Apologies for All

Fred Mael
Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine, January 2009

“I wish to apologize to my family, my teammates, my boss, my owner, my constituents or fans, my advertisers and my agent and anyone else who I have offended, inconvenienced, or harmed by my ill-advised actions. I take full responsibility for the unfortunate mistakes and misinterpretations of rules that led me to get caught doing these activities and that I repeatedly denied doing until I was caught. I assure you that they are not indicative of the real inner me and I trust you will help me find a scapegoat in my background or in the competitive environment in which I toil. In time I will show you how I have learned my lesson, allowing me to regain your trust, my job, and all my endorsement money. Now the past is past, tell the victims to stop whining, and let’s move forward”.

This admittedly exaggerated apology is an amalgam of those of many public figures in recent years. Michael Vick, Mel Gibson, Don Imus, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Bill Belichick are only some of them … yet the media’s questions abound: Who wrote the apology? Was the apology sincere? Is it enough to apologize publicly for sins committed to individuals? Will it achieve the apologist’s goal of societal reinstatement?

All interesting questions and perhaps relevant to you in the rare case in which you have advertising dollars tied to a fallen celebrity. I personally don’t lose much sleep for these folks, as they have well-paid public relations people working hard to get their clients to lay low and then resurface to some degree of respectability. Although we assume that these fallen celebrities suffer endless, unbearable humiliation, they also have reservoirs of good will and influence that allow them to weather the storms in many cases.

Denied the Chance to Apologize

I am more concerned for your employees – maybe for you – who, when accused or convicted of wrongdoing at work, don’t have the opportunity to apologize at all. Not in public, not in person. They are expected to just slink off in disgrace, cut off from their limited network of coworkers and their references, and fend for themselves. It’s not always that easy.

Consider the true story of Peter. Peter’s coworkers arrived on a Monday morning to find his office empty and to deduce that he had been fired late Friday afternoon. Peter’s boss said he was fired for poor performance. His boss’ boss said no, he had been fired for lack of billable hours. Meanwhile, Peter’s female coworkers were running around boasting that they had gotten him fired for some level of non-physical, sexual harassment. Peter was strongly encouraged not to have any phone or other contact with any of his former coworkers. That included not apologizing to those he may have harmed or offended, not describing or demonstrating how he might make amends, and not retaining contact with his coworkers so he could get another job. (He also couldn’t give his side of the story, whatever that was – that was left totally to his accusers). Actually, he left the company as a laughingstock and stayed on the periphery of his profession for years to come. Whatever his failings, he deserved better than pariah status. As a non-celebrity, he did not merit the ability to apologize, clear the air, and move on in some form. Why?

Firing, Not Destroying
Sometimes you have to fire employees for reasons having to do with wrongdoing. In some cases, they are truly venal people who you feel justified kicking to the curb. You would never trust their apologies – they are sociopaths who cold bloodedly used you, and you know that any apology will just be a sham.

But many others do wrong for a host of reasons. They get carried away by temptation, bad judgment, financial pressures, immaturity, or resentment. Maybe a minority of them will be miserable losers unless they change their ways before or during their next job. Still, you don’t necessarily have to destroy their lives. You must have some reservoir of good will for the productive work they did do for you – don’t you ? Or mercy for their spouses or children? Or for their embarrassed teammates who will have to defend their coworker (or themselves) to some extent? Or does righteous indignation have no statute of limitations? Perhaps it just feels too good to get a free shot at someone without anyone telling you to let up.

Seriously: Why should a fired employee not be able to apologize for infractions to the company or its harmed members in person or in an email for infractions? You are not taking them back and you are not condoning what they did. The people they harmed are getting the benefit of an apology. The fired employee acknowledges guilt and tries to learn from it.

Perhaps you will blame your attorneys for not allowing apologies. Perhaps you run one of those companies that treats every fired employee, even those laid off for lack of work, like a pariah. You fire people and expect them to leave immediately so that they can’t contaminate anyone else, while actually giving the survivors the opposite message: this is how they will dispose of me. Perhaps you will blame the attorneys for that also. If so, this whole issue is irrelevant to you.

But if you value the “human” in human capital, it makes no sense why apologies and forgiveness should be limited to those who need them least.

Fred Mael, PhD, consults in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, performance management, and executive coaching www.maelconsulting.com. This article appeared in the January 2009 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine (www.smartceo.com).