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Serious insight for serious situations.

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The power of an apology

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I read recently that the Hydro One employee who was terminated in the “FHRITP” fracas had recently been reinstated, through an arbitration process, after he, among other things, extended a sincere apology to the reporter. Reading about his reinstatement made me think about the power of the apology.

There is no question that an apology holds great weight in certain legal matters. It is well known that in grievance and arbitration processes, an apology rendered by a grievor in discipline and termination cases can make a difference in whether discipline is upheld and the magnitude of the discipline. In fact, in termination cases, an apology is one of the criteria considered by arbitrators in determining whether to uphold a termination. Arbitrators will acknowledge a grievor’s apology as late as the arbitration and asses it, along with other mitigating factors, when making their final decisions.

It is not simply the act of the apology that is significant but it is the quality of the apology and when it is made that makes the difference. Heartfelt and sincere are just two of the qualities that can impact positively on that final decision-making process. Conversely, the non-apology or the “I’m sorry if you misunderstood what I said/did” can sometimes make a difficult and emotion-filled situation worse. Along these same lines is the mandated apology. This is what occurs when an organization is ordered to apologise for its actions or inactions, or when an individual is instructed to apologise for his/her transgressions.

In workplace investigations when a respondent acknowledges his/her wrongdoing and is genuinely remorseful, that remorse is articulated in my report. While the acknowledgement and apology do not negate the wrongdoing, they can inform recommendations arising out of my investigation findings and impact the quality of the next steps taken by an organization.

During any workplace restoration, an apology can bring about tangible organizational changes. When facilitating discussions among employees who have been affected by incivility, harassment and bullying, and the person who has been uncivil or has bullied others accepts responsibility for their actions and offers that sincere apology — that is the time that mending relationships can begin. Of course there must be honest dialogue in these sessions and the honesty, even when conveyed respectfully, can be difficult to listen to, which makes the apology more meaningful to the recipient. My ability to assist the participants through this difficult and often emotionally draining exchange makes the work I do worthwhile. Mediation skills, reframing and building a trusting and safe environment in which individuals can feel vulnerable enough to apologize even under what might appear to be impossible circumstances, makes this work meaningful.

If an employee is going to apologize, they should make it sincere and speak to the essence of the wrongdoing. It is sometimes not enough to just say, “I’m sorry”. Our job as workplace investigators, mediators and practitioners is to help parties determine when it is useful to be more particular about what an employee is sorry for having done or said. This is the bridge that begins to bring the parties back together, and through acceptance or acknowledgement of the apology, recognize that there is a path forward. When apologies might assist the parties in repairing a relationship it is best to undertake them in a timely fashion. While arbitrators may be content to hear and accept an apology at arbitration, in most cases, on the steps of a legal process, the harm has been prolonged and it may be too late to say “sorry”.

Kenda Murphy

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Kenda Murphy is a lawyer with over 20 years of experience in civil and criminal litigation. Over the course of her career, she has been in private practice and worked in the public sector with the Public Prosecution Service, Department of Justice and Health Association Nova Scotia. Most recently Kenda was the Associate Director & Counsel of the Employee/ Labour Relations Unit at Queen’s University.