How To Accept an Apology at Work

by Jennifer Miller on November 16, 2010

in Workplace Issues

Recently I wrote a post encouraging professionals to have an interpersonal “disaster recovery plan” for those times when they wish they could take back an unfortunate choice of words. After all, I reasoned,  if you’re truly a professional then you’ll have some sort of plan for the (rare!) times you let your emotions get the best of you.

You know what else makes you a professional? You act graciously when you’re on the receiving end of a colleague’s blunder.  I’m not talking about allowing someone to treat you poorly*.  No, I’m talking about those times when someone tried to be funny, but wasn’t.  Or, their attempt at edgy repartee came out sounding a bit mean.  Or any number of other things that get said in the workplace by a decent person who contracted a temporary case of foot-in-mouth disease.

It happens. They’re mortified. You’re caught off guard. If you can manage a gracious response then you will have succeeded in stopping what could turn into resentment between you and your colleague. Better yet, you’ve helped preserve another person’s dignity.

Professional responses might include:

“I know you didn’t mean to be hurtful. I accept your apology.”

 “It’s OK. We all have those days once in awhile.”

“I understand. You’re angry at the situation, not at me.”

“You seem really irritated about this. Should we take a break and discuss it later?”

It takes courage for the offending speaker to publicly acknowledge the transgression. Tempting as it might be to poke back, resist. Take the high road. Accept the apology . . .and mean it. After all, wouldn’t you hope they’d do the same for you?

*I’m not talking about intentional snide comments, tirades or any form of workplace bullying.  That’s a different topic altogether and not acceptable behavior. Period.

Photo credit: © Vicky Leon

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach November 16, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Nice job Jennifer. I noticed that all your suggestions take the high road.

I love the fact that you separate workplace bullying and constant snide passive aggressive behavior from this. It’s important to set appropriate limits.

What often happens is that people “snipe back”, as you say, because they fear that the person might be starting down a road of treating them badly. Remember, when you take the high road you can always turn to setting limits at any moment. No need to assume from the start that each person has a hidden agenda.

Thanks for this post. I will RT it on Twitter for many to read.

Warmest wishes,
Kate Nasser

Jennifer November 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm


Thanks so much for your feedback– yes, I feel strongly about taking the high road. It seems to be a dying art in some workplaces, but I remain commited to the practice.

To your point about people lashing out– that’s very astute! You are correct that someone can always do boundary-setting if they feel a co-worker is taking advantage of them. Why not give the person the benefit of the doubt the first time it happens?

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