Executive apologies to employees require caution, precision

Communicators say not every mistake requires an internal mea culpa, but when CEOs must apologize, it’s got to be sincere.

“I am genuinely sorry,” Target Corp. CEO Gregg Steinhafel told employees in August after criticism over the company’s political donations.

Last month, the Chicago Tribune‘s then-chief innovation officer Lee Abrams wrote an e-mail admitting “poor judgment” and apologizing to “everyone who was offended” by an earlier company-wide e-mail.

Abrams resigned soon after his apology. Steinhafel remains at Target.

What made one apology more effective than the other? It’s a matter of understanding the situation, realizing the mistake’s effects on employees and knowing your words may go public, communicators say.

“It’s hard to say CEOs should always do this or never do that when it comes to apologizing,” says Robert J. Holland of Holland Communication Solutions. “That’s where we communicators can come in and really play an important role, helping a CEO dissect the issue and analyze it, and look at how serious the mistake was.”

Admitting it

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