Everyone sticks their foot in their mouth sometimes. We miss deadlines and come up short on projects. A quick and simple apology would go a long way toward mending that fence, but we often avoid it. Yeah, we all know “nobody’s perfect.” So why do we still cringe and deflect when it comes to facing what we’ve done wrong?
Because apologizing is hard.
Learning how to apologize to your boss is difficult but totally necessary. Done right, an apology may not only save your job, but also convey an impressive degree of maturity and professionalism. This shows your boss you’re more than just the sum of your mistakes.
When and Why to Apologize to your Boss
Being part of a team means being aware of your teammates’ feelings. It also means being willing to take responsibility when you’ve offended them. Interpersonal issues, such as arguments or hurt feelings, require an apology to boss and coworkers alike. You need to be able to make amends and keep the peace.
Performance mistakes, such as late or poor quality work, can result in more than just bad blood. These issues can get you fired. Knowing how to apologize to your boss, either in person or in writing, can spell the difference between a simple disciplinary action and outright termination.
How to Apologize to Your Boss Effectively
A quick mumbled “Sorry” while avoiding eye contact simply won’t do. When it comes to making amends, doing it wrong is almost as bad as not doing it at all. Here's how to apologize to your boss, or anyone, the right way.
1. The sooner, the better.
Waiting too long to apologize is a bad idea. You might hesitate because you’re nervous, because, hey, saying sorry is a scary and nerve-wracking experience. But to your boss it will seem as if you don’t actually care. Practicing avoidance tells them that what you’re really hoping is everything will just blow over. This, in turn, conveys a lack of respect for their feelings and the situation your mistake might have created for them.
Instead, when you mess up, own up to it. Apologize as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours.
2. Keep it short.
There’s no reason to let an apology run on and on. A gushing “I am so, so sorry. I can’t tell you how super bad I feel" is far less effective than a simple "I messed up. I’m sorry, it won't happen again." Why? Because the more you talk about how you feel, the less you’re making it about them and why they deserve an apology.
The best apologies are short, to the point and honest. Don’t babble on and make the situation even more awkward, for your boss or yourself. When it comes to apologizing, just rip that band-aid off.
3. Stick to the script.
Apologizing is hard, but it doesn't have to be hard to know what to say. The best apologies have the same basic elements: acknowledge the situation, accept responsibility, say you're sorry and mean it. Sincerity is the most important part, obviously. You need to know why you need to apologize.
An explanation can be useful, but it can also work against you. Beware trying to justify what happened, or going into too much detail about why you messed up. That’s just making excuses. "I’m sorry but..." is not an apology.
4. Say you’re sorry, and then be quiet.
Don’t try to fill the quiet after your apology. This is probably the hardest part. You have to let your boss process what you’ve said, and then wait to see what she does with it. Basically, you’re waiting to see what the consequences of your mistake might be. Grit your teeth and ride it out.
At the very least, expect to have a discussion about the situation. And remember, your boss might still be upset about what happened, and need to make her feelings known. That’s ok. But don’t allow yourself to become equally emotional or defensive. That won't resolve the situation.
5. Accept the consequences.
When it comes to mistakes at work, you might end up facing disciplinary measures. You can find a break down in your employee handbook. Take a moment, before your apology, to review them and to prepare for possible outcomes.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but dreading something is harder than facing it, in the long run. Having an idea of what you might have to deal with can make your remorse even more sincere, which can work in your favor too. Owning up rather than hiding tells your boss a lot about who you are, and how much you value your job.
Basic email apologies
How to write an apology email is another excellent skill. While it’s less awkward than in person, getting it right is still important. And keep in mind, it isn’t as effective as a face to face apology. Utilize email only when your boss is unavailable to meet, or you’ve been told to issue your apology in writing.
Subject Line: Missed Deadline
I want to apologize for being late on this assignment. I got caught up with another task. I’ll have it to you as soon as possible. I’m sorry about the delay. I will manage my time better in the future.
Thanks so much,
Subject Line: Inappropriate Behavior
I apologize for my inappropriate behavior at/during ___. It was unprofessional and inexcusable. It won’t happen again.
Subject Line: I dropped the ball.
I completely messed up my part on this project, and as a result made us all look bad. I have already apologized to my coworkers. Please accept my apology, and know it won’t happen again.
Subject Line: Lateness [or other recurring issues]
I want to apologize for coming in late so often. I’ve been dealing with a ___ issue at home [such as childcare, or a family matter]. I understand this behavior is unprofessional, and I am working to resolve the situation as soon as possible.
Thank you for understanding.
These follow the simple rules of apologizing: acknowledge the problem, offer any relevant explanations and then apologize. You can adapt them as needed, but don’t worry so much over the details. The point is you messed up and you're sorry for it. Let your letter be as simple as that.
The consequences of not apologizing.
Mistakes happen. How we deal with them is incredibly important. Saying you’re sorry in the right way and at the right time shows how serious you are about making amends. Failing to do so doesn’t speak well for you.
Coming off as a jerk isn't great, period, but at work it communicates a degree of unprofessionalism that can affect your reputation. Even if you aren't fired, people are going to remember your behavior. Be sure it will come back to haunt you during a performance review, and affect your chances at a raise or promotion down the road.
Apologizing is never fun. But a sincere attempt to make amends can keep most situations from escalating further. At work, knowing how to apologize to your boss is a very useful skill. Done right, apologizing can even enhance your reputation. Done wrong, it will do just the opposite. Why? Because how you apologize to your boss tells her just how you feel about your job. Is it important to you? Do you take your responsibilities seriously? Knowing when, why and how to apologize shows her you are sincere about accepting the consequences and finding a way to move forward.
In short, apologizing sucks, but if you do it right, you can prove that you don’t.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Heather Adams has designed (and re-designed) many business cards. She also writes, makes pictures & creates little notes. As a content creator, she believes that the art of business is storytelling. From brand work to writing the copy that converts, the power of good storytelling is what builds success. Follow her work here.