When Saying Sorry is Not an Admission of Responsibility

Posted by on April 24th, 2012

“I’m sorry…it was my fault.”

Each of us has said and heard the aforementioned phrase millions of times.  It seems to have gotten to the point where apologies roll off ones tongue as easily as Tiger Woods used to roll in winning putts.  Sometimes, it’s easier to say you’re sorry than to hold your ground and continue to argue your point; just ask anyone that’s married!

Apologies aren’t just a good way to end an argument; they’re also a good way to mend fences.  How many times have you said you were sorry just so that you move forward in your relationship with a family member, friend or business associate?  Sometimes you issue an apology because you are truly sorry, while other times you do it to be the bigger person.  For most of us, we understand that with any apology comes a certain amount of responsibility.

I was brought up in a family where it was important to accept responsibility for your actions and to promptly issue an apology when necessary, even if it meant losing face.  The rationale was that the short-term downside of these actions was positively overshadowed by the reputation you gained over the long-term by being viewed as a standup person.  And I still believe this is true.

After being contacted by a client who was in the midst of a crisis last week, I started to think about how apologies are easy in one’s personal life, but they are anything but that in business.  There are  major differences between apologies issued by individuals and those issued by companies .  Without going into specific details, a couple of my client’s employees had committed serious acts that were morally wrong as well as criminal in nature.  And while no one died or was irreparably harmed, as the employer of record, my client was placed in the unenviable position of having to issue a public statement.

Common sense would have dictated my client issue a mea culpa, admit responsibility for the actions of his employees, and describe what was done to punish these employees, including changes being instituted to ensure this never happens again. But then the lawyers chimed in. They advised my client that under no circumstances was he to apologize; to do so would amount to accepting responsibility for the actions of his employees; it would be an admission of guilt.

As we have witnessed, with increasing frequency, companies, both large and small, are reluctant to issue apologies, even when they know they’re in the wrong.  For decades, big tobacco refused to admit that cigarettes were responsible for killing millions of people.  Similarly, major manufacturers have illegally dumped poisonous chemicals into our oceans and rivers since the industrial revolution but have chosen to look the other way.  And the list of  transgressions goes on.

So why is it that businesses have such a difficult time saying they’re sorry?  The answer is quite simple; by doing so, they are assuming responsibility.  By assuming responsibility, they’re exposing themselves to litigation.  Similarly, by admitting responsibility, companies are also exposing themselves to tremendous reputational damage that in turn could damage their current and future business prospects. Case in point: Once Tiger Woods admitted the truth and took responsibility for his transgressions, he became a reputational liability to his sponsors, who in turn ran for the hills.

It’s a shame that doing the right thing has become the wrong thing to do in business today.  It appears that the power of the almighty dollar has once again trumped acting responsibly. It’s equally shameful that the fear of litigation and reputational damage has removed the simple phrase, “I’m sorry,” from the vocabulary of business.  We should expect more from our business leaders and ourselves.