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How To Handle A Non-Apology Apology At Work

A co-worker has done you wrong and apologizes. Too bad his or her apology only makes things worse.

Yes, you were ready to forgive but not forget your co-worker's trespasses when he or she cackled a classic non-apology apology of the sorry-but-it-wouldn't-have-happened-if-you-weren't-such-a-loser variety. You know, the "I'm sorry you feel that way, but..." apology. But. It's the bane of any amorphous mea culpa. Throw in a "but" mid-sentence, and you've negated everything you've just said. - I'm sorry that you were offended by my racist, sexist, and/or homophobic remarks. You're obviously not smart enough to understand my sense of humor.

The non-apology apology -- or more to the point, what constitutes a proper apology -- is the talk of non-apologetic journalists everywhere who are writing tons of column inches on the topic thanks to Rush Limbaugh's non-apology apology. High-profile non-apology apologies are usually the domain of corporate legal departments and public relations firms that have to find a way to get their foot-in-mouth leaders or clients out of a publicly-embarrassing bind -- but in a way that allows them to deflect blame through passively-worded phrases such as "mistakes were made." Who made these mistakes, exactly? Anyone? Anyone? Then the public outcry from opinion makers builds to a fever pitch until the non-apologist apologist is forced to utter the dreaded words "I'm sorry" and take some ownership of the original infraction. Sometimes, this individual can continue full steam ahead with a highly-calculated career; sometimes not. This is usually (always?) how it goes.

But back to the average workplace. It's obvious your co-worker isn't feeling very sorry about his or her absent-minded mistake or egregious behavior, but since you're acting like you're owed an apology they'll find someone, or something else, to blame. And since you're reading this post, it's likely the blame was put on you. Yes, poor, hapless you. I'm really sorry you feel insulted, but it wouldn't have happened if you had... Sigh. You're seething even more after getting slapped in the face by your co-worker's backhanded apology. It's not her fault, it's yours, even though you're the one receiving the "apology." Ouch. I don't blame you for feeling angry.

Can't anyone take the blame anymore? Where does the buck stop these days? Where have all the Harry Trumans gone? In the workplace, the non-apology apology has risen to an art form because many employees don't want to look wrong/take blame/accept full responsibility in tough economic times. In their minds, accepting blame could eventually lead to a pink slip or a missed promotion. It's employee psychology 101. However, I read one employee survey (I'm looking for it...) that ranked "co-workers who deflect blame" as a top-five workplace annoyance. It turns out that employee morale sinks when the buck doesn't stop where it rightly should. It's something for leaders to consider.

So how to handle a non-apology apology at work? Well, on the surface you have two options as the recipient of an empty entreaty: To accept it gracefully or to dispute it vigorously as not good enough. What you choose to do is up to you, but there are a few ways to walk away feeling better.

The first thing is to know what a non-apology apology sounds like. ProTip: Using "if" in an apology is a red flag. As in, "I'm sorry if you were offended." The word "if" indicates a hypothetical situation and turns the actual offense into a debatable occurrence. But you were offended by real circumstances or you wouldn't be expecting an apology, would you? What you're waiting to hear is the other person apologize for the actual offense. To take ownership of it. To seem sincerely apologetic. For reals.

If you're going to call a co-worker out on a half-assed apology, stay calm and tell him or her what you want to hear -- no ifs, ands or buts. This tactic puts both of you on the spot, which may or may not be worth it depending on the nature of the offense. Again, you'll have to decide. But if the offense or mistake is big enough or caused you enough personal embarrassment on the job, it might be worth the risk. At the very least, you'll put your atonement-averse co-worker on notice that you will expect a real apology in the future. Oh, the horror.

You might also read up on the common mistakes we tend to make when apologizing. Keep in mind, too, that there are people who might not realize they're prone to backhanded apologies. They're not trying to set you off, but they do -- and all because of their passive phrasing and word choice. But chances are, they know exactly what they're doing because a real apology isn't very hard. In fact, the best apologies are very simple, get to the point and use a lot of action verbs. I'm sorry that I [verb] _____. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Feel free to use it as a template.

Ultimately, we could all use a refresher course in saying we're sorry just like our parents taught us over and over again when we were four years old. It's that important. Unfortunately, the boss can't send employees to their rooms or delay dessert until a proper apology has been issued. Or maybe the boss is the biggest non-apologist in the company and sets a terrible example. No one is ever to blame for anything, anywhere, at any time. (P.S. -- If you're currently ensconced in such a work environment, no one will blame you for shopping your resume around.)

I'm sorry this post is so long. Really, truly, sincerely, I am. But it wouldn't have happened if...oh, nevermind.

PS: Some people may be offended by the no-pology I posted above. I hear your complaints. I will offer my non-demnation: - That's not the language that I would have used. I would have said something much more awkward.


  1. This made me laugh because I live this daily with my wife and my kids. Cycle wife yells at kids, kids react back, they get sent to their room, my wife goes up to offer an apology that goes exactly like what you say "I apologize that YOU felt hurt, but YOU can't do that to me.". Sometimes I wonder which is the kid and which is the parent.

  2. While visiting my grown up daughter recently we had a disagreement about something. She snarled at me using VERY bad language. I was concerned that my granddaughter would hear so left her house and went home. She went on holiday the following day and sent me a text saying "Sorry for my bad language last night but you certainly know how to wind me up". A backhander if ever there was. I did not reply.

  3. @Anonymous #1-Well, it's obvious that you are no grownup. How about backing your wife up once in a while, and teaching your brats some manners?

    1. Haha, doesn't matter, we ended up divorcing in January this year. She had a lot more going on than just a lack of support from me, but you are an internet anonymous poster, so I don't even know what fucking business it is of yours.


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