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How to Make a Professional Apology

Published on October 05, 2017

Professional apologies are necessary—and sometimes complicated. It happens to everyone sooner or later. You forget to return an email. You snap at a co-worker. You are rude to a client. 

Someday you'll do something that affects a business relationship, and your response could impact your career or your firm. The question is, what will you do about it when the time comes? 

The most important action is generally to swallow your pride and offer an apology. But apologizing in a professional setting can be a tricky business. It can be tough to know how and when to approach the person. To navigate these issues, we sought advice from CPAs and experts in business etiquette about how to make a professional apology. Here are their suggestions. 

Take responsibility.

A core value of HeimLantz in Annapolis, Md., is "own your actions," according to the firm's CEO, Carter Heim, CPA/CFF, CGMA. Apologizing is one way to own them. 

"In the absence of an apology, you leave the injured party with the impression that you just don't care, that you don't care about them as a person," Heim said. If you fail to apologize, he continued, "You are not honoring that relationship at all, in my mind." 

Move as quickly and decisively as possible.

For simple mistakes, offer a quick and sincere apology. Waiting too long can magnify the mistake for both parties, said Arden Clise, a Seattle-based business etiquette trainer and author of Spinach in Your Boss's Teeth: Essential Etiquette for Professional Success. 

"When we don't apologize right away, it kind of festers," she said. 

Sweeping problems under the rug rather than directly addressing them is not the answer, said Erin Roche, CPA, CGMA, who is a team leader with Elliott CPA Group in Santa Rosa, CA. 

"I think a lot of times that leads to festering resentment or festering emotions by whoever's been on the receiving end," Roche said. "Given a more appropriate response after the fact, it really could be avoided." 

But let the dust settle, if necessary.

Don't rush into an apology before both sides have had a chance to catch their breath. If emotions are running high, allow a brief cooling-off period before apologizing, Clise advised.

The other person may be too upset to process the apology immediately.

"Sometimes it takes people a little time to calm down," she said. 

Face the music.

Etiquette experts insist apologies should be made face to face, whenever possible. An apology delivered via email or text will not be effective, said Gabrielle Luoma, CPA, CGMA, the founder and CEO of GMLCPA in Tucson, AZ. 

"People just don't hear your heart or your intentions," she said. 

If the injured party is not close enough for a personal visit, "a phone call or video chat is the next best thing," according to Callista Gould, a certified etiquette instructor and founder of the Culture and Manners Institute in West Des Moines, Iowa. Apologies should also be made in private unless the offense was given in public, she said. 

"If it happened in front of the office, the apology should take place in front of the office," Gould said. "Otherwise, it's best just to draw the person aside, shut the office door, and say, 'Hey, I didn't feel good about this, and I want to apologize, and I hope we can move forward.'" 

Mean what you say.

Clise advised making "I" statements rather than "you" statements. 

"Sometimes people will say something like, 'I'm sorry you feel that way,'" she said. "It's not an apology. A true apology starts with either, 'I'm sorry,' or, 'I apologize that I ….'" 

Try something along these lines, Clise said: "I'm sorry I sent an angry email to you. It was inappropriate for me. I was having a bad day, and I should not have taken it out on you." 

Don't make excuses.

While it may be OK to explain a lapse after apologizing for it, CPAs and etiquette experts caution against making excuses. Heim gave an example of an apology to a client after forgetting to return an email: "This happened, all these other things were going on, but unfortunately, it doesn't change the fact that I didn't do it." 

Apologies are sometimes necessary to maintain healthy relationships with clients and co-workers and protect the reputation of you and your firm. A rapid, heartfelt response after careful consideration can go a long way toward making amends.

(Source: AICPA - CPA Letter Daily - Journal of Accountancy - September 29, 2017)