Apologize When You Make a Mistake


I’ve written on a couple of occasions about apologies (see here and here). In one post, I said that lawyers often don’t recommend apologies because of the potential legal risk.

But when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Sometimes, an apology is the best solution.

United logoTwo situations have been in the news recently which have caused public relations disasters. In one, United Airlines bumped a man from his seat on a flight because the airline needed the seat to transport crew to another airport to fly another plane. The passenger refused to deplane, and he was injured when airport security physically removed him.

The United Airlines CEO apologized, but his apology was deemed insincere.

Sean_Spicer_(32293609264)_(cropped)

Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

In the second situation, Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary, compared Assad of Syria to Hitler, but said that while Assad had gassed his people, Hitler had not—obviously forgetting the millions of people Hitler had gassed in concentration camps.

Mr. Spicer apologized, but his apology was deemed insufficient.

Mr. Spicer’s error was a mistake of fact. He knows full well—and he should have remembered—that Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust. I’m not a Trump fan, nor a Spicer fan, and I cringed when I heard Mr. Spicer’s remark. But I assume his mind deserted him for a moment. Within hours he apologized for his mistake.

In my opinion, that should be the end of the story. But opponents of the Trump Administration do not seem willing to let it go. How can anyone forget the Holocaust? they ask. Well, people’s brains do stupid stuff sometimes. Hasn’t yours?

Shouldn’t we be forgiven our stupidity?

In my opinion, the United Airlines situation is the harder case. This was not a simple error of fact. It was a matter of corporate policy—United bumps passengers when their seats are needed for smooth operation of the airline. And airlines are permitted by law to physically remove passengers from airplanes when the passengers are argumentative or combative.

But somehow, humanity got lost in this situation. A doctor in his sixties, who said he needed to see patients the next day, who had paid for a ticket and had a valid boarding pass, and who was already seated in his assigned seat, was injured when he protested the airline’s random revocation of his seat assignment. (I’ve read conflicting reports on whether United had the right to bump someone who was not technically on an “overbooked” flight.)

Then the CEO said the airline would “re-accommodate” the passenger. This word choice was unfortunate—the man had not been accommodated in the first place, so how could he be re-accommodated? How would “re-accommodation” help his injuries? In addition, the initial corporate statement blamed the passenger for being disruptive.

I think back to the post I wrote about a 2012 post in Contented Cows, in which the author stated that when you need to take accountability for a mistake, you should

  • Apologize quickly and without excuses or weasel words, and
  • Clean up the mess you made.

In this case, Sean Spicer apologized directly, without much in the way of weasel words, though he perhaps tried to explain himself too much. He is trying to clean up the mess he made, and we should allow him to do so.

By contrast, United Airlines made excuses, used weasel words, and shifted the blame in its initial attempt to apologize. It will probably take them a long time to clean up the mess they made.

When have you had to apologize? How well do you think you handled it?

 

 

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