13 times you shouldn’t say ‘I’m sorry’ at work

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Stop overusing “I’m sorry!”
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Flickr/Andrew Yee

There are people in every workplace who fail to apologize for their mistakes – which can be seriously detrimental to their careers. But there are also those who are overly apologetic when there’s actually nothing to be sorry for … and that isn’t great, either.

When you overuse the phrase “I’m sorry” or use it unnecessarily, it gets diluted and loses its sincerity. Plus, it’s pretty annoying when someone prefaces everything with, “I’m sorry, but…”

“Some people just use ‘I’m sorry’ as a filler phrase, like ‘so,’ or ‘um,’ or they may use it because they think it makes them seem more polite,” explains Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of “The Humor Advantage.” “Others say ‘I’m sorry’ to convey a sense of deference to their superiors – and many use a well-placed ‘I’m sorry’ as a preemptive strike to avoid taking responsibility for their actions (‘I’m really sorry but there’s just no way I can get this report done by Monday’),” Kerr explains.

Whatever the reason, the biggest danger of severely overusing the phrase, he says, “is that it can make you look too passive or indecisive – and might eventually create the sense that you lack confidence.”

You should apologize, of course, when you have inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings on the job, or made mistakes that affect others (your company, clients, boss, or colleagues), “but don’t apologize for things that are clearly out of your control, unless you are in ultimately in charge of the situation, such as being in charge of a department where there is a massive error,” suggests Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.”

“In addition, when you do apologize, don’t have expectations of the other person. Don’t expect them, for instance, to say, ‘no problem at all,’ or, ‘no worries, it’s fine!’ Instead, do it with the intention of getting your point across,” she says.

Here are 13 specific times you shouldn’t say “I’m sorry” at work:


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SunshineCity/Flickr

1. When you really aren’t sorry

We’ve all witnessed the classic “non-apology apology” where someone thinks they’ve said they’re sorry but they really haven’t.

“Dogs can tell when we’re not being sincere, so if your ‘I’m sorry’ drips with sarcasm or oozes insincerity and you’re merely saying it because you think it will make the problem go away or get you out of the doghouse, then don’t say it,” Kerr advises. “Leave it for when you genuinely are sorry and want to convey ownership over on an issue.”


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Martin Haas/shutterstock

2. When you have absolutely nothing to be sorry for

If you’re one of those people who just says “I’m sorry” as a filler phrase or to come off as polite, think carefully about whether what you’re about to say is something you’d actually need to apologize for.

For instance, “I’m sorry but I have to use the restroom” is not the best way to say that. Instead, you should go with: “Excuse me while I use the restroom.”


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Flickr / Hayden Petrie

3. When you are making a decision that involves sticking to your core principles or values

Never apologize for doing the right thing or sticking to what you believe in.

For example, “I’m sorry but I can’t lie to the client” should not begin with an apology.

“Never be sorry for sticking up for your beliefs and showing integrity,” says Kerr.


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REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli

4. When you use it as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card

If a person uses a phrase such as, “I’m sorry but I just wasn’t able to finish it on time. My bad!” thinking that their “I’m sorry” abdicates all responsibility, it can become a serious issue, he warns.


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Sebastiaan ter Burg/Flickr

5. When you needlessly plant an issue in people’s minds that wasn’t even there before

A classic case of this is starting off a business presentation by apologizing: “I’m sorry, but I didn’t have much time to work on this talk as I would have liked so I hope you’ll bear with me.”

“All you’ve done is set yourself up for failure beforehand and needlessly put the audience in a defensive posture,” says Kerr.


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Vancouver Film School/flickr

6. When we automatically assume it will lead to forgiveness

A lot of people feel a well timed “I’m sorry” is all it will take to be totally forgiven, but that’s an unrealistic expectation.

“Saying you’re sorry is only part of the process and depending on the context, the person you’re apologizing to may not be ready to forgive you, or feel it’s warranted,” says Kerr.


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Giant LottosTV/youtube

7. When you are quitting your job

“I’m sorry, but I’ve received a better job offer.”

It may sound like you are just being polite because you may feel as though you are letting people down, “but the reality, with any situation comparable to this, is that you’re not sorry – you’re likely ecstatic that you’ve received a better job offer,” Kerr explains. “Apologizing in these situations also sets up the possibility for people to play the guilt card on you. ‘Well, if you’re really sorry then you can start by …'”


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nasus89 via flickr

8. When you had nothing to do with the cause of a problem

Save your apologies for when you are taking 100% ownership over something that you have or haven’t done, and they’ll be that much more effective and powerful.


9. When you’re apologizing on someone else’s behalf

If your cube mate turns to you and says, “Oh, you’re going to a meeting with Dan now? Will you tell him I’m sorry I’m going to miss that big deadline today?” … don’t do it!

You can say, “Hey Dan, I think Sharon wanted to talk to you about something,” but do not do your coworker’s dirty work.

Of course, if a colleague asks you to apologize for not being able to make it to an event because they’re on vacation, or something along those lines, that’s fine. But if they want you to say sorry for something they did wrong, explain that you’re not comfortable doing that, and that you think the apology would mean more coming directly from them.


10. When you are having a passionate debate over idea and disagreeing with someone

Some people feel inclined to use “I’m sorry” in these situations because they feel it will soften the conflict. “Saying ‘I’m sorry but I just don’t agree with that idea’ is unnecessary filler and can make you sound defensive rather than confident about offering another perspective,” Kerr says.


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Soon/flickr

11. When you are genuinely upset over someone’s bad behavior

“I’m sorry, but you just can’t make sexist comments like that in here.”

“The person who should be saying they’re sorry is the person making the sexist comment, not you for holding them to task,” Kerr explains. “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ minimizes your own feelings and plants the seed that perhaps, just maybe, you’re the one who should be sorry.”


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University of Exeter/Flickr

12. Before you ask a favor of someone

“I’m sorry, but would you mind helping me?” or “I hate to have to ask, but could you help me with … ?” are horrible ways to preface a request.

If you’re really that sorry or feel that badly about it, you wouldn’t be asking.

Just jump right into the request, or start with a compliment, like, “I know you’re great with Excel. Would you mind helping me with this spreadsheet?”


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VFS Digital Design/Flickr

13. When you’ve already apologized and everyone has moved on

If you made a mistake that warranted an apology, you said “I’m sorry,” and everyone moved on, there’s absolutely no reason to say it again after the issue has been put to rest, says Taylor.