Can an apology dissuade someone from filing a lawsuit against his or her employer?
Based on countless employment disputes I’ve been familiar with, I believe the answer is a resounding “yes.” However, the apology must be a genuine one and, in appropriate instances, include efforts to repair the harm.
Let’s dig a little deeper into what that means.
4 elements of an apology
At the Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health held last week in Berlin, Dr. Monica Broome, director of the University of Miami medical school’s new communications skills center, set out the four elements of an effective apology:
First, acknowledge the wrongful behavior.
Second, explain what occurred, without excusing it.
Third, express genuine remorse.
Fourth, attempt to fix the situation or provide reparations.
Words alone may not be sufficient
In the case of dignitary offenses of a less severe nature, such as milder forms of sexual harassment, an honest expression of acknowledgment and remorse may be sufficient to bring the situation to closure.
However, with more serious transgressions, Broome’s fourth element — compensation or relief — may be necessary to make the apology complete.
Don’t add insult to injury
In any event, lines like “I’m sorry if you feel bad” or “We acknowledge your perception that you were treated badly” only make the situation worse. Pseudo-apologies pour gasoline onto bad feelings.
Of course, the legal implications of an apology that meets Broome’s definition are considerable. In effect, Broome recommends that in cases where wrongful conduct has occurred, the offending party must expressly acknowledge it, accept responsibility, and hold itself accountable.
In legal language, that’s called an admission, and many employers (and their lawyers) are loathe to do so, fearful that the worker will use it against them in litigation. In addition, some employers do not want to appear weak, fearing it will open litigation floodgates — or at least throngs of threatened lawsuits attempting to squeeze a quick, if unwarranted, settlement.
Small risk, huge reward
I think those fears are overstated in the vast majority of situations. Most workers do not want to sue their employers or their former employers or to casually threaten legal process, because they have some idea of what it might entail. (In fact, it’s fair to say that a substantial number of workers who have valid claims against current or former employers choose not to file for that very reason.)
Indeed, once it gets around the building that management has the integrity to admit its mistakes, including wrongful behavior toward employees, its street cred will skyrocket among the rank-and-file.
In short, real apologies can go a long way toward making the workplace less litigious and creating mutual respect among employers and employees. But it takes a high-quality, confident employer to embrace such a philosophy and practice. The bad ones, I’m afraid, will continue to find themselves in court, defending claims that should’ve been settled many moons ago.
This post embodies the underlying values of therapeutic jurisprudence (examining how the law and legal practice can promote psychologically healthy outcomes) and of restorative justice (examining the needs of the parties and the importance of responsibility). These schools of thought carry great potential significance for modern employment relations.