How to Write a Business Apology Letter
Here is a classic P.G. Wodehouse quote that so illustrates this misplaced focus of posturing to forge relationships:
“It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”
In business writing, this is not true! Apologies are important.
We often feel that an apology means we are taking responsibility for situations not caused by us. No! A good apology means we care. It shows we are responsible. It proves we value people and can be trusted.
You made no error
I just learned from Tom that the rescheduling of our annual meeting affected your vacation plans. We have four new products launching next year, and these will be presented at the meeting. I’m sure the scheduling was a disappointment for you, but I know the information will be very useful for you, and we need your expertise in the field next year.
An alternative you could write is:
I am sorry the reconstruction requires your department to share printing and copying resources for the next two months. It will cause delays for you during construction, so please accommodate this in your planning. Once the construction is complete, we’ll have 40% capacity increase, so the inconvenience is well worth it.
You need to admit liability
I am sorry I missed your meeting this morning. I know I was scheduled to provide the staffing costs of your proposal, and I’m sorry I let you down.
As I mentioned when I called, my babysitter was ill and could not work, and my husband is out of town. I had to wait until my sister could arrive to babysit before I could leave for work.
I have emailed my staffing cost analysis to everyone in the meeting and explained my absence and how this data supports your proposal. If there is anything else I can do to make up for my absence at your proposal, please let me know.
Please accept my apology.
We all want to avoid unpleasant situations, but sending a note or email indicates you take the liability seriously and are truly sorry. It conveys a sincerity that a simple phone call does not.
When you regret your actions
I am sorry I overreacted yesterday to the news of my project team’s restructuring. I apologize for making inappropriate assumptions about your decision.
I realize since we talked that I depend on Caroline’s participation and don’t want to lose her enthusiasm and expertise on my team. You are correct that she is ready for larger company projects.
I regret my comments, and you have my promise to support the team restructure fully. Please accept my apology.
I’ve heard executives say they never want to document any errors in writing, but I disagree. Instead, this documents Kara’s realization and apology, in addition to enhancing her business relationship with Ashok.
Tip: note that letter format is different than memo format.
- Overtly state you are sorry. “I apologize.” “I’m sorry.” “I regret that.”
- Ask the reader to accept your apology.
- Summarize what happened to reflect your understanding.
- Offer remedies, if this is needed.
- Address only the apology in your note. Keep it to this one subject.
- Don’t infer your reader was also to blame. Not: “I only wish you had been more clear my attendance was needed.” Address only your own actions.
- Don’t blame anyone else. Not: “My team leader was unclear with his instructions, so I thought I was to present next week, not this week.”
- Don’t globalize the issue. Apologize for this situation, at this time. Not: “I’m sorry I was late, but you rarely start meetings on time. I thought I would arrive before the meeting started.”
- Most importantly, don’t use the common “sorry, but” formula. It’s insincere and makes you look angry. Not: “I’m sorry I overreacted, but you were not clear about your instructions.”
The science of the apology
The apology is an important and complicated part of human interactions, and as such, it has been the subject of both psychological and business research. You might find comfort in the fact that there is science behind an effective apology. Recent research out of Ohio State University identified six key elements of a strong apology:
Expression of regret
Acknowledgment of responsibility
Declaration of repentance
Offer of repair
Request for forgiveness
These six components were tested individually and in combination through two studies to determine the most important ones. If your apology only includes one element, choose an acknowledgment of responsibility. This admission was found to be the most essential to rebuild trust. The research revealed the most potent combination of three factors includes an explanation for the offense, an acknowledgment of responsibility, and an offer of repair. Interestingly, a request for forgiveness is the least critical.
However, in the case of an apology: more is more. The researchers discovered that apologies that included more of these six components were more effective than those with fewer. For example, an expression of regret becomes more powerful with an expression of regret, an explanation, an offer of repair, and a request for forgiveness rather than a simple “I’m sorry."
The right words heal and help business
In many business writing courses, I hear from clients who worry an apology shows they are weak or error-prone. Don’t fall into this insincere, power-broking writing formula. Good business communication fosters connection and relationships, not a false power dance.
Words are powerful, and a thoughtful, honest, un-obsequious apology respects both you and the recipient. It will always enhance your career.