The Formal Apology: When & Why

Who are you apologizing to? Is a formal apology appropriate? Is the recipient of the apology a co-worker, boss, partner, customer, vendor, a company, group, or the community-at-large?

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In the same way that we need to understand what we're apologizing for, we also need to consider who we're apologizing to, and whether a formal apology is appropriate or necessary.

When dealing with apologies directed to other companies, a group, or to the community at large, a formal approach should always be taken. Whether it's through a public apology or an apology letter,(especially in business) the formality underscores the sentiment, reinforces the message, and conveys to the recipient that you're taking the situation seriously.

However, if the recipient of the apology is an individual then we need to examine the relationship we have with them prior to deciding on how formal an approach we should take.

Are they purely a business contact? A co-worker? Our boss? Do we have any sort of personal relationship with them? If so, how long has it been? Historically, have our exchanges been more formal or friendly? What kind of personality do they have?

These are exactly the types of questions you need to ask yourself before deciding on how formal the apology should be.

A rule of thumb to go by is the more distant the relationship the more formal the approach. A formal apology is also warranted whenever hierarchy is involved, for example, when apologizing to one's boss or to an employee.

What if the employee or boss is also a friend? Then a two-tiered approach can be taken. This will help to define the relationship as one of both business and friendship. So, a more formal letter of apology should be written to satisfy the business side while a follow-up conversation will help to re-establish the friendship.

Individual Personalities and Formal Apologies

Your personality and that of the recipient are other key considerations when it comes to the level of formality required. If you or they are formal by nature, then it only makes sense that your apology should reflect the same.

If the person is normally shy or reserved and doesn't enjoy confrontation, take that into account. This type of individual would more likely appreciate receiving a note or letter rather than a face-to-face apology.

Formal Public Apologies

Most often delivered by people in the public eye or those that represent public institutions a public apology will almost always be directed at multiple recipients.

Whenever a group is involved a formal approach should be taken regardless of whether the apology is delivered verbally or through an open letter. Here, more importantly than in any other situation, the formality underscores the seriousness of the incident and conveys an understanding of the implications and repercussions of the event.

Understanding who you're apologizing to and knowing the kind of relationship that you have will help determine the type of business apology required, how formal an apology it should be, and the manner in which to deliver it.