We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all commit microaggressions at some point.
What matters is what we do after: how we respond when somebody gives us feedback that we’ve hurt them. Ideally we own the impact we had, no matter what our intentions were. Then we apologize, do our best to remain engaged with them, and try to do better.
It’s simple advice, but hard to follow consistently.
It’s even harder when company policy or practice advises you not to.
Say a white employee’s comments are offensive to a colleague of color. The recipient lets it go at first. But after several more incidents, they decide to ask HR or a manager for help.
Unfortunately, that’s when things can get weird. Human Resources and managers have to hold the tension between the interests of employees and the interests of the company.
In one case, a manager advised the white employee not to apologize—and to be careful about further interactions. The manager was concerned about a claim of a hostile work environment.
To be clear, I’m not giving legal advice. And any employment lawyers reading this might be thinking that’s exactly the thing to do. A potential claim from someone in a protected class is a serious matter in a professional context.
But in any other setting, refusing to apologize is guaranteed to make things worse.
It takes a leap of trust to tell a colleague you’ve been hurt by something they did, and to offer feedback that might be taken as an attack. It takes a leap of trust to truly take in the harmful impact of our actions when our intent was benign.
Colleagues who have been working together for a long time may have built enough mutual trust to resolve the situation in the same way we would if we stepped on someone’s toe: “Ouch!” followed by “I didn’t mean to, but I did, and I’m sorry, and I’ll be more careful.”
But if you don’t know each other well, this is more fraught.
We’re all human. We mess up. But we can also empathize, connect, and resolve our differences. Unfortunately, our desire to avoid personal blame or corporate liability can lead to policies and practices that prevent us from being human and working things out. I wonder—how many legal claims could be avoided by someone making a sincere apology?
When we build defensiveness into our institutions, we ensure that people who experience harm will continue to experience harm. And they’ll be watching the clock—and the job listings—until they can find a more humane workplace.
It’s not so hard to give a sincere apology. That is exactly what you would do if you stepped on someone’s toe.