Not Sorry

The title of this post is not something you’d typically see from an HR blog. It comes from a recent lunch I had with a friend. She was talking about working with a new co-worker who said, “I’m sorry . . .” before every response she gave in regards to her work. I asked her how she was trying to change this behavior, and she calmly responded, “I’m beating the sorry out of her !!” I almost spit out my water with laughter. What a great saying.

Please don’t mistake this as asking people to not show empathy in how they practice HR. Empathy is an essential skill we all need, but apologizing all the time isn’t. When I think about how I hear HR peers talk about what they do, “I’m sorry” (or something like that) is usually the lead in phrase. Have you heard (or said) these?

“I’m sorry that our benefit costs are going up . . .”

“I’m sorry that wages are being frozen this year . . .”

“I’m sorry that your supervisor is difficult to work with . . .”

You could continue this list of apologetic phrases for hours. I understand that part of our role is delivering difficult news and/or dealing with challenging employee relations situations. However, we don’t have to state how sorry we are to try and ease into how things are occurring. It seems trite, defensive and lacking confidence. We may think we’re showing a softer side, but if you listen to it from the receiver side of the interaction, it sounds wishy-washy.

One of the marks against our profession is that people see us as indecisive within organizations. We may be great “support” functions, but we aren’t viewed as others are when it comes to leadership. I’m tired of seeing this happen. It also doesn’t make sense that downplaying who we are and what we do is a position that should ever be taken. We can’t just hope that someone will bestow the mantle of leadership upon us.

Leadership takes action and being intentional. That doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk or some hard head in order to he heard and taken seriously. However, we can’t keep coming in with an apology either. The shift that is needed isn’t difficult to adopt, but it does take discipline and a willingness to step forward in confidence in the decisions for which you are responsible.

The two best ways to stop apologizing include your approach and the use of context. Approach is something that you control personally. How you assess a situation, how you react and who you involve are factors with every interaction. We should address people who are involved in HR related situations directly and not in hallway gossip. Being direct (with empathy) is what employees would love to see on a regular basis.

The other aspect of approach is context. “Because that’s the policy” is not context, it’s a crutch. It may not feel great to give the hard answer on the reality of circumstances, but it’s needed. Know this – if you give up being the person who brings context to employee relations, then someone else will. It will most likely be their version of context, and it won’t be the truth. We can’t afford to keep forfeiting an area of culture which we should own and lead.

This week stop apologizing when you start talking. State what you want to say and move forward. People may be shocked at first that HR is using a new approach. Trust me though that they’ll appreciate this new HR so much more than what had been there before !!

11 thoughts on “Not Sorry”

  1. I agree with your article, and value your perspectives. Often times, empathizing can be more effective than saying, “I’m sorry…”. It conveys sincere caring and understanding, which builds relationships and fosters clear communication, without being apologetic.

  2. I’ve never thought about that before! I’ll have to pay closer attention when I’m speaking with employees. I’ll be interested to see what phrasing I use when I have to give difficult information.

  3. HR represents a significant set of principles and practices and employee costs usually represent 40-60% of an organizations budget. To continue, if HR is truly a partner there is no need to apologize for an opinion or position. Great post Steve.

  4. Amen! I hear people say “I’m sorry” for things that are not sorry-worthy more frequently than is comfortable. (And truth be told, I catch myself from time to time as well…. ) Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Great approach! This will instill more confidence when employees are looking for answers and guidance. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great post Steve. To be viewed as credible business professionals, we need to stop apologizing for everything!

  7. Good post, Steve. I don’t (think) I do this but I will be more mindful of it now, in case I do it subconsciously.

  8. Insincere or trite apologies that are used in an attempt to show empathy can be, insulting. I want the person that I am communicating with, to understand the situation and show genuine concern, and possibly a remedy. Often, words can be cheap, and hearing an expected, “I’m sorry” begs the question, “Are you really?”

    A suggested alternative phrase could be,
    “I understand”… “that our benefit costs are going up,” and that this may cause an unexpected financial burden.

    “I understand” … “that wages are being frozen this year,” and how this might make you feel under-appreciated.

    “I understand”… that having difficulties working with your supervisor creates discomfort…

    …but only if you really, honestly, understand.

    I know, “I understand” may additionally beg the same question, “Do you really?”

    By “understanding” the situation, there is now an opportunity to form an emotional connection, a relationship, with the guest or employee, and conflict resolution may be progressed. The phrase, “I’m sorry” just does not have the emotional connection strength that, “I understand,” conveys, (at least, for me…)

    Per the scenerio in the article, should a new hire co-worker repeatedly use the phrase, “I’m sorry” as an excuse for their work, they may simply need validation that their work is fine and that it meets your expectations or that they are requiring clearer guidance from you to cast out their “self-flagellating” doubt…

  9. Steve. What a great call out! I like the change in reframing our day-to-day responses to strengthen our professional/personal credibility, as well as, our profession.

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