Everyone makes mistakes. In starting your professional life, it’s important to know how (and when) to apologize. While your college life may let you get by with a quick “My bad!” I promise that your colleagues and bosses will quickly write you off if you glibly utter that response. Don’t mistake silence for approval or acceptance of your error.
It’s sometimes not entirely obvious to new grads that they have even made a mistake so I am starting with a short list of the things you should be doing successfully.
- Be prompt (5-10 minutes earlier than your boss at least 90% of the time)
- No obvious errors (proofread, double-check everything)
- Answer emails quickly (even outside business hours)
- Consider the team’s workload before you decide it’s time to leave for the day
- Always dress so that that you can both unexpectedly go to a client meeting and go pick up lunch for the team
- Be prepared for all meetings (have extra printouts, log on to the invite screen and phone, take notes)
- If you are not available during the workday, be sure key players know where you are
- Make yourself useful every hour of every day (there is no slow period where it’s okay to check your Facebook page)
- See if you can help someone else or learn something new by observation
- Do not even think “that’s not my job”
When you do make a mistake and fall below your usual very high standards how do you apologize? The rules are really simple. When your spreadsheet has an error say “I’m sorry” while making eye contact and say it immediately after the other person is done pointing out your error. When you are late, say “I’m sorry” as soon as you can without interrupting the flow. This may mean your best option is to apologize via email after the meeting or call. You shouldn’t be ashamed of an error, it happens to everyone even with lots of experience. We all know that some errors are out of our control, but it’s impossible to know which ones your boss and co-workers count as “out of your control” so it’s best to go for the prompt apology anytime you goof.
The only other words that can ever be successfully added to “I’m sorry” are either specific facts “I’m sorry I was late this morning” and potentially “It won’t happen again”. The key is the really the period in the sentence. You say you are sorry, full stop. Anything that comes after those words means you are now leaving apology territory and moving into excuse territory. Or even worse, your apology can end up sounding like you’re sorry for your own inconvenience, not the one you caused. For example, “I’m sorry I had to re-do that spreadsheet this morning” can be heard as you are sorry YOU had to do the spreadsheet twice versus what you should mean, which is that you are sorry they had to wait for your corrected spreadsheet, re-proof the new version, and now have reason to not quite feel they can count on your work product.
Even a really great excuse is not part of an apology. If you say “I’m sorry I was late. Traffic was terrible/I got lost/I overslept/I had a flat tire/My bus was late” then you haven’t really apologized for being late—you’ve made an excuse. If you make an excuse then the apology is useless because the subtext is “Oh well, stuff happens” with a shrug. (So you will be doing it again?) If you are late for a reason that you feel will get you off the hook with your boss or co-worker, then you’re really saying you’re sorry that you got caught in the mysterious workings of the universe and you plan to continue to be less than fully reliable in the future—that it’s all really kind of beyond your control. This attitude may not be a fireable offense, but you can see how it doesn’t work in your favor on the fast track. And people have different views on traffic, weather, and public transit in different places, but I assure you no one thinks alarm problems even in power outages are part of professional behavior.
Some recent examples of apologies missing the mark are the failure-to-stop-talking approach turning into the “poor me apology” as shown by “I’m sorry for having to re-accommodate these customers.” courtesy of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz and the “really big excuse apology” “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up.” as demonstrated by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. These people are surrounded by advisors and crisis management experts helping them try and spin what’s going on and they are still getting it wrong! Keep it simple.
For an egregious error that has cost you reliability points, it can be worth following up later with a plan for avoiding this problem. For example, if you really missing having a friend to proofread your big projects, enlist a coworker—get your work done early and see if they can take a quick look. This isn’t ideal for the long-term (they can’t do their job and be your training wheels forever) so a request like that might better be framed by asking what tricks they are using to double-check their own work. (Hint for a spreadsheet: always create places to double-check your math—if you have a total sum coming at the bottom of the column, build sums into the bottom row so you can have a sum for all those subtotals. For data, try different sorts to see if there are suspicious outliers in your data entry. Check the cells with key formulas to proofread the equation—click and make sure adding a row or a column hasn’t dropped some of your data from the formula.)
As always, I’m going to say that the best time to get practice is right now in college. Make these habits second nature. Strive to be on time to class or club meetings, double-check your work before you turn it in, ask for feedback, follow up a late entrance to class with a quick apology to your professor. She may not need to hear it, but you need the practice making a graceful apology, so go ahead and do it. You’re not sorry you missed some of class (poor me), you’re sorry that you were late (period). Better yet, apologize and then circle back later and ask for feedback. If your professor rejects an assignment full of spelling and grammatical errors or gives you a terrible grade, come back with an apology and the work re-done. Don’t ask for more credit on the assignment (really, don’t even dream that is possible), just say you’re sorry your work was sub-par, it won’t happen again, and you wanted to demonstrate what you expect from yourself going forward. Explain your new system for staying at a high caliber. Everyone makes mistakes, but a mistake is a chance to really rise above the crowd. Don’t miss that opportunity if you accidentally create it. And learn everything you can in college—the lessons outside the classroom are incredibly valuable too.