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Workplace Diversity

How to Apologize for Offending Someone at Work


Dec 31, 2015

Increased Diversity Means Increased Chances for Offensive Behavior

apologizing at workAccording to a CareerBuilder report, “The Changing Face of U.S. Jobs,” workforce diversity is at an all time high.

  • Women make up 49 percent of the workforce.
  • Baby boomers, Generation X and millennials each comprise about 30 percent of the workforce—with millennials set to be the majority in the next 10 years.
  • And the percent of minority workers continues to rise with non-white students completing 37 percent of all associate, bachelor's and post-grad degrees.

From now on diversity in the workplace is only going to increase. And so are the chances that employees are going to say and do things that offend each other.

An Apology is Part of a Culture of Respect

Implicit biases and inexperience working with diverse groups of people can lead to unintentional conflicts. And if offensive behavior happens often enough or is severe enough, the offended party might have a case for unlawful discrimination.

So before these situations get out of hand, you want to make sure employees are treating each other with respect. And part of that includes learning to apologize.

Why? Because a sincere apology is often the most important part of resolving a conflict. Employees want acknowledgement that their voice was heard and that someone cares about their feelings.

Yet so many times, an apology goes poorly. So to prevent that from happening, here’s how your employees can apologize well for workplace offenses.

Tips for Apologizing at Work

Let’s say Leslie and Brooke are talking about their trip to the nail salon that opened up next door. Not intending to be cruel or offensive, they start imitating the salon worker’s accent when relaying their story.

Kirk overhears their conversation and is offended because although you can’t tell by looking at him, he is the same nationality as the nail salon worker.

When Kirk confronts Leslie and Brooke, he tells them that the accent they used was offensive to him.

So how should Leslie and Brooke apologize to Kirk?

1. Do It Quickly

Many times people delay apologizing because they are embarrassed of their behavior and think that if they don’t say anything, then the situation will simply “go away.” But that’s not true.

The best thing Leslie and Brooke can do in their situation is to apologize to Kirk as quickly as possible. They can take time to craft a response, but they shouldn’t wait too long before apologizing.

2. Be Sincere

Possibly the most important thing Leslie and Brooke need to do to apologize well is to actually be sorry for their behavior. It’s easy to spot when someone is lying about being sorry, and many times lying only makes the situation worse.

Based on the fact that the girls did not intend to be offensive, it’s more likely that they are relying on stereotypes and implicit biases about groups of people.

It’s important for employees to recognize implicit biases. And being sorry for offensive behavior shows that an employee is making an effort to move past their implicit biases.

3. Use the Right Language

Which of these statements sounds better?

“Kirk, I am sorry that I offended you. I should not have imitated the nail salon worker’s accent while telling the story. I will do everything I can to learn from this and correct my behavior going forward.”

“Kirk, I am sorry you were offended by the fact that I was using an accent of another nationality while trying to tell my story. I’ll do my best not to say those things to you again.”

The first apology is much better. It takes ownership of the behavior and uses the active voice. The second statement makes it seem like it’s Kirks fault for being offended, which doesn’t make for a good apology.

4. Give It Time

Once Leslie and Brooke have apologized to Kirk, they need to give him time to process his feelings about the situation. If they were to pressure him to accept their apology, it might backfire.

And it might take Kirk a while to forgive Leslie and Brooke. They will need to show they’ve learned from their mistake.

Training Your Employees Helps

As obvious as it may seem, many people don’t know how to respond to the types of situations like the one affecting Leslie, Brooke and Kirk. And they often let implicit biases and stereotypes influence how they treat diverse groups of people—which is bad for the workplace.

On the other hand, diversity training teaches your employees how to: accept diverse groups of people; treat each other with respect; move past implicit biases and stereotypes; and apologize for offensive behavior.

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