Every word counts when saying sorry

Sydney Boys Grammar School recently made a public apology to a former student who had been the victim of sexual abuse by a former teacher.

Published in Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September 2019

What was striking about this particular public apology was that the school focused on the bravery of the victim in coming forward and gave the victim well deserved praise for having the courage to speak up. The school acknowledged that the victim’s courageous action would have prevented further victims of abuse.

How, when and who you apologise to matters

We can tell instantly whether an apology is genuine or a shallow attempt to minimise damage and redirect public vitriol in another direction.

What we know for sure when it comes to apologies is that what can be intended to have one impact can have the opposite if you are treating it like a public relations exercise.

From #MeToo to child sexual abuse allegations, or from corporate malfeasance through to environmental breaches, we frequently see apologies (or worse, non-apology apologies) being made. Some appear genuine expressions of regret and give you the sense the person issuing the apology actually means it. Other apologies are conditional or seem to have been written by a person fearful of saying too much and incurring additional liability.

If you are going to make an apology, make sure it is a good one.

Words matter

The specificity with which Sydney Boys Grammar apologised to their former student made it a powerful example of a meaningful apology and hopefully may set a benchmark for future apologies of this kind. It had the additional benefit of making it much more likely in the future that other victims will come forward and rightfully expect to be believed, supported and treated with respect.

Whether this particular apology was court ordered or not, or whether the apology was too long delayed or not, it is not possible to know. It also goes without saying that the situation should never arise where any such apology should ever be needed. However the actual wording of this apology made it stand out from so many others like it and serves as a valuable example of how five key elements can make an apology so effective.

1. Be specific – clearly describe the relevant act, omission or errors you are apologising for. In the case of Sydney Boys Grammar, the apology outlined the context of the sexual abuse which had occurred by a teacher employed by the school and the criminal charges which followed.

2. Acknowledge the harm caused – show you understand what you are apologising for. The Spacey apology questioned whether there was any harm at all which ensured any apology he offered was never going to be viewed as genuine. In contrast, the Sydney Boys Grammar apology states that the abuse “had, and continues to have, a profoundly harmful impact on the student.”

3. Take responsibility – this needs to be an authentic acceptance that whatever happened was due to your actions. It should be an unconditional acknowledgement that it was your actions or behaviour that caused the harm. The Sydney Boys Grammar apology acknowledged that their policies and procedures “did not prevent or detect the abuse against its former student.”

4. Apologise – it may sound obvious, but an apology needs to include a genuine expression of sorrow, sympathy or regret. Without this the apology itself will ring hollow. The Sydney Boys Grammar apology finishes with the statement that “the school is deeply sorry and apologises unreservedly to its former student and his family” so there is no question as to how the apology is intended to be received.

5. Outline action to prevent further re-occurrence –  It is important to make a clear statement of the action you propose to take to ensure you will do everything in your power to prevent this situation occurring again. In the case of Sydney Boys Grammar, the apology states the offending has “caused the school to review its policies and procedures”.

Elton John said it best when he sang the words “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” The challenge for many when reading advice about how to give an apology often comes down to the question of liability. Any number of lawyers and insurers will advise that making an apology of any kind can potentially impact any legal action or jeopardise insurance coverage that may follow. Of course, they could be correct, and you always need to heed the advice of your professional advisors.

However, the point of making an effective apology is that when you do make one to make it as effective, powerful and genuine as possible.

An apology is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, emotional intelligence, values and ethics.

Understanding the way an apology can be given effectively will also be an important way to rebuild trust that may have been lost. Making such an apology may also potentially prevent legal action happening at all.

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