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Corporate apologies: Beware the pitfalls of saying sorry

Posted By Laurie A. Pehar Borsh, Wednesday, November 11, 2015



We are very excited to have Jeffrey Pfeffer as one of the HR West keynotes for 2016. We plan share a lot more of his thought leadership within the months leading up to HR West (March 7-9, 2016). The article we are featuring on the HR+ blog this week, was originally published on Fortune (October 26, 2015). Pfeffer's new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, is available now!Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time


Apologies are in the air these days. In October 2015, outgoing Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley took responsibility for the consumer product giant’s weak performance at the company’s annual meeting and promised improvements. United’s new (and currently sidelined) CEO Oscar Munoz apologized to the company’s employees and passengers for its poor treatment of them. Pope Francis apologized—again—for the scandals bedeviling the Catholic church. Volkswagen apologized for selling cars with software designed to defeat pollution control regulations. And more than a year ago, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, “gave a full-throated apology for the defect-and-recall disaster” arising from flawed ignition switches.

Virtually every company and person is, at some point, going to screw up. So the question becomes, if, and how, you should apologize. As for the first issue, to apologize or not, conventional wisdom in public relations says to apologize whenever a company or person makes a mistake. But holding aside the fact that apologies sometimes seem like admissions of blame, leading lawyers to counsel against apologizing to reduce potential liability, there are other considerations that also make the choice less straightforward.

Why apologize?

The archetypical example of admitting blame and moving on is Tylenol. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol from stores after seven people died from taking cyanide-laced capsules. Although the recall cost the company $100 million, Johnson & Johnson’s stock price—and Tylenol’s market share—soon recovered. In drawing lessons from this story, people sometimes overlook a few important and unique facts. First, the company was not responsible for the product tampering, which could not have been reasonably anticipated. Second, the solution to the problem—creating tamper-evident packaging—was clear. So J & J was able to get the problem behind it and do so in a way that did not embarrass the company or its employees.

Apologies do seem to make recovering from errors easier and less expensive. For instance, research shows that physician apologies for medical errors reduce the likelihood of litigation and decreases the average payout by $32,000

Kennedy School lecturer Barbara Kellerman, in discussing when to apologize, makes two important points. First, when someone is wronged, even unintentionally, they expect an apology as a way of obtaining a least some measure of justice. Unfortunately, in today’s world, everyone apologizes all the time. Therefore, they may not be as effective because talk is cheap and people expect actions, not just words, to ensure that the behavior doesn’t happen again.

But second, when companies and their leaders apologize, they are speaking not just to wronged or potentially harmed people, but also to other constituencies, including their employees, shareholders, and their boards of directors. That makes apologizing much trickier. In saying sorry, a leader is potentially undercutting employees’ feelings of pride in the institution and their attachment to the company and its work.

The case for not apologizing ...continue reading this article on >>

A;so connect with Jeffrey Pfeffer here:



Tags:  apology  ceo  effective leadership  HR West 2016  Jeffrey Pfeffer  leaders  managers  NCHRA 

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