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This morning I ended up missing a teleconference that I regularly host with two peers on another continent. I was doing research and lost track of time. I rely heavily on my Outlook notifications but I turned them off at some point for this series of occurences. Regardless of the reason this was an obnoxious error on my part. Without a doubt an apology was in order and the below apology has been sent.

I am very sorry for missing the meeting today. I just realized that recently my outlook has not given me a reminder notice for our meetings as this feature was turned off. I rely heavily on this feature as I get so engrossed in what I’m doing that I lose track of time.

I sincerely value our weekly meeting and appreciate your contributions to this project. I apologize for wasting your time and have taken steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again by turning the reminder notification on.

This got me thinking. In the workplace effectively acknowleding when you drop the ball is a crucial skill. What are the keys to a good apology? Does it change if the apology is directed to a manager/peer/subordinate?

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Your apology needs a little work. First, it has passive tense in it: this feature was turned off. Part of apologizing is owning your mistakes. Second, it has too much detail, they don't really care why you missed it. The reason you missed it is it wasn't top priority in your mind and you got caught up with something else. Third, you wait too long to address the emotional aspects of your error, putting it after your detailed technical explanation that implies it wasn't your fault.

A good apology:

  • starts with "sorry" or "I apologize" and then immediately states the action and the meaning of that action

My apologies for missing our meeting today. I realize I must have wasted your time while you waited for me, and possibly delayed the project.

  • goes on to clarify the emotions involved

I sincerely value our weekly meeting and appreciate your contributions to this project.

  • optionally explains how it happened, retaining ownership of your mistakes

I was a little too enthusiastic with a new no-interruptions approach, so my technology didn't remind me of the meeting

  • closes by just assuring that it won't happen again, or detailing steps you're taking to prevent it from happening again

I will make sure not to suppress reminders about this meeting in future.

That said, this is an overapology for missing a meeting. I would not send this email to be filed and referred to later. Instead, I would call each person as soon as I realized what happened and say

I've just realized I missed our meeting this morning! I'm so sorry. Is there anything urgent we need to cover before the next meeting? I'll make myself available whenever you need to talk.

Generally you will have to work extra to make up for this, and that's as it should be.

  • It's a bit bigger than an in person missed meeting. As the host if I'm not there the other parties are waiting on a blank line until I show up or they give up. Also these peers are assisting and supporting my project with little to no gain for themselves or their home site so IMO it's assenine to fail to be ready to receive help that you ask for. Other than that, nice answer. How do you decide on the "optionally explain how it happened"? – Myles Sep 24 '14 at 16:07
  • I decide whether or not to explain why it happened based on whether they are likely to "get it" and identify with me over it. Car trouble, power outage and other unavoidable things are great reasons to mention. Technical details or your own personality traits are not. Anything that sounds like a flimsy excuse is not. – Kate Gregory Sep 24 '14 at 16:12
  • Isn't sounding flimsy pretty subjective on the audience? This is between a group of engineers so I would assume that the technical details would definitely be something they "get" (and probably expect). – Myles Sep 24 '14 at 16:21
  • for sure. There's no recipe you can follow absolutely, there's always your judgement. But remember they can always ask for details, or even just "but how did this happen?" if they care. – Kate Gregory Sep 24 '14 at 16:31
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When it comes to apologies, I tend to call the offended parties instead of emailing. Two reasons - a call is more personal and it (usually) doesn't get recorded. Last thing you want is a reminder somewhere that you, one day, dropped the ball.

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    While I tend to agree, in this case calling internationally is probably not best, if they cost the company money. – thursdaysgeek Sep 24 '14 at 15:23
  • More personal I get but not wanting it recorded takes away from the "take accountability for your actions" aspect of an apology. – Myles Sep 24 '14 at 15:26
  • If it is the same company they may have IP phones that won't incur costs. But it is a good point. – user1220 Sep 24 '14 at 15:26
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    @Myles - I disagree. The fact that you called and apologized in my view is taking enough accountability. – user1220 Sep 24 '14 at 15:27
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Your apologies are quick, to the point and leave no room for misunderstanding: just as it is blindingly obvious that you screwed up, it has to be blindingly obvious that you are apologizing. No parsing of the words, no excuses, no escape clauses, no vaseline, no shock absorbers. Go straight to the heart of the matter, and drive that stake into that vampire's heart :)

There are exceptions: I have delivered apologies where I made it clear that the fault wasn't mine and apologies that were non-apologies because I sure as hell wasn't going to take the fall for what somebody outside my command chain did and was liable to do it again.

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