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So I do admin work for a government organisation. This guy from another organisation got in touch on Monday to request a document that they should have received a year ago, but it doesn't look like it was sent (as a side note I wasn't with the organisation then, it was a coworker that dropped the ball but I chose not to drop them in it)

By Tuesday midday I manage to find out it wasn't sent to him and send it over with an email written as I usually would. I then get an email from him saying that I should have also said sorry in the email to him and his team for the time they have spent trying to find this. I scan my email, I would typically always add an apologies to these emails but it slipped my mind.

I began replying to apologise when another email comes in from him. Same text as original email, but with people CC'd in this time and this text added

"I look forward to the apology"

I immediately deleted my email apologising. This was at the end of the day so I left work. I absolutely refuse to apologise to somebody who would write that. I can be quite stubborn. Was this a reasonable way to handle the situation?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    May 21 at 16:59
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    Long winded title... with dubious wording. Why not: "Should I apologize for something that was not my fault?"
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 21 at 21:09
  • @Mari-LouA my intention when I edited the title was to give it information about the question being asked (it originally had none), with the goal of discouraging close voters. People are very close-happy on this stack, and (rightly or wrongly) a lot of it seems to happen based off the title and final few sentences, without regard to the rest of the question's content. The close votes seem to have stopped coming, so the edit appears to have done what I wanted, but feel free to suggest further improvements.
    – Player One
    May 21 at 21:30
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    In particular though, titles or sentences with the phrase "should I" are often a magnet for the "advice on a specific choice" close reason. Rephrasing a sentence to contain the same meaning without that specific phrase often seems to avoid it.
    – Player One
    May 21 at 21:36
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    Does the person receiving your email see it personalized as You e.g. ”your.name@agency.gov (Your Name)"? Or does it go out as a generic department email such as "contact@agency.gov (This Agency)"? May 24 at 0:58

13 Answers 13

183

"Our apologies for this mistake. Let me know if we can be of any further assistance."

You're apologizing for the mistake at a department level, not a personal level. You're not personally responsible for the mistake but the department you work for is. There's nothing wrong with offering an apology on behalf of your department. You're not admitting any personal culpability, because you have none. His apparent rudeness aside, there's nothing wrong with you rising above it.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    May 22 at 11:01
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    The phrase "On behalf of the department, " seems a slight improvement. followed by "please accept our deepest apologies." This makes clear a mistake was made, someone is taking responsibility for it, but admits no personal fault. I have a related situation, as a teacher, a parent got deeply offended even though my email was appropriated. A mentor suggested, "I'm sorry you felt that way. That was not my intention." Context: the parent's mother had passed away that month, and family members simultaneously had covid.
    – nickalh
    May 22 at 22:24
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    I agree deflecting it to the department more is a bit better in general and makes it easier to stomach on a personal level, but seriously, never say "I'm sorry you felt that way" unless you really want things to blow up.
    – Phill
    May 23 at 5:19
  • @joeqwerty what makes you think that OP has the official/moral/legal authority to be able to apologize on behalf of his entire department? Maybe the rest of his department (manager included) doesn't want to apologise. Apologising can be seen as an admission of guilt (although it's not necessarily the intention) and can have unforeseen consequences.
    – Jivan
    May 23 at 20:03
91

I would forward the latest email to your boss and ask what they want you to do. Explain in that email that you confirmed that the document was not actually sent. Super simple, nothing but the facts, leave out the drama.

Your boss may choose to answer the email personally or may instruct you to with some guidance on wording. Do what you boss says and move on.

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    While other answer is also correct I feel this is the most generally safe way to act. I've been in a similar situation as the question though a bit different area. My first reaction was to step up and apologize, but in hindsight after that, I felt I should consult with my superior first, because when I did that, indirectly my superior will be caught in the net too and it would be wiser to let the superior know beforehand. Also considering the situation happened before OP even worked there , and the client is acting like that, safer option is preferable, to avoid "landmine" May 21 at 9:44
  • Exactly this. No matter what the OP's level in the organization is, their 'boss' is responsible for its output, no matter the kind. Even if the OP is the 'boss' of that particular section, their 'boss' (or supervisor) would be responsible for ensuring their section is properly working.
    – CGCampbell
    May 21 at 12:55
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    Unless you've already received clear guidance on how to handle angry customers, this is definitely the best approach.
    – barbecue
    May 21 at 16:18
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    I've been in a situation where a client mismanaged their resources and missed a deadline, I apologized on behalf of my company just to be polite and they used that as ammunition to get concessions from my boss. Perhaps sales also promised the impossible. Anyway, lesson learned: if I'm not actually responsible, I pass it up the chain. May 21 at 23:00
  • This might be political. You might not know the details. Let your boss decide.
    – Philippe
    May 23 at 16:05
41

This guy from another organisation got in touch on Monday to request a document that they should have received a year ago, but it doesn't look like it was sent ...

By Tuesday midday I manage to find out it wasn't sent to him and send it over ...

I then get an email from him saying that I should have also said sorry in the email to him and his team for the time they have spent trying to find this. ... with people CC'd in this time and this text added

"I look forward to the apology"

This guy CC'd people asking you to apologise for the fact that it took him over a year to realise he didn't have an email he wanted?

Do Nothing. He's trying to find a scapegoat for his (or his department's) incompetence.

He's shot himself in the foot by doing it in front of others, just leave him be now. He'll keep shooting, probably in the same direction unless someone gives him the new one he's looking for...

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    Great answer. It's not OP's fault they took a year before noticing they didn't have the doc.
    – user20925
    May 21 at 7:51
  • "Do Nothing" - well, obviously you should send him the document. He might not have a leg to stand on when it comes to the delay or the apology, but it appears the document itself should be delivered without undue delay.
    – MSalters
    May 21 at 13:49
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    @MSalters It's already been sent... The OP wrote: I manage to find out it wasn't sent to him and send it over with an email written as I usually would.
    – ColleenV
    May 21 at 16:40
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    "it took him over a year to realise he didn't have an email he wanted" - from my reading of the OP, it's not clear whether that is what happened. OP doesn't mention any follow-up in between the original request and now, but also doesn't say there wasn't follow-up. May 21 at 22:24
30

Unless you're the manager of the person who made the mistake, it's not your place to apologise.

It's a very unusual demand to make with no other motive. So don't take it at face value, and don't overstep your actual responsibilities in a potential conflict. It could be an attempt to make your org take responsibility for their error, a year is a long time to just realise you need a document.

It's unprofessional for someone from another organisation to demand an apology. You have 3 options.

Make an apology which is not something you should do and isn't really part of your role. Admitting culpability on your departments behalf should not be done, you don't have the authority for that and there may be issues that you're unaware of that will have wider impacts such as budget disputes.

Ignore it, which would be my most probable response since I have already discharged my duties and have zero interest in the blame game.

Forward it to your superiors to deal with, which kind of implies there's actually an apology due. Which perhaps there is, but it wasn't your error in the first instance, so your superior should clear that up, not you.

Any time there is a conflict with people outside your team your superior should be in the loop, and usually they should be dealing with it.

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    +1 for option 2 (ignore it). OP sent the document, so their job is done. No further response is necessary.
    – user20925
    May 21 at 7:58
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    "Unless you're the manager of the person who made the mistake, it's not your place to apologise." It depends more on the relationship between the two organisation and the role of OP in that relationship than on whose to blame. In the context of a Provider to Customer Relationship for example, it's not uncommon (and even expected) for a Customer Service Representative to apology on behalf of the company. More generally, if one is the single point of contact with another organisation, it would be in his role to apology on behalf of his own organisation.
    – zakinster
    May 21 at 8:17
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    @zakinster no it wouldn't, OP just does admin work, and it's govt organisations. The inter-organisation politics can be intense and the OP has no authority to be representing without clearance. Inter-organisation conflicts should escalate to at least one level higher if not more.
    – Kilisi
    May 21 at 8:19
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    I can't agree with this. Apologizing is the primary lubricant of customer service interactions when there has been a problem. It doesn't come at a significant cost, when done properly; it simply makes nice. I spent most of my retail management career apologizing for things that had nothing to do with me or my department, but made someone feel bad, and it made things so much easier.
    – Joe
    May 21 at 15:05
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    I love this answer, though I'd favor forwarding it on to the boss rather than ignoring it. It could be something the boss would like a heads-up about (e.g. if it was a sign of impeding litigation, better to know sooner rather than later). If OP ignores the email and doesn't forward it to anyone, then OP is effectively giving the customer the cold shoulder on behalf of the company, which sounds like a bad move. Better to pass it up the chain to those with the need to know and the authority to act.
    – bob
    May 21 at 19:11
13

Look at it from his perspective, with the information available to him:

  • His org needed this document.
  • Your org didn't deliver it, for more than a year. Presumably that caused them some inconvenience.
  • When this came to your attention, you didn't send an apology for something which - as you've acknowledged - does merit an apology.

It's quite understandable that he would be unhappy about this. From where he stands, he has no idea that the lack of apology was just an oversight. (And even if it was, well, this is the second oversight he's experienced from your department, so he might be starting to think that y'all could afford to be a bit more meticulous.)

Was his follow-up email a good way to deal with that unhappiness? Definitely not. Sounds like he let his annoyance triumph over his professionalism.

You now have the choice about whether you want to let your own annoyance at his follow-up triumph over your professionalism, and get into a game of Unprofessionalism Ping-Pong, or to apologise on behalf of your department and put things back on a more productive footing.

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  • "your org didn't deliver it for a year" Another answer makes a valid point: There's two sides to the agreement. Why is it the OPs sole responsibility? Where's the apology from the other side for missing THEIR side of the agreement for a year? I'm all for remaining professional but if I don't send something that another expects (and it happens), I get follow up emails within days... not years...
    – WernerCD
    May 22 at 0:14
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    @WernerCD It's not clear to me from the OP that the other side didn't attempt follow-up. It doesn't say either way - and given the circumstances, it's possible that the OP might not be aware if they did follow up. (Even if they didn't, my answer stands: it's generally a bad idea to meet unprofessionality with unprofessionality.) May 22 at 1:44
5

Is it reasonable to apologise on behalf of my department for a mistake when I don't feel I should?

It depends on the relationship between the two organisations and your role in that relationship.

In the case of a Customer to Provider relationship and if you have a Customer Service Representative role, then yes it would be definitly your responsibility to apology. But you would not apology for yourself, you would apology on behalf of your organisation.

In the case of a Partner to Partner relationship and if you have a "single point of contact" role for that other organisation, then yes again it would be your responsibility to apology on behalf of your organisation.

In the case of two departments that are part of the same larger organisation, there may not be a single point of contact between the two organisation and it may not be clear whose responsibility it is to apology.

If you are unsure about your role and responsibility in this matter and if you fear further communication presents a risk for your organisation (faux pas which leads to escalation, admission of guilt, etc.) then forward the exchange to who is responsible for the relationship (in doubt, your boss) and let them handle it.

Otherwise, don't take it personal, just apology politely and move on.

In any case, don't ignore them unless you know what you are doing and you have the authority to do so, otherwise it could be considered highly unprofessional and may backfire on you.

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I suggest to invest zero energy in that kind of situation.

It is costing more to fight for something without any gain, it can embarrass your boss or your team.

I recommend to write a very short: "I am sorry, have a great day!" then move on another task or end your day.

It is a bonus for you if it also diffuse the tension of some members of other departments.

And externally, somebody putting CC peoples and asking for apologies seems a jerk wanting excuse itself not doing any follow-up for one year.

2

In order to solve the conflict you should apologise in the terms that they would like. Despite the fact you are no the person responsible for the mistake, the longer the issue is taking with back and forward emails the worst.

Sometimes we just need to get thru it. This will make your image stronger, it will show you are capable to take the bullets

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An apology isn't about the other person, it's about you, or in this case, the department.

In general, you make an apology because you, after the fact, recognize you did something wrong or inappropriate, or failed to do something you should've done, or due to your actions inadvertently have harmed others. Whether or not the other person "deserves" it, isn't even a factor. It's about you recognizing you did something that went against your better judgment and your particular standards of behavior.

In this case, your apology is on behalf of the department, so that apology isn't personal, but the rest still stands. If your department failed to do something it should have, or did something wrong it shouldn't have, an apology is in order. Regardless of the other party's actions.

So yes, it's up to you, (read: your department), to decide whether you did or did not do all the things necessary to serve the customer properly.

An apology is about respecting yourself, and through that, respecting other people. The other person could be the most awful, annoying, or evil person ever, but if you recognize you acted outside your own boundaries of what you think is proper, that's when an apology is in order.

1

In a situation like this, a dissertation or an explanation as to what happened or what transpired is preferable. Being transparent with the customer would be better than fake apologies or fake emotions of guilt.

I would respond as such:

Thanks for getting in touch. We've now sent the file upstream and were able to discover a root cause for why the file didn't make its way. We established within the team that a process malfunctioned, and this caused the file to not be sent. We have a task in our backlog to address the fact that we were not notified about this, since a file not being sent for over a year is quite a big deal, and we would like to be sure that it can't happen again.

We thank you for your patience and understanding as we work through addressing this issue.

This accomplishes a few things:

  • Gets to the heart of the problem - a process failed.
  • Shows attention to the commitment of the team to rectify the failed process (e.g. monitoring on the backend or something).
  • Requests the customer's understanding and patience while working through the issue. Shows compassion about the situation without faking a promise.

Overall if the issue is a process and not people, then the process is at fault and the process needs to be corrected. You can't demand an apology out of a machine, no matter how one tries.

Now if the customer remains insistent on an apology, this is when you should escalate it to your manager or whomever's responsible for communicating with stakeholders. At this point they're clearly looking for someone's head, and you shouldn't volunteer yours or your team's.

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    While this is a detailed answer, IMO it goes into too much detail. In this instance it probably isn't necessary to tell the "customer" all that. Your answer would be something I'd expect from Netflix when they have an outage that affects half their user base. In this case, a simple "We apologize for our mistake" is probably more than sufficient.
    – joeqwerty
    May 21 at 0:11
  • @joeqwerty: A whole year to wait for some data is a long time. I don't disagree with the notion that "we apologize for the mistake" is bringing, but it was also an entire year.
    – Makoto
    May 21 at 20:26
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    True, but the person asking for the apology apparently isn't asking for an explanation. They're asking for an apology, which is exactly what I'd give them. If they ask for an explanation then the OP can escalate appropriately.
    – joeqwerty
    May 21 at 20:41
1

This would be my response:

I apologize for my department. This was totally unacceptable.

If you have any further issues. You can contact me directly at xxx-xxx-xxxx ext. xxx

Thank you

In other words, you reassure the person with an apology, your contact information, and the implied promise that this won't happen again.

(as a side note I wasn't with the organisation then, it was a coworker that dropped the ball but I chose not to drop them in it)

Sure, you don't need to point fingers at anyone in particular, but nor should you be the one to fall on your sword either.

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    This comes off as, what is proverbially called, "dry snitching". Snitching on the other people in your department without naming them directly. "It wasn't me" is akin to throwing the rest of your team under the bus. It makes the rest of the team suspect in the eyes of the customer and doesn't instill confidence in the customer that this won't happen again. This isn't the approach I would take. Sometimes you need to fall on the sword for your team. Doing that as succinctly and simply as possible is probably best.
    – joeqwerty
    May 21 at 3:49
  • @joeqwerty, Ok fine. I've removed the middle part. May 21 at 4:27
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Your job isn't to apologise, your job is to do your job.

I don't know what you sent in your email; the correct content would be "I am resending the information that you requested". You are resending it. No idea why he doesn't have it in his hands, maybe it wasn't sent, maybe it wasn't even requested, maybe your mail server played up, maybe he lost it, doesn't matter - you are resending it, so now he has it. There is no acknowledgement that you did anything wrong, therefore no reason to apologise for anything.

If you admitted a fault of your department in your email, like "someone here messed this up", that's bad. Apologise. If not, don't admit any mistake and don't apologise. But I recommend that you check with your manager first, because admitting to mistakes could be politically damaging for your department.

Instead of apology, you might send an email to everyone encluding to the cc'd saying "The document has been sent, please inform me when you receive it to avoid it getting lost again". After asking your manager. It shows that you take the matter serious, that you really care that it arrives, and it is a subtle and unprovable dig that they might have lost the first one. And again, after checking what you said in your first email. If you wrote "we didn't send it", bad. If you wrote "I can't find any evidence that it was sent", not quite as bad.

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Tl;DR

Is it reasonable to apologise on behalf of my department for a mistake when I don't feel I should?

Yes.


Is it reasonable to apologize to this specific loon? Also yes.

I would find the email which you most recently sent; the one before the loon started demanding an apology, reply to your own email, and write something along the lines of:

Hi Guy,

I just wanted to formally apologize for this mishap. We've addressed this issue with the appropriate parties on our end.

Please extend this apology to all who were inconvenienced on your team.

Best regards, MonkeyZeus


If you're not comfortable with the approach above then reply-all to their latest email and simply go:

Hi Guy

My apologies for this delay.

Thank you

If they press for anything further then you can safely ignore their emails about this situation.

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