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How to Apologize for a Mistake Professionally at Work (With Examples)

Things can go wrong at work, but saying sorry — and how you say it — when it’s your fault makes a difference. Here’s how to apologize professionally for a mistake at work.
by Vanessa Gibbs | Feb 14 2024
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Table of contents

How to Apologize for a Mistake at Work
Should You Apologize for a Work Mistake by Email or in Person?
Examples of How to Apologize Professionally for a Mistake at Work
How Do You Apologize for a Minor Mistake?
When Should You Not Apologize at Work?
 
We’ve all been there. Making a mistake at work is almost a rite of passage. Perhaps you missed a deadline for a report, forgot an important slide in a presentation, or replied all to an email thread with a joke about your boss.

Either way, once you’ve made a mistake, saying sorry, and saying it the right way, can make all the difference. When you apologize for a mistake at work professionally, you may even gain more respect from people by owning up to your mistake and taking responsibility for it.

Here’s our guide to how to apologize for a mistake at work.

How to Apologize for a Mistake at Work 

Let’s start with tips for crafting the perfect apology.

1. Say You’re Sorry 

Saying the words “I’m sorry” is hard. It can feel like you’re admitting you did something on purpose or that you’re underperforming in some way. But actually saying you’re sorry is a key part of your apology.

You don’t want to sound like you’re blaming someone else or dodging the responsibility. Kick off your apology with the most important part: the actual apology.

Even when you do use the words “I’m sorry,” but sure to avoid the phrases:

  • I’m sorry if I upset you.
  • I’m sorry, but it wasn’t my fault.
  • I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean it.

Deliver a sincere apology and don’t shift the blame. Try these phrases instead:

  • I’m sorry I upset you. That was never my intention, but I can see how my message came across that way.
  • I’m sorry I missed the deadline.
  • I want to apologize for the mix-up this morning.

Related: What to Do After Making a Mistake at Work: A 6-Step Plan

 

2. Accept your mistake

Don’t just say you’re sorry and leave it there. Explain what exactly you’re apologizing for and what went wrong, if applicable. Don’t try to blame too many external factors, however. You still want to take responsibility for your mistake.

But, by admitting what happened, you’re showing you’re not just blindly saying sorry and hoping it will all blow over soon — you’re acknowledging your part in the mistake.

So, instead of “I’m sorry,” try “I’m sorry for…” or “I want to apologize for…”

For example:

  • I’m sorry for my behavior earlier. I was out of line to snap at you like that in the meeting.
  • I’m sorry for missing the deadline for the sales report.
  • I want to apologize for getting the budget figures mixed up.

 

3. Acknowledge responsibility and provide a solution

You need to show you’ve learned from the mistake and you’ll do everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And get specific here. If you missed a deadline because you didn’t notice the due date was so close, say how you’ll start implementing a buffer into your workflow and getting reports done a few days early from now on.

Or if you snapped at a colleague during a stressful meeting, say how you’ll be working on your anger management and talking to your boss about reducing your workload so you can better manage your stress levels.

If it’s a problem that can be fixed, think about solutions for how you can make it right and share these in your apology. Perhaps this includes reaching out to an external client, editing a report, or rearranging a meeting.

4. Keep it Short 

Apologies don’t need to be long. Your boss, colleagues, or clients don’t have the time to read a long-winded email or sit on the phone for 20 minutes while you go into every detail of your mistake.

You don’t want to take up too much time with your apology, especially if you need to get to fixing what went wrong.

But there is a balance to strike, here. Too short and your apology won’t look sincere.

If you’re sending an apology email, a few lines should be enough.

If you’re speaking to someone face-to-face, your apology should only take a few minutes. Just be sure that it doesn’t feel rushed.

5. Apologize immediately

A late apology is almost as bad as no apology at all. It looks like you weren’t prepared to apologize and were pushed into it, or buckled with guilt at the last minute.

You should apologize as soon as you realize your mistake. Take a few minutes to brainstorm how you can fix the mistake and what the implications will be, and then reach out to the right people to deliver your apology.

Should You Apologize for a Work Mistake by Email or in Person? 

One part of crafting the perfect apology is choosing how exactly you’ll deliver it.

In most cases, giving an apology in person is best. Schedule a meeting with your boss or affected colleagues, or ask to set up a call with a client or customer. If you work remotely, consider setting up a call or Zoom meeting to apologize.

The best way to deliver an in-person apology is in private. Avoid doing it in front of the whole office, which will only make things awkward and won’t give the recipient a chance to share their feelings if they wish to do so.

Saying sorry to their face may be awkward, but it’ll come across as more sincere. They’ll be able to see your facial expressions, hear your tone of voice, and respond immediately with their reaction — which will probably be a positive one as you’ve taken to time to apologize in person!

For minor mistakes, like being slightly late one day or having to rearrange a meeting, you probably don’t need to set up a face-to-face meeting to apologize, though. An email is probably more appropriate in these cases.

Related: How to Apologize via Email

Examples of How to Apologize Professionally for a Mistake at Work 

Want to see what a good workplace apology looks like? Here are some for every scenario.

How to apologize to your boss:

If you’re feeling a bit anxious about how to say sorry to your boss after a slip-up at work, there’s a great article that can really help out. It’s called “How to Apologize to Your Boss: Tips for Professional Apologies,” and it’s like a step-by-step guide for making things right in a professional way. The article breaks down the best times to apologize, why it’s important, and how to do it effectively, with real-life examples to show you how it’s done. It’s super useful and takes a lot of the guesswork out of the process.

Here’s an example:

Hi Sarah, thanks for taking the time to meet with me one-on-one. I want to apologize for messing up the sales pitch this morning. I’ve been so focused on the re-org, I’d forgotten to prepare, and instead of highlighting that and allowing someone else to step in, I stumbled through — and I know I blew this account for us. I’m going to stay on top of my calendar better in the future to make sure this doesn’t happen again. If there’s anything I can do to make things right with the client, please let me know. 

 

How Do You Apologize for a Minor Mistake? 

Sometimes you need to apologize for something minor — perhaps you’re 10 minutes late to a call or you need to push back a deadline. These kinds of apologies usually don’t need to be so big.

Simply saying “I’m sorry” can work in some situations and providing a short reason is useful in others.  It can be useful to write “I apologize for the mistake and the inconvenience”, but be careful in case it comes off as passive aggressive.

For example:

  • I’m sorry I’m late, my laptop decided to disconnect from my headphones. I’m ready to jump right into the meeting now if you are.
  • I’m sorry for the late notice, but would we be able to push this meeting back until Tuesday? I’ve got a report due by the end of the day that I need to focus on this afternoon.
  • Apologies all, I attached last quarter’s marketing plan instead of the new one. Please find the correct document attached.

But sometimes, you’re just in the right and don’t need to say sorry. “How to Stop Apologizing” by the Blinkist Curators is a great read for anyone looking to break free from the over-apology loop. It’s packed with insights on enhancing your confidence and honing your communication skills, both at work and in everyday life.

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How to Apologize Professionally in an Email? 

Need to send an apology email at work but not sure how to get it right? Don’t worry, it’s simpler than you think. Here’s a quick rundown on nailing that apology:

  1. Short and Sweet: A couple of lines that say you’re sorry and explain your plan to fix things are perfect. Long emails can be a bit too much.
  2. Send it to the Right People: Think about who should receive your apology. It could be just one person, your whole team, or maybe you need to include your boss or someone else’s manager.
  3. Give It Its Own Space: Write your apology in a separate email. Mixing it with other work stuff doesn’t really show you’re serious about saying sorry. Plus, it’s easier for the person to reply when they’re not distracted by other topics.

And if you want more tips on crafting a great apology email, there’s an article that covers everything: How to Apologize Via Email: A Professional Guide to Saying Sorry. It’s got examples and more advice to make sure your apology hits the right note.

When Should You Not Apologize at Work? 

While owning up to your mistakes is almost always a good idea, you shouldn’t apologize for every tiny thing you do wrong. You’ll only look unprofessional and lacking in confidence.

Apologize for big mistakes, of course, but avoid saying sorry for things like:

  • Asking for clarification on something.
  • Giving feedback to colleagues or direct reports.
  • Taking a sick day.
  • Using your vacation days.
  • Taking an appropriate amount of time to respond to an email.
  • Asking someone to do something that’s part of their job description.
  • Asking for a raise or a promotion.

Instead of apologizing in these situations, ask politely and professionally for what you need.

If you have made a tiny mistake, consider saying “thanks for spotting that” or “great catch” instead of “I’m sorry.”

Now you know how to say sorry at work, it’s time to craft your apology and make amends. Remember: keep it short, say the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize,” and share how you’ll make sure the mistake won’t happen again. Most of the time, people will acknowledge the guts it takes to own up to your mistake and respect you even more for not shying away from it.

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