What a good company apology actually looks like

Good leaders who understand their corporate responsibility know when to break away from what is risky to do what is right.

After bad news hits, a company’s public statement is where companies can convince us of their mea culpas and of what on Earth they were thinking when they made the decision earning them bad press. Many times, we do not buy it. A June survey of Facebook, Uber, and Wells Fargo corporate apologies found that less than 35% of people who viewed the companies’ penitent ads actually accepted their apologies.

Even when the bad news does not directly involve the company, the company’s response still matters. A company’s silence on immigration policies and national politics can have unseen effects on company morale. Too often, companies are silent. They become ostriches sticking their heads in the sand, deciding they have no role in whatever is happening outside. 

Nicole Sanchez’s job is to help businesses go beyond silence and “that’s not my problem.” As a lecturer on workplace diversity at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who has served as Vice President of Social Impact at GitHub, Nicole Sanchez is the founder of Vaya Consulting where she teaches business leaders how to demonstrate care to their employees when they face internal and external crises. She talked with Ladders on how companies can do a public apology the right way:

1. Have a human say the apology

We have all read a robotic public statement from a leader that was obviously written by a public relations team.

“The bare minimum that we’re looking for is that the statement comes from an actual human,” Sanchez says.

Some companies do not even meet this basic standard. In November, the embattled movie subscription service MoviePass sent an apologetic email to users over retooling its business model through a dog named Chloe. “From time to time you may have had a ‘ruff’ experience,” the dog said. If business leaders want audiences to accept their apologies, they need to first own up to apologizing through a human voice.

2. Own the apology 

Once you get a real human to voice the apology, you must act human and treat the apology with the severity it deserves. “You have to share in people’s disgust that this is happening and communicate that you share the disgust. Otherwise, you sound like someone who is covering something up,” Sanchez says.

The good apology starts with saying sorry without qualifiers. “I am so sorry. Period. That’s it. Not I’m so sorry that you interpreted it that way,” Sanchez says. “Not I am so sorry you were sensitive.”

A good apology is not “sorry” with the padding of “for the offense it caused.” Next time you are scanning a company’s mollifying statement, look for the words, “I’m sorry” to be stated without amendment.

3. State how the business will be held accountable 

Apologies do not end after saying “sorry.” After the words of contrition comes the work of accountability of how you the business leader will stop the problem causing an apology from happening again.

“I would like to see more executives take a personal stand and use their own authentic words, not only to apologize, but to say ‘here’s what we are doing now,’ ” Sanchez said. “Apologies are often backward-looking. Everything is in the passive voice. ‘Mistakes were made.’ And you go, and ‘who is being held accountable?’ ”

For the type of apology made after workers are treated badly, you can look at Google CEO’s Sundar Pichai’s apology as one where more could be done. Pichai reportedly issued an internal memo after a New York Times report found an executive got a $90 million exit package despite a sexual harassment claim. In the apology, Pichai said that he was “deeply sorry for the past actions” and noted that 48 people had been fired over the past two years without getting an exit package.

It is good to acknowledge that you are sorry, but you can be better if you own up to the main story of sexual harassment over the side issue of who got an exit package. “They go for the technicalities and try and discredit activists on the technicalities instead of going for the root of the issue. The story is: Stop the behavior happening in this company,” Sanchez says about this sidestep.

The lesson? A better apology does not focus on technicalities like who did or did not get an exit package, it focuses on how the company will stop the problem.

4. State what you will do moving forward 

Many times, apologetic companies are not transparent about how exactly they are going to be better. That obfuscation is by design. “In my experience as a tech executive,” Sanchez says, “You have a lot of people who are incentivized to mitigate risk in your ear saying, ‘Don’t make this promise because if we then can’t do it someone will come back and sue us. Don’t use that word because the press will throw it back in our face six months later if we are unable to do it.'”

But good leaders who understand their corporate responsibility know when to break away from what is risky to do what is right. Sanchez outlines a template of how an apology with future accountability could be done in a statement like: “I am so sorry. It is clear that this has been happening. This has now become my number one priority to figure out how we got to this point and to bring our resources to bear on ensuring a safe workplace for everyone. Moving forward, what we are doing is elevating the people who deal in workplace complaints. They are now directly reporting to me.”

Elevating the position signals that this is a high priority for the company’s decision makers. Leaders can also be transparent by saying that they will be meeting with the people involved regularly about the problem’s progress. Or they can do Uber did and bring in people like former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder after their scandal to investigate what went wrong.

You can be open that you do not have all the answers, but as a leader, you have to publicly commit to making the change. The goal is for the company to signal that they are living up to their new values and are taking the charges seriously. Employees and outsiders will start to believe the apology once these new values are shown.

“I think companies want too much credit for simply issuing a statement when lots of people were hurt,” Sanchez says. “That’s not where the gold stars are going to come from. They are going to come from people inside the company, saying, ‘Oh it really is changing.’ From folks observing that change. And they are going to come from the leader saying here’s the progress we’ve made, here’s what was harder than we thought, but we are honest about making improvements.”

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.