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I've noticed, after working with a coworker for about 18 months now, that he is pretty self-deprecating and apologises all the time for trivial things.

Initially he was pretty new to the workforce (joined the company straight out of university) so I just put it down as him being a beginner. Now it's a year and a half later and he still is writing emails to myself and our superior that make me cringe. He regularly says he has no idea what he's talking about and he apologises profusely for trivial things, even things that are coincidental, or for not knowing what he isn't expected to know.

In my opinion this is unprofessional. I have no problem with admitting I'm wrong or that I don't know something, but to see it done as regularly and profusely as he does makes me cringe. Additionally, if one apologises for everything, then a legitimate apology seems insincere.

To some extent, this is none of my business. How he conducts himself as an employee is not really any of my concern, and to a large extent his apologies and self-deprecation are things that i can ignore. However, I would like to tell him that this behavior can reflect badly on him (in my opinion), but I don't know if this is appropriate at all.

So my question: Is it appropriate to tell my coworker to go easy on the apologies and self-deprecation, or is it none of my business? Any advice on how to have such a conversation would be also appreciated.

The business is located in the USA, since culture is certain to be a factor here. I'm South African and, as far as i know, he is American.

closed as off-topic by Jim G., nvoigt, Richard Says Reinstate Monica, gnat, Rory Alsop Aug 2 '16 at 10:10

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  • 2
    Maybe they're British or Canadian? It could be a cultural thing to keep apologizing for things – Draken Jul 28 '16 at 13:40
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    Could also be that he is lacking self-confidence. You can praise him when he did something well, especially in front of others, to make him feel appreciated so he becomes more sure of his actions and his skills. If you want to go further, maybe suggest a team-building activity to the boss, such as climbing in a ropes course (something like this). Those are great for learning to trust oneself more. – simbabque Jul 28 '16 at 14:07
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    Likely response: "I'm so sorry that I apologize too much!" – user45590 Jul 28 '16 at 14:13
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    @AndreiROM that's aboot it* – undefined Jul 28 '16 at 15:00
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    @AndreiROM Yeah, it's not aboot, it's aboat. – Chris E Jul 28 '16 at 16:11
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Yes - as a person with more experience, if you have a straightforward enough relationship with the apologizer, you can say something. Keep it light, you are not his supervisor. Something like - "you're doing a fine job (if he is), there's no need to apologize when... (insert cases of inappropriate apologies/self-deprecation), when you do it (this much) it can undermine the trust that others put on you".

Or similar...

Do once. If the behavior doesn't change, or if you aren't feeling so comfortable giving the feedback, talk to your supervisor about it, and see if the supervisor is also seeing this. It may also be time for someone in authority to take some action.

On great teams, the manager and the more senior/savvy individual contributors may work in tandem to get a team member through a situation like this.

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If you can do it with tact and not make him feel worse, I don't see any harm in it. Perhaps if you kindly let him know that they'd respect him more if he doesn't apologize for everything. I would try to say things using positive terminology though. Saying "unprofessional" may make him focus on that rather than the positive aspects of not apologizing all the time.

One thing that some people don't consider is that an apology is also technically an admission of fault on some level. Acknowledging what happening and committing to making the situation right is good. Accepting blame can actually come back and bite you in the butt. It's why lawyers don't want you talking to your insurance company (or police) after an accident so you don't say or do anything that might take the blame.

I think they key though is to frame it positively. Many people don't take criticism well so you'll have to be very careful of his feelings and watch for cues that he's not taking it in the way you intend it.

  • It is a different thing to talk to the insurance company or the police. The insurance company wants something that can help build a case to avoid paying indemnity - they are actively antagonists. The police cannot use anything you say in your benefit, only against you. – Mindwin Jul 28 '16 at 15:04
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This person's behavior is a clear sign of a complete lack of self-confidence, either at a personal, or professional level (likely both).

I've known someone like this, and the constant apologizing does start to take a toll after a while. Worse, it builds a very poor impression of this individual.

You could try getting involved and offering some advice. I warn you - from personal experience - that by doing so (being the only one to speak the truth and offer help) you may end up in a situation where heopens up more to you, and comes to you more and more for help.

It's all up to you whether you want to put yourself in that situation.

  • I agree. I think stepping in and helping out is the right thing to do, however, it will likely open the door to this person becoming attached or possibly dependent. Dealing with that is an entirely different WorkPlace question. – Chris G Jul 28 '16 at 23:34
  • @ChrisG I think actual dependence would be rare, even in someone with apparently low self-confidence. It is likely that this person comes to see the OP as a possible mentor of sorts whose judgement he trusts. It can be very rewarding to adopt such a role but Andrei is right in saying that OP shouldn't do so lightly. – Lilienthal Jul 30 '16 at 10:26
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When he starts apologizing, stop him, and let him know that an apology is not necessary and he is doing a fine job

After the first couple of times maybe he will start learning

It sounds like he has good intentions and that he is still learning about this type of thing, so don't hold it against him

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Should I tell my coworker he apologises too much?

No, it's a personal quirk, we all have quirks, some more annoying than others. Just skim through his emails for anything relevant and ignore the rest. He'll either gain self-confidence in time or he won't, it's not up to you to hold his hand.