No Due Date on Apologies at Work

By Lindsey Novak

October 29, 2020 4 min read

Q: I heard through other co-workers that I offended a couple of co-workers I closely work with. I have thought about it for two weeks and think I might owe them an apology. Is it too late to say something about my comments? If a late apology is acceptable and better than no apology, should I explain why I did not say I was sorry sooner?

A: A late apology is usually preferable to no apology. Reverse the roles. Think how you would feel if a close co-worker made an offensive comment to you and never acknowledged it was the wrong thing to say. Apologizing for being insensitive to another is a positive action, but don't assume they are automatically correct.

Most work involves communicating with others through emails and verbal exchanges. One of the pitfalls of verbal conversation is that it usually requires immediate responses in both business matters and social discourse. All people make mistakes and misspeak at times. People have also been known to casually utter offensive statements when they harbor prejudices and negative thoughts about certain groups or acquaintances, assuming others share their opinions.

While it may be difficult for a person to mask such negative feelings and thoughts, colleagues expect polite and respectful behavior at work. In fact, with the widespread use of smartphones for videos and recordings, a wise person knows to not openly state or spread derogatory statements at work or in his or her public life. Apologizing is appropriate at any time, but sincerity in an apology is required. Even though it took two weeks to critique your own comments, make sure you know exactly why the content was offensive before you apologize. Saying, "I'm sorry, but I don't know why you're offended," is not a serious apology, and it can increase the others' negative feelings about you.

Disagreement is inevitable, so empathy, acceptance and understanding are critical if you want others to respect you and allow you to move forward in your job. If you don't know if what you've said was offensive, ask friends outside of your workplace who can explain it to you. If your friends hold the same thoughts or prejudices as you (assuming you are guilty of making offensive blunders), find others who can guide you. Some comments can be more insulting than others, but it's important to first determine whether an apology is needed.

If you disagree and think your co-workers have overreacted, which can easily happen when negative comments are casually made, explain it privately with the two who were offended. Blanket generalizations made about certain groups are considered to be narrow-minded and outright wrong. Personal criticisms, however, based on someone's low performance level, for example, may simply be emotionally charged and easier to forgive. All individuals are entitled to hold personal opinions when based on facts about a situation.

Generally, sincere and appropriate apologies can improve a situation, while flippant and superficial apologies can destroy whatever relationship exists. Only you know your precise wording. Once you decide how you will approach the subject with your two co-workers, you have no control over their reactions. You may have successfully avoided a cold war at work, or you may decide to look for a new job and use your newfound sensitivity in the new place of work.

Email career and life coach: [email protected] with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit, and for past columns, see

Photo credit: mwitt1337 at Pixabay

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