, when someone genuinely apologizes to you, accept the apology with grace.
This person feels like shit about what happened, has no idea how you feel about it, and wants to apologize to make both of you feel better. The worst thing you can do is dismiss this act of humility. That’s where I fucked up with my coworker.
“I’m sorry for snapping at you yesterday after that meeting.”
* Don’t even get me started on, “we take your security seriously.”