How sorry is sorry?

An apology is a good thing — but not every expression of repentance has the same worth.

There have been a lot of public apologies lately:

“The incidents that came to our attention as it relates to Mr. Ghomeshi’s conduct in our workplace were simply unacceptable. We apologized then and we do again today.” — CBC

“Canada’s government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely. For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry.” — Justin Trudeau

“Recently we made a big mistake: We broke your trust. For over 60 years Canadians have relied on us to act with integrity. Yet we’ve let you down.” — Volkswagen

“I apologize to my colleagues, to the House as a whole, and to you Mr. Speaker for failing to live up to a higher standard of behaviour.” — Justin Trudeau

“It was a mistake to pursue, and in hindsight I regret pursuing transactions where a central premise was a planned increase in the prices of the medicines.” — Michael Pearson, former CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals

This is the summer, when lazy journalists produce top-10 lists. So here are my 10 tips for evaluating apologies.

• In general, offering any apology is a good thing. There is a perception that apologizing is a sign of weakness. So being willing to appear vulnerable is a sign that the person has taken a first step.

• Is there really an apology? If the person says they are sorry that you felt bad, there is no apology. A proper “I’m sorry” includes the concept that the person actually did something that caused an injury. “I regret that you felt hurt” puts the blame on the injured party.

• Is the person continuing to do things today for which, if they are caught, they will have to apologize tomorrow? Apologizing for yesterday’s sin is less important than being aware of today’s actions.

• Was the apology offered under duress? Many of us can recall being forced by our parents or teachers to say “I’m sorry” to a sibling or classmate. We didn’t feel ashamed — we were angry. An apology that is part of a legal settlement has similarly dubious motivation.

• Is there a cost to the party making the apology? Offering an apology that increases the chance of a legal claim, offers reparations, or has a political cost is more likely to be genuine.

• Is there some recognition of the underlying ethical blindness that made the injury possible? The evil of residential schools came about because of the widespread belief that Europeans and their culture were superior to indigenous people and their culture, and so any attempt to eradicate their culture was beneficial to both groups. It is not sufficient to say that a mistaken government didn’t realize that a few bad people were doing bad things to kids.

• Is there an awareness that the underlying cause of the injury has probably not been eliminated, and that further introspection and efforts are required? Trudeau’s apology for elbowing members of the opposition would be more sincere if he admitted he has a temper that he is trying to keep under control, although that would be politically unwise.

• Is there a plan to reduce the chance that the harm will happen again? Firing the CEO is not sufficient — how will the company do things differently in the future?

• Are other companies or institutions confessing to the same wrongdoing? When Volkswagen admitted to fudging diesel emissions, we didn’t hear apologies from other car companies. But now we know Mitsubishi and probably others were just as guilty. A first-class apology happens before you get caught.

• Here’s the hardest thing: what widely accepted acts are we doing, or failing to do, today that future generations will feel compelled to apologize for? Perhaps it’s how we treat children, or refugees, or the environment or animals. Or something we can’t even anticipate. It’s not a bad test — ask yourself if what you are doing now is something your grandchildren will be horrified by many years hence.

About the Author

Karen Wensley


Karen Wensley, MBA, is a lecturer in professional ethics at the University of Waterloo and a retired partner of EY.

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