Apology Accepted…Or Not: Handling the Fallout of an Ethical Crisis

So, you’ve blown it…now what? All human beings will at one time in their life, find themselves caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Nobody cares how it got there or why, but simply that it’s there and the hand is connected to you. Red faced and guilty, it’s time to say the two most difficult words in the human language, “I’m sorry.” It’s time for apologies and damage control, but beware, because your troubles have only just begun.

A discussion of business ethics wouldn’t be complete without addressing the aftermath of unethical decisions. In some cases, ethical incrimination leads to swift judgment and you might find yourself looking for another job or facing criminal or civil action. In other cases, some glimmer of hope exists that an apology and appropriate follow-up action on your part might help the situation. Let’s assume that this is the case. How can you say you are sorry and have it mean something?

The most import element in a real apology is meaning and motive. When a child says, “I’m sorry for stealing the candy,” or a politician says, “I’m sorry for the wrong I’ve done,” you are left wondering if he or she is really sorry or merely sorry for getting caught. The fact is, most people can see through phony apologies. Apologies must be sincere and from the heart. Both what you say and how you say it counts. The key to meaningful, serious apologies is the following:


  • Don’t use lawyer language. Keep apologies straight, clean, and in terms real people can understand.
  • Be as specific as possible. General, all-purpose apologies are not taken seriously. Tell people what you’ve done and what you’re apologizing for.
  • Directly address those whom you hurt. Describe how they were harmed. This shows that you truly know the extent of your actions.
  • Avoid excuses. Most people don’t care about “why” you did it because they won’t believe you anyway. Trying to explain your motives gives the appearance of justifying what you did.
  • Avoid the blame game. The act of apologizing is your own personal gesture of responsibility and humility and should not be corrupted with scapegoats.
  • Address what you plan to do in the future to remedy the problem and avoid having it happen again. Be specific. Give the hurt parties assurance that it will not be repeated.
  • Use the most personal medium to say you’re sorry. Call a meeting rather than send an email. Look people in the eye. Let them see the sincerity on your face. People will respect your courage.


Apologies alone don’t heal wounds but serve as a first step in the process of building credibility and reconciliation. Along that road, you must accept the consequences and right the wrongs.

People who believe that moral and ethical choices (even personal choices) don’t have consequences are both naive and selfish. Consequences are a reality of life that should not be avoided. A sincere apology must be met with the courage to accept the consequences for the action. It may hurt. It may even appear that the apology failed to lessen the blow of the consequences, but it doesn’t matter. All those to whom you owed your apology in the first place are cautiously watching how you handle the follow-through. Facing the consequences with courage and maturity will tell everyone that you mean what you said.

The final step in this process is your willingness to make things right. That means you stand by your apology enough to right any wrongs. If you’ve gained something financially you pay it back. If you’ve denied someone else an opportunity, you see that it is remedied. You pick up the phone and call customers who have been shortchanged. Whatever it takes, you commit to going beyond the apology to make things right whatever the cost.

When all is said and done, don’t expect everything to return to normal. The problem with “forgive and forget” is that the forgiveness is easy but the forgetting is hard. Reputation and credibility lost may never be entirely restored, but throughout the whole apology process the actions you take, and the character you show through it, can go a long way to restoring lost trust. Apologizing and picking up the pieces brings business ethics full-circle. A second chance avoiding the cookie jar may be possible. But then again, there’s the brownie tin.