It’s OK to be sorry…

Legislators in British Columbia proposed a law on Tuesday that would allow companies, government officials and individuals to apologize without making it an admission of liability. So if the law passes, people who make mistakes (you probably know a few) can apologize without fear that it will automatically be used against them as an admission of guilt.

That’s not to say that Canadian people or companies or government entities who commit wrongdoings out of negligence or malevolence won’t be held accountable. But for them and especially for those who genuinely just mess up or even cause danger or difficulty for others through no fault of their own, such a law would make it possible for them to do the right thing.

And doing the right thing makes all the difference to an organization’s reputation. While many organizations and executives who do admit fault and apologize for their transgressions are able to "move on," those who don’t tend to not only prolong, but exacerbate the problem. One needs only to think about Watergate and President Nixon’s inability to apologize for what he himself called a second-rate burglary to remember how important the words, "I’m sorry" can be.

Think about the times you’ve been mad at a spouse or friend, or someone in the public eye for their actions. But when they apologize, the anger pretty much passes. It’s ridiculously simple really. So why shouldn’t we allow it here for our companies, public figures and government? Truth be told, I can’t imagine our legislature or Administration contemplating such a law. Most of them consider themselves infallible, so an apology law would probably seem extraneous to them. Besides, the trial attorney lobby would go into a frenzy.

Still, I applaud the BC legislature for its practicality and common sense, and truly hope that the legislation passes. Maybe some of our nearby states will take notice and consider similar laws. Our government, public figures and corporations — along with the rest of us — can only benefit.

Hat tip to Ann Barlow for sharing this.

8 thoughts on “It’s OK to be sorry…

  1. I believe the concept of the law is, even if something clearly went wrong through some kind of error, e.g., an oil spill, that the apology can’t be used in court against the person or organization.
    As RepMan said — assuming that as long as human beings are involved, there are going to be mistakes — a person or company is more likely to be forgiven and even liked when they apologize. And their reputation will certainly be less negatively affected.

  2. Not necessarily. While an “I’m Sorry” is typically a recognition of responsibility in some fashion, that does not always translate into an admission of guilt. Going back to the medical example, there are many instances where things don’t go as planned in medical treatment, but that does not mean it was the physician’s fault. Aknowledging that something unexpected happened and expressing concern for the patient’s well-being allows the physician to take responsibility as the one in charge of care, but is by no means an admission of guilt.

  3. Correct, but in this situation they are dealing specifically with “I’m sorry” as an admission of guilt/responsibility for a wrongdoing. This law is not applicable to someone who is afraid of saying “I’m sorry you have the flu” or “I’m sorry your car has a flat tire” when they had nothing to do with the problem.

  4. I don’t think that “I’m sorry” is necessarily an admission of guilt. You can be sorry that someone has suffered because of a misunderstanding. You can also be sorry someone is upset regardless of whether something an individual or a company did was wrong. I think people just want the “I’m sorry” as an acknowledgment of empathy…and their feelings.
    In medical situations, you can be sorry that the approach you took didn’t work the way you’d hoped, which doesn’t necessarily mean it was wrong. It could mean that of all the options out there, it was one that didn’t work.
    I think saying “I’m sorry” is a huge step toward mending bridges and avoiding hurt feelings that can lead to lawsuits.

  5. The key to this is that the government says an apology will not be an “admission of liability.” An apology is, by definition, an acknowledgement of guilt, of responsibility for a wrong-doing. I am curious as to how this will be implemented in the BC court system. A simple “The jury will please dismiss the defendants apology.”? Don’t mistake me, I am all for this, and hope the law passes in BC and moves south.

  6. Interesting you should tie this back to physicians, Carl, as this is something my colleagues and I speak about everyday. In so many malpractice cases, lawsuits are a result, not necessarily of an error, but rather of a patient’s desire to have the mistake recognized. A genuine acknowlegement and apology can do wonders to soothe a patient’s anger and avoid a lawsuit. However, it is the specter of that very lawsuit, which leaves physicians fearful of apologizing.
    Not only does this fear prevent doctors from expressing their apologies, it also prevents an open and honest discussion of what went wrong and how to avoid a similar instance in the future, thus perpetuating the problem. If a law were passed in the U.S. similar to the one proposed in Canada, it would do wonders for patient safety, not to mention physician images.

  7. I agree that an apology can go a long way to restoring (and on many occasions protecting) an organisation’s reputation. It is a simple thing that often gets overlooked, perhaps out of fear of a lawsuit. However, I think that as much as the apology itself, it is the act of listening to an individual’s concern that is important. By doing this you ensure that people don’t feel like the only way they can get attention and respect for their problem is through a lawsuit.
    I remember hearing about a hospital in Wisconsin that has made a practice of apologising to patients when mistakes are made. A quick Google search pulled up an interesting article about the benefits of saying you’re sorry. Notably, malpractice claims have been cut almost in half and when errors are not covered up in a blanket of litigious secrecy healthcare professionals can learn from past mistakes (see link).
    If the law is passed in BC I hope it is treated with respect. Organisations must continue to genuinely listen to individual concerns and apologise where appropriate. If the law results in apologies being dished out willy nilly then you diminish the value of all apologies and so you end up back at the beginning where the only way to get attention for your problem is through a law suit.

  8. Having done some work on online crisis management in my previous life, it is important for companies and/or CEOs to address the crisis during unfortunate situations. Saying “I’m Sorry” would do the job – unbelievably simple but often times neglected.