Let’s face it; we all screw up from time to time. We’re humans. It’s part of what we do. Knowing how to display contrition and make amends is a very important skill to have. It allows the wronged party to move past any perceived slight, and more importantly it provides an opportunity for reflection on what caused you to upset another person.
Email is a great medium for this. Although being a bit less personal than a face-to-face conversation, it allows you to compose your thoughts in a way which is unambiguous and direct, and reduces the need to be spontaneous. This makes it ideal for atoning for any sins which you may have committed.
When you start writing your apology, you should think about how you’ll address the person you’re emailing. How you’d open an apology email to your best friend is entirely different to how you would do so if you were emailing your boss.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to imagine that you’re a designer working in the creative industries and you failed to complete a crucial bit of work on time. Your boss — let’s call him Robert Stephenson – is incredibly irate, and he’s threatening to fire you.
You really can’t afford to lose this job, so you’re going to write your boss a sincere email letting him know how remorseful you are, and how you’re going to fix things. Since Robert is someone in a position of authority, you would address him as ‘dear’.
Depending upon your relationship with the recipient, it might be appropriate to use a slightly more informal greeting, such as ‘hey’ or ‘hi’. Despite only consisting a small part of the email, getting this bit right is absolutely vital. Here, you’re showing that you’ve considered who the audience of the email is.
Identifying The Problem
An apology is worthless if it doesn’t identify a problem. Let’s face it; you screwed up and you’re now making up for it. You need to unambiguously make it evident that you know that you understand what went wrong without deflecting blame.
Don’t do this:
I know that I missed a deadline, but it’s not really my fault because I was working on a project with [co-worker] and he took up too much of my time. I’ve been having computer troubles too, and IT haven’t had a look at my machine yet. It’s not really my fault.
Whilst the above might be completely, factually true, it doesn’t show that you’re acknowledging your own responsibility. This is much better:
I know that I missed a deadline. The project I was working on was important, and I know you put a lot of trust in me by giving me the responsibility of completing it to satisfaction. I understand that failing to meet the due-date has resulted in our project being delayed, and that it reflects poorly upon myself and our team.
So, here’s the actual meat of the apology. You need to sincerely show contrition, and as before you need to avoid deflecting responsibility. Use unambiguous, declarative sentences. Write plainly and honestly. Remember, you’re trying to express regret.
I would like to say how incredibly sorry I am that I didn’t meet my obligations and complete my work on time. There’s no excuse that I can possibly make that could justify failing to meet my obligations.
Depending on the reason for why you’re apologizing, you may find yourself needing to make amends. This is an action that would reduce the likelihood of the same mistake happening again. This step is vital, as it shows that you’re eager to move forward and have thought about how you’re going to go about doing that.
Going forwards, I’m going to ensure that if there’s a risk of me missing my deadlines, I’ll either speak to you or put in extra hours outside of office time. I promise that this won’t ever happen again, and I’m taking steps to ensure that this isn’t a repeat occurrence.
Wrapping Things Up
Here’s where you wrap things up. Using the appropriate tone and register, you thank the audience for reading your apology email. You may want to invite them to discuss the contents further, as well as giving them your best wishes.
Thank you for reading my email. If you want to talk about this further, please do not hesitate to get in contact.
Apologizing isn’t one of the most fun activities one can do, but it is something we all eventually have to do. Have you ever apologized by email? How did it go down? Have you got any strategies for apologizing over email? Let me know in the comments below.