HR | Atlantic - Positive Change at Work

When the word “sorry” isn’t enough

Aug 30, 2012

Constance Robinson

Relationship Barrier

Working in workplace consulting, especially in employment and labour relations, offers a window into the realities of working with people who are fallible, and insights into how to recover from mistakes, bad judgment and misconduct.  Employees who make a mistake or an inappropriate comment are often advised by their unions or employee advisors to make a prompt apology.  While this can certainly help employers move from concern of whether the employee appreciates the seriousness of their misconduct, an apology may not be sufficient to cure the harm done to the employment relationship, and relationships within the organization itself.  Consider the recent matter of a Captain of a Calgary Fire Station:

Captain H was not the regular Captain for Fire Station “A”.  He was called to fill-in for the regular Captain who was unable to report for work.  On the way back from a call, he was riding in the fire truck and inquired of his colleagues why there were so many “g—-s” at Station A. When a colleague asked him what he meant, he replied with words to the effect of “C—s, I mean c—s.” Little did the Captain H know that there was a female firefighter sitting in the back seat of the fire truck.

Captain H did apologize immediately, both in the truck, and later in the Station. However, his initial apologies focused on his view that he should not have made the statements in the presence of a female firefighter:

  • “I’m sorry I forgot you were here.”
  • “I’m sorry, I thought you were on another rig.”
  • “I’m sorry I didn’t realize you were in the truck”

Not surprisingly, a complaint was filed and the Department investigated the incident.  At the conclusion of the investigation, the Department terminated the Captain H’s employment.

The incident harmed not only Captain H’s career, but also work relations in the Department itself.  The Fire Chief heard that there had been a backlash against the three female firefighters for “getting the Captain H fired”. This upset the Chief because it was management’s decision alone as to the disciplinary response to the incident. The Fire Chief personally attended at the Station to speak to the crew and offer support. Despite this, of the three female firefighters at that Station, one is on stress leave, one is on unpaid leave, and one has applied for a position “off the floor”.

Captain H then wrote a letter of apology that shifted the focus away from the circumstances of the statement to the fact that the statement was made at all, acknowledging his responsibility in making the statement, and the harm it created for his employer.  He also asked for forgiveness.

It appears that the apology and the vigourous efforts of the union won Captain H a small victory.  During the grievance process the Fire Department rescinded the termination and instead imposed an eight-week suspension from employment and a six month reduction in rank. The union grieved the discipline, arguing that while discipline was appropriate, the suspension and temporary demotion was too severe.

At hearing, the majority of the Board determined that a further reduction in the discipline would fail to recognize the seriousness of the Captain H’s misconduct and would give insufficient weight to the importance of the creation and maintenance of an inclusive work environment for female firefighters.



This award is not only interesting because of its disciplinary finding, but also because of its review of the quality of the apologies offered by Captain H.  Arbitrator Casey noted:

The initial apology by the Grievor misses the point. The transgression lies not in making the statement when he inadvertently did not realize that a female firefighter was present; rather, the transgression lies in the fact that the statement was made at all. Given these circumstances I understand why the Chief did not consider the initial apology to be a significant mitigating factor.

However, the Fire Captain wrote a letter of apology that was somewhat more effective following his termination that acknowledged his own responsibility and the damage the words and the fallout from the incident caused to the organization.  This evolution in the apologies brought to mind the work of Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas on The Five Languages of Apology.  Their research showed that different people and situations require different forms of apology:

1.      Expressing Regret: this acknowledges that others were hurt or experienced a wrong;

2.      Accept Responsibility: this acknowledges the wrong-doer’s role in the hurt or wrong;

3.      Make Restitution: this translates responsibility into accountability through efforts to correct the hurt or wrong.  While a complete cure to the harm is rarely possible, the fact that there is an effort to do so can go a long way to healing the relationship;

4.      Genuinely Repent: going beyond “I’m sorry”, repentance involves taking measures that ensure the harm or wrong does not recur;

5.       Request Forgiveness: this is the most difficult part for most people seeking to apologize, because it acknowledges that the power to rehabilitate or heal the relationship rests with the party wronged and a recognition that forgiveness may not be immediate, or ever forthcoming.

Sometimes, saying sorry is enough.  Sometimes several layers of apology are needed.  In serious situations, all five are needed to give a relationship the opportunity to heal.  In Captain H’s case, his initial apologies were only expressions of regret that the female fire fighters heard the comments, not that he made the comments.  His letter of apology acknowledged his role in the incident, and as a letter to the whole Department, it was an effort to make restitution in some way.  The only aspect of apology that his letter missed was an indication of what measures he might take to ensure that the harm and wrong would not recur.

It is not possible to use the rear view mirror to determine what impact a lack of a letter of apology, or an improved letter of apology, might have had on the outcome of the case.  However, when considering the series of events, and the collateral damage to the female fire fighters in the Department, one wonders what might have improved if Captain H had

  1. Used the five languages of apology at the outset, in the truck,
  2. Showed his repentence by speaking with the entire Station about the language that is appropriate and not appropriate, and valuing all members of the Station crew, regardless of gender,
  3. Taking responsibility by holding all members of the Station and Department who were his buddies, friends and supporters, accountable for their behaviours towards the female fire fighter complainants so that they were not made to bear the fallout of his actions.

The need for apologies did not stop with Captain H.  There is also the question of how the male members of the truck responded (or failed to respond) the crude language used.  Negative workplace cultures develop because of silent observers who do not make an effort to re-set acceptable norms that are healthy and respectful.  The other members of the Station crew on that truck also owed an apology to their fire crew mates for failing to speak up, to declare that such language was not used in their team, and that everyone in the Station was valued.  Again, it is an interesting thought experiment as to whether the female fire fighters might have been more ready to accept a weaker apology from Captain H if they had felt the security and backup of their male crew mates.

Leadership training offerings may focus on communications, setting expectations and accountability, but they rarely touch on the art of making a sincere and effective apology that can mend relationship bridges.  This is a real gap in leadership development, and I’m sorry for that.



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