How to Apologize for a Mistake at Work (With Examples)
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. You may even gain more respect from people by owning up to your mistake and taking responsibility for it.
Here’s 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.
2. Admit What Happened
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…”
- 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. Say How You’ll Fix it Or What You’ll Do Next Time
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. Be Timely
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.
Examples of How to Apologize for a Mistake at Work
Want to see what a good workplace apology looks like? Here are some for every scenario.
Apologizing to your boss
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.
Apologizing to your colleague
Example 1: Hi Adam, I want to apologize for sending over the wrong figures for the legal report. I’m not sure what happened, but I got the files completely mixed up. I’m planning to spend Friday reorganizing everything so this doesn’t happen again, and in the meantime, I’ve reached out to the legal department personally to explain that this was my mistake, not yours.
Example 2: Hi Marie, I want to apologize for how I spoke to you this morning. I let my anger get the better of me and I should have never taken that out on you. I want you to know I value our working relationship and sincerely hope you can forgive my behavior. I’ll be working on my anger management to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I’m so sorry again.
Apologizing to a direct report
Hi Jane, I want to apologize for not taking the time to listen to you yesterday. I was thinking too much about getting the project done on time and not enough about how I was pushing you to work so much overtime — I’m sincerely sorry for that. I want you to know I’ll be pushing back on tight deadlines like this in the future and I’d love to set up weekly calls where we can discuss your workload going forward.
Apologizing to an external client
Hi Jim, I want to apologize for the misunderstanding. I approved the project last month without getting the go-ahead from the finance department and I’ve now learned we won’t have the budget to go ahead with this until next year. I want to say how sorry I am for jumping the gun. I could blame it on how excited I was to kickstart this project, but really, it comes down to me forgetting to go through the proper channels when making a decision this big. I understand how poorly this reflects on us as a company, but I hope you’ll still be interested in working with us when we can go ahead next year. In the meantime, I’d love to offer you a free one-hour coaching call to make amends. I’m sorry again for the mix-up.
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.
- 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.
How to Apologize Professionally in an Email?
Most of the time, an in-person apology is best, especially if it’s a big mistake. But, if you’re apologizing for something minor or to someone you can’t meet face to face, here’s how to craft the perfect apology email.
1. Keep it Short
This is the key rule for apologies and it applies to email apologies, too. No one wants to open a 1,000-word email apology from someone who has wronged them.
Keep your apology to a few lines maximum and focus on how you’re fixing the problem or how you’ll make sure the mistake won’t happen again.
2. Send it to the Right People
If you’ve wronged one person in particular, you should obviously send your apology email to them. But there may be mistakes where you need to say sorry to your entire team, you may be apologizing to an external contact and want to cc in your boss, or you may be saying sorry to a colleague on a different team and want to include their manager.
3. Make it a Separate Email
Don’t bundle your apology into an email in which you also ask for the latest sales figures and to set up a call next Monday. It won’t look like you’re taking your apology seriously.
Take the time to send a separate email dedicated to your apology and nothing else. This will also give the recipient a chance to reply about this situation without any other work demands getting in the way.
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.