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Can you apologise on behalf of others?

In life we hurt other people’s feelings from time to time. Whether this happens intentionally or unintentionally, our behaviour can cause pain to others.

Sam Hlabati

There is an expectation from society that the one who hurts the other should offer their apology to the aggrieved person(s), and that should be an unequivocal apology.

When persons are in charge of an organisation or a team, they carry the burden of a vicarious liability for the actions of the ones under them, thus leaders are responsible not only for their own behaviour but also for that of their team members, such members might be numbering thousands or even millions.

When a leader apologises, that act of apology is carried out not merely at the level of the individual but also at the level of the institution. It then follows that the apology is not only personal but also “political”.

Sometimes leaders have to apologise for sins to which they personally have no connection. On a state visit to Poland in 1970, German chancellor Willy Brandt extended a wordless apology for crimes committed three decades earlier by the Nazis against Polish Jews.

This act of apology was performed by his expression of being filled with emotion; Brandt dropped to his knees as he approached a Warsaw war memorial. In 1995, Helge Wehmeier, then president and CEO of Bayer , similarly expressed his deepest regret on behalf of Bayer’s original parent company, for its having been complicit in the Holocaust.

Bayer AG is a German chemical and pharmaceutical company founded in Barmen, Germany in 1863. It is headquartered in Leverkusen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and well known for its original brand of aspirin.

When Ken Thompson, chairman and CEO of Wachovia , revealed that two of its acquired companies had owned slaves; he offered a public apology. Wachovia was a diversified financial services company based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Before its acquisition by Wells Fargo in 2008, Wachovia was the fourth-largest bank holding company in the United States by total assets.

Thompson said “On behalf of Wachovia Corporation, I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African-Americans and people of African descent. We are deeply saddened by these findings.”

In fostering the spirit of affording members of the society to give apologies when they are due, in 2003, the State of Colorado enacted a law stating that an apology extended by a health care provider would, in any civil action, “be inadmissible as evidence of an admission of liability.” The idea was to afford the health care providers an opportunity to apologise to their clients without accruing a legal liability by so doing.

After denying and procrastinating for months, President Bill Clinton decided that if he wanted to get back on task, he had no choice but to offer an abject public apology—and a televised one, at that—for having had an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

He began by admitting his involvement with the White House intern. He went on to say that “it was wrong” and that he deeply regretted having misled the country.

He concluded his prepared statement by telling his wife and daughter that he was ready to do whatever it would take to make things right between them—and by promising to put the past behind him and turn his attention back to the nation’s business.

Clinton’s apology in the Lewinsky affair was intended to repair, or at least start to repair, two different relationships: his relationship with the people and his relationship with his family.

Given the temper of the times, given the apology culture, the president concluded that his path to forgiveness and redemption was to offer as full and open an apology as the already humiliating circumstances would allow.

On another note, Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico, apologized for saying that Mexicans were willing to take jobs in the United States “that not even blacks want to do.”

In April 2014, Pope Francis said. “I feel called to take responsibility for all the evil some priests — large in number, but not in proportion to the total — have committed and to ask forgiveness for the damage they’ve done with the sexual abuse of children.”

There are four reasons why a leader should endure the discomfort and assume the risk of offering a public apology; thus, apologies can serve four purposes. Firstly, an individual purpose; thus a leader who made a mistake or committed a wrongdoing, who then publicly apologizes to encourage followers to forgive and forget.

Secondly, for an apology could be for an organisational purpose when one or more persons in the group for which the leader is responsible would have made a mistake or committed a wrongdoing. The leader would publicly apologise to restore the group’s internal cohesion and external reputation.

In the third instance an apology could be for an intergroup purpose. The leader publicly apologise to mend relations with aggrieved parties.

In the forth instance a leader’s apology could be for a moral purpose.

Sam Hlabati is a senior professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati

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