It’s time to stop being sorry. Many of us were taught to be nice, mind our manners, and apologize. Those well-intended (gendered) behavior guidelines can hurt us in the workplace.
Women apologize more than men. Pantene even created an ad that highlighted our tendency to say sorry. However, it is important to note that when evaluating the same set of situations, we identify more of them as apology-worthy compared to men. That said, “I’m sorry,” weakens your position and puts you on the defensive in the workplace.
Save your “sorry” for when it is needed; a difficult situation your coworker is going through at home...not before you ask a question. Here are 25 things we must stop apologizing for at work.
1. Bumping into someone: “Pardon me,” is a perfectly acceptable response when you bump into a colleague. Acknowledge, but don’t apologize.
2. Asking a question: Don’t start your question with, “I’m sorry;” instead use language like, “Excuse me,” “Could you clarify…,” or “I have a question.”
3. Answering a question: You’re asked something you don’t have the answer to. “I’ll look into that,” or “No, I don’t have the analysis for Asia,” is better than apologizing.
4. Getting sick: Whether you stay home or leave suddenly during the day, do not apologize for falling ill! Presenteeism hurts productivity; if you’re contagious, your coworkers will thank you for staying home.
5. Caring for a family member: If a family member or friend falls ill or needs help following a medical procedure, don’t apologize for using your time off to care for them.
6. Declining a request: You’re asked by a peer to do something you can’t (or shouldn’t). Decline without apology; suggest other colleagues or related resources if you’d like.
7. Requesting materials: You’re preparing for a meeting, and need certain supplies. State your request, not: “I’m sorry, but could get a projector for today’s session?”
8. Starting a meeting: The meeting you’re leading is about to begin and everyone is still chatting. Start with, “Good afternoon, let’s begin,” and not, “I’m sorry to interrupt…”
9. Being busy: Your colleague wants to meet with you, but your calendar is full. Don’t apologize; see if you can skip a “nice to have” meeting or suggest a few alternative dates.
10. Asking for benefits information: HR teams are designed to source, attract, and keep great employees. When you ask for clarification on your benefits, don’t apologize. State your question clearly so they can get you the information you need.
11. Asking for time off: In America, time off is a benefit that more than half of us don’t use in full. Don’t start with, “I’m sorry to ask for a few days next month;” simply communicate the dates you’re requesting.
13. Writing an email: Don’t add “sorry” to your emails. It undermines your credibility and unnecessarily documents an apology.
14. Rescheduling a meeting: Don’t make huge deal out of having to move a meeting. A simple, “We will need to reschedule,” with alternative times will suffice.
15. Beginning your presentation: Right before you begin presenting, an apology slips out, like: “Sorry, these slides aren’t as organized as I’d like,” or “Sorry I only prepared this yesterday.” Don’t undercut your authority before you’ve even begun!
16. Addressing a disruptive colleague: “Sorry, we need to move on to the next agenda item,” may silence Disruptive Dan, but why are you apologizing? Instead, try, “Dan, your point is noted. Now, we’ll address the next item, to ensure we cover everything on today’s agenda.”
17. Requesting time from a senior executive: Senior sponsors play a critical role in career advancement. Here’s how to cultivate those relationships. Importantly, do not start off by apologizing when you ask for their time.
18. Catching up after returning from maternity leave: When you return back from vacation, parental leave, or an illness, you need help to catch up. Be gracious to your colleagues, but don’t apologize for being out or needing assistance to get back up to speed.
19. Participating in an important life event: Everyone’s life outside of work is different. If you’re not available because you’re at your daughter’s important recital, or cheering for your best friend in her first marathon, don’t apologize - find another way to get the information or suggest a different time.
20. Popping into the boss’ office: Your boss’ door is open, and you’d like to tell her about the fantastic client feedback you received. Don’t start with, “I’m sorry, Sheryl, do you have a minute?” Instead, try: “Sheryl, since your door is open, I know you’d appreciate some fantastic client feedback.” She’ll let you know if she doesn’t have time.
21. Admitting a big mistake: Yikes - the report you sent to Alpha Company included two massive data errors. Immediately alert your boss; bring her the details of the situation and at least two ideas on how to fix it, not an apology.
22. Informing an employee they didn’t get promoted: This is tough, but a well-intended apology undermines your promotion processes. Be direct and empathetic but not apologetic; “Cameron, you didn’t receive a promotion. You may be disappointed; I can provide a detailed summary of feedback on the two skills you’ll need to improve.”
23. Giving a client bad news: Communicating bad news gracefully is challenging. Your client wants to understand the situation, why it occurred, and what alternatives they are now facing - not how sorry you are.
24. Giving an employee a poor performance review: Ideally, you’ve had prior discussions about where they are failing to meet expectations. However, discussing a poor performance review is difficult. Stick to the facts; apologizing can only undermine the feedback you’re providing.
25. Firing someone: Letting someone go is best done swiftly, directly, and in partnership with HR. You may be tempted to apologize, but doing so can muddy the message. “I’m so sorry, Andre I have to let you go,” may sound nice, but it’s not clear. Instead, use language like; “Andre, today is your last day at Alpha Company. You have not achieved your goals in the last three months and are frequently late to work. Here is the paperwork to complete in order to receive your last paycheck.”
Stop apologizing and start being direct. If you think you apologize frequently, share this article with a trusted colleague or friend who can hold you accountable. And, if you’re mentoring other women, let them know if you observe them over-apologizing - they’ll thank you for it!
The Feminist Financier is on a mission to help women build wealth and own their financial independence, by improving financial literacy and taking the mystery out of money. Ms. Financier is also a shoe addict, travel fanatic, and wine enthusiast.