Jim Joyce became a Major League Baseball umpire in 1987. During his career he had been selected to umpire a Division Series six times, a League Championship Series three times, the World Series twice, and the All-Star Game twice.
In short, he was very good. But on June 2, 2010, he wasn’t.
That night Joyce was the first-base umpire in a game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga had a perfect game (no base runners allowed) going with two outs in the ninth inning. The batter hit a weak grounder and was thrown out at first, completing the perfect game.
Except that Joyce called the batter safe. Replays showed he was clearly out. The mistake prevented Galarraga from becoming only the 21st pitcher in Major League history, and the first Detroit player in the team’s 110-year history, to throw a perfect game.
The initial reaction to Joyce’s blown call was expectedly vitriolic. But what followed was decidedly unexpected and wonderful.
Rather than run from the situation or defiantly defend his error, Joyce met with Galarraga and the media after the game. With tears in his eyes, he earnestly admitted his mistake and apologized. “I just cost the kid a perfect game,” he said. Galarraga was forgiving and told reporters, “Nobody’s perfect.”
In the days that followed, Joyce was praised throughout the sports world for showing accountability and regret. Other players came forward to defend Joyce, and two weeks later he was voted best umpire in Major League Baseball in an ESPN player poll. Joyce and Galarraga later wrote a book about the game called Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History.
If apologies can restore a despised and maligned umpire to good graces, can they also work for employers? Perhaps so—at least in some situations, and if done correctly.
As you know from your own experiences, both personal and professional, it’s more difficult to remain angry at someone who has screwed up if he admits his mistake, says he’s sorry, and promises not to do it again. A well-timed, well-phrased apology has an almost-magical power to calm a dispute. It shows compassion, generates credibility, and brings everyone out of the unchangeable past and into the present.
Studies show that a patient is less likely to sue his doctor for malpractice if the doctor apologies or expresses sorrow or regret over a bad outcome. The same principle may hold true for employment-law claims.
When an employee makes a complaint about the way she’s been treated, it’s important to investigate and follow up with her. If you conclude management made a mistake, or a co-worker acted improperly, you should tell the employee, let her know you’re sorry about what happened, and take appropriate corrective action. But what do you do when the complaining employee is wrong, or when the evidence is inconclusive? Even then it can be appropriate to make a “non-admission” apology, or at least extend your empathy. Failure to acknowledge the employee’s concerns may send a message that no one cares and make her even more bitter or unhappy.
It may be appropriate to express remorse when communicating a layoff driven by economic factors, but don’t apologize for the layoff selection process itself. Avoid the “s” word when firing an employee for disciplinary or performance-related reasons. In those cases the only place an apology is likely to get you is on the witness stand. Of course, you can still express understanding that the employee is upset, while being firm and taking ownership of the decision.
Just as a good apology can put out a fire, a bungled apology can fuel the flames. As the Bible says in the Book of Proverbs, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” With that in mind, here are some things to think about when making workplace apologies.
- Be sincere. An apology that’s not genuine and heartfelt is worse than no apology at all. Consider this before making one employee apologize to another.
- Don’t blame the victim. “I’m sorry my words hurt you, but I think you’re being too sensitive” is more likely to arouse anger than bring peace.
- Call a spade a spade. "I was wrong, I’m sorry" is powerful stuff.
- Don’t admit fault if you’re not at fault, but express understanding and try to find common ground where you can. For example, “I understand you believe you didn’t get the promotion because of your race. As you know, the company does not tolerate discrimination, and we take reports like this very seriously. We’ve investigated your complaint and did not find any evidence of discrimination in the selection process. Thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention.” Or “I tried to give you clear instructions; I’m sorry if they were confusing.”
- Focus on the future. “I know you feel offended by your co-worker, but our investigation could not verify your allegations. We’ve talked to your co-worker about these issues, and we’ll continue to monitor things. Please let us know if you have any problems going forward.” Or “I didn’t realize that would upset you; I promise not to do it again.”
- Be cautious. Choose your words carefully, even script them in advance. Avoid admissions of liability. Contrast “I’m sorry your boss said those things to you” with “I’m sorry your boss sexually harassed you.” Talk things over with your lawyer beforehand to make sure an apology is really the best course of action and to help word it in a way that will be helpful, not harmful, both now and in any future legal proceedings.