Employers sometimes risk their people when apologising

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Nobody can make the right decision 100% of the time and no leader should commit their people to that – no matter how sorry they are for a previous failure

Being able to say sorry is a key part of any organisational communications model. When we make mistakes it’s crucial to own them, address the failure and set out a path to recovery – whether that’s by revising internal policy or investing in process improvement. If we don’t address failures and apologise for shortcomings it erodes internal trust and leaves customers feeling short-changed.

How organisations can give meaningful apologies is something I’ve been studying in detail for my latest book, co-authored with Sean O’Meara. One thing we discovered after examining hundreds of corporate apologies is that it isn’t the language that’s most important, but rather the actions a business takes. An apology is worth relatively little if the organisation isn’t prepared to change (or indeed isn’t capable of it).

And this eagerness to be seen to implement meaningful change is where many fail their employees. By overreaching on the improvement element they set traps for staff. Leadership teams often overlook the internal impact of their public pledges to do better, leaving staff exposed to intense scrutiny and impossible-to-attain standards.

In April 2018 Starbucks faced a severe reputational crisis when a store manager was accused of racially profiling two customers and unfairly enforcing the chain’s ‘purchase necessary’ toilet policy. Starbucks apologised and vowed to carry out racial bias training. The media and customers praised how it handled the situation. Shep Hyken, an expert in customer service, even called it ‘a perfect example of how to manage a brand crisis’ in a Forbes article.

As well as temporarily closing 8,000 stores so the training could be conducted with 175,000 employees – at an estimated cost of $16.7 million in lost sales – then-executive chairman Howard Schultz also announced a new ‘no purchase necessary’ toilet policy. He said: “We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision 100% of the time and give people the key.”

But in his eagerness to address the initial failure Schultz committed his frontline workforce to an unattainable standard. It wouldn’t be him doing the extra cleaning, managing the extra foot traffic or dealing with people taking advantage of the policy. That honour went to the retail staff. And they’d have to make the right decision “100% of the time”, according to the man at the top.

So it’s no surprise that when a prankster demanded a free coffee with a fake homemade coupon during this period of public atonement the barista on duty didn’t hesitate in giving it to him. In video footage of the exchange the barista was clearly anxious about falling short.

Reputational crises force even the most seasoned corporate leaders into impulsive decision-making. But nobody can make the right decision 100% of the time and no leader should commit their people to that – no matter how sorry they are for a previous failure.

US fast-food chain Chipotle is another example of the danger of this. When a server was filmed refusing to hand a customer his food before he’d paid for it Chipotle reacted by publicly apologising and firing the worker. Like Starbucks, the business announced a retraining programme to stop others repeating the mistake.

A few days later it emerged that the server was protecting Chipotle from a common scam known as ‘dine and dash’. She’d recognised the customer (someone who was later found to have bragged on social media about his ‘dine and dash’ exploits) from a previous incident. Chipotle then had to apologise again – to the fired server, who it then re-hired.

When organisations fail the first thing they often do is beg for forgiveness. But the first thing they should do is assess their culpability.

Organisations are rarely equipped to handle the volume of criticism a social media backlash can cause. But in apologising so impulsively and promising the Earth, employers often throw their own people under the bus.

Cary Cooper is 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health
at Manchester Business School, and co-author of The Apology Impulse

This piece appeared in the December 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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