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The makings of a successful corporate apology

With so many corporations apologizing these days and endless media stories coaching them on the right tactics, we all know the standard advice: Apologize fully. But Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and co-author of the new book Friend & Foe, has studied apologies thoroughly and come up with a richer set of guidelines.

"There's a belief that trust, when broken, can't be restored. I believe that's wrong and apologies are vehicles for restoring trust," he said in an interview.

He stresses that organizations must prepare to apologize. In this, he's not just talking about the big corporate apology by the chief executive officer, but the many lesser but important apologies offered from within the ranks, such as when a restaurant meal comes to the table cold or an airline flight is delayed. There are certain industries where apologies are very common, and executives need to be alert to that likelihood. "We should be prepared and our employees should be prepared. If we leave it for employees to figure out how to do it, they'll frequently get it wrong," he warned.

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In preparing, you must differentiate between core and non-core violations. A core violation occurs when it involves activities and responsibilities that are central to a company's products, services and mission. So that cold meal is, to his mind, not core, but giving somebody food poisoning is. Losing baggage or having a flight delayed might seem like core violations when we're suffering – we expect the airline to get us there on time with our baggage – but he says it's not. A core violation occurs when an airplane crashes.

"Core violations pose a fundamental threat to the mission of the organization. Therefore, a robust apology is critical – and a botched one can cause significant damage. A company that has committed a non-core violation has greater flexibility, though an apology may still be warranted or beneficial," he writes in a Harvard Business Review article with Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School.

Sometimes, he noted in the interview, the violation results from differing or mistaken impressions. The client expected you to deliver X while you were planning to provide Y. You did what was promised, but the client feels short-changed. Instead of fighting, you need to consider the long-term relationship and avoid a permanent breach.

Public reaction needs to be considered before apologizing. A violation committed by a large, powerful organization against a low-status or low-power individual or group is more likely to spark public outrage and therefore require an apology. A violation committed by a mom-and-pop business or one that hurts wealthy individuals or corporations may not require the same route.

Finally, the organization must consider whether it will change the way it operates to prevent similar violations in future. If not, then he contends the apology will seem weak or hollow and probably should not be offered.

The apology formula begins with who should apologize. The more serious and core the violation, the more important it is that a senior leader, such as the CEO, deliver it.

The apology itself must display three key elements: candour, remorse and a commitment to change. Candour means allowing no room for equivocation or misinterpretation. The apology must make absolutely clear that the organization acknowledges the harm caused and its responsibility.

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Remorse may include some sign of sacrifice on your part. "You are demonstrating a willingness to pay something to make the situation better," he said. It need not be huge – a free dessert, for instance, when the meal is slow to arrive or cold.

The focus, if you are truly remorseful, will be on the aggrieved individuals, not yourself. After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, then BP CEO Tony Hayward wailed about wanting to get his life back – not exactly an outwardly focused thought. After problems with the iPhone antenna, Steve Jobs said complainers could return the device if they wanted to, but arrogantly predicted they wouldn't – it was just too good. He seemed focused on his product's wonders, not his customers' pain.

If you aren't willing to change things within your organization, your apology won't seem sincere. You must show convincingly that you will not engage in similar behaviour in future. Maybe the responsible employee must be fired. In most cases, new procedures must be put in place. "When the victim hears the commitment to change, that's what makes the difference," he said.

Speed is vital. A good apology arrives quickly. Often this is not the case because organizations are still investigating what happened and trying to determine culpability. "You can say, 'We're still investigating and trying to figure out what is going wrong.' But you want to get in front of the issue," he said. Keep in mind, he said, that studies show when medical professionals apologize quickly, that often dampens rather than worsens the legal consequences.

"Apologies can be transformative. They can move us from foes to friends. Words can be powerful. When accompanied by penance and sacrifice they are incredibly powerful in restoring relationships."

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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