my employee apologizes for mistakes she didn’t make

A reader writes:

I’m a new executive director. My assistant has been the executive assistant to my four predecessors and has been in the job for 15 years. She is young, in her 30’s but started in college, working part time with the first executive director’s permission and just stayed after the graduated because she said she loved the job. This is the first and only job she has ever had. She is amazing and I couldn’t ask for a better assistant. She anticipates my expectations and because she has been with the company and in that position so long that she needs very little direction.Being newer to the company and never having been an executive director before, I’ve often leaned on her for help.

My only complaint is that she apologizes when things aren’t her fault at all. She immediately follows up with a way she thinks the situation can be remedied which is great, but she doesn’t need to apologize when it isn’t her fault. I’d love for her to continue to have amazing problem-solving ideas, but she doesn’t have to take the blame to do that.

She often apologizes for things that are often out of her control. A major part of our jobs is dealing with a board of directors, and anytime they make a mistake or are late to a meeting, she apologizes for them. It seems as though certain members of the board also expect her to take blame for their mistakes such as them forgetting paperwork they were required to bring, not showing up on time, or getting the call-in information wrong. One time a board member who told us he wouldn’t be able to make the meeting tried to call her at the last minute saying he would be able to attend but needed the call-in information. She was setting up the lunch in the board room and away from her desk because the meeting was just two minutes away. I needed her help setting up some presentation material so she didn’t return to her desk until hours later where she was met with a ton of angry voicemails from the member trying to call in. I saw it more as his fault. There is no way we could have known he suddenly would become available two minutes out. We fixed the problem by giving her a cell phone to carry throughout the meetings (her idea) but she also sent him an email apologizing for not answering his call and that he didn’t have a way to call in. I thought that wasn’t necessary on her part as his lateness is not her problem.

I’ve learned from other employees that the executive directors in the past have been known for never taking the blame for any mistake and often demanding an apology from another employee, so it is very possible that this just might be a behavior that she learned was required by her previous bosses.

I’m in her age group and the first female ED in the history of the company. I’m also the first ED under 50. I am not sure if that plays into it at all.

I also acknowledge that she could just be a nice person who is just someone who apologizes for people and this isn’t just about work but just how she is as a person.

Is there a way to approach her without her feeling like I am getting on to her? I’d love to tell her that I think she is doing a great job but she doesn’t have to take the blame when someone else in the office or on the board makes a mistake. I definitely want her to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes made by other staff members. Should I even bother saying anything at all?

Yes, say something! Not in a “you’re doing it wrong” chastising kind of way, of course, but more like: “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ll often apologize for things that aren’t in any way your fault. I don’t know if you’ve noticed you do it, and it’s a pretty common habit, especially for women. But in case you feel like I or others expect you to apologize even when things aren’t your fault, please know that you don’t need to. You do excellent work, and I worry that you’re inadvertently undermining yourself by apologizing when you don’t need to.”

It could very well be a behavior she learned from working under a previous manager who threw a lot of blame or had high needs for soothing and appeasement. Or it could just be a habit that she’s picked up in life more generally, like a lot of other people have.

But as a boss who appreciates her work, you’re in a good position to name it for her and let her know she doesn’t need to do so much of it.

For what it’s worth, I do think there are times when a polite apology can smooth over a situation more diplomatically, even when the apologizer isn’t actually at fault. Your board member example is a good one. It doesn’t sound like your assistant did anything wrong and didn’t owe anyone an apology, but when you have an angry board member who’s frustrated that he wasn’t able to call into a meeting, sometimes an “I’m sorry about that” will smooth things over faster than an explanation that the situation was actually his fault. Of course, if that person is regularly sending people angry voicemails, that calls for a bigger-picture conversation with him to address the behavior more broadly. But if it’s a one-off, sometimes a quick apology is just a smart way to smooth ruffled feathers.

The thing, I think, is to look at big-picture patterns. An unnecessary apology here and there isn’t a big deal. But a pattern of apologizing for things that aren’t her fault — even if it’s just a verbal tic, which it is for many people — is something that can subtly change the way people interact with her. By all means, nudge her toward seeing that she doesn’t have to do that.

{ 164 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Mazzy

    I don’t want this to seem like nitpicking, but you threw in that she is young. This isn’t an age thing. When I had seven years in my industry I already had a “seat at the table” so to speak, let alone at fifteen years in. She’s gonna do this regardless of her age.

    Reply
    1. kittymommy

      Yes! This isn’t an age thing, this is that she has been conditioned by your predecessors and the BOD (and possibly ithers) to take the blame. And that doesnt necessarily means she thinks she was to blame, but it can de-escalate situations when an EA does this, especially with prickly people.

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    2. MicroManagered

      Also, she’s not that young? I am in my 30s and I don’t consider myself “young” in a work-sense.

      I think sometimes people attribute something to being “young” because it sounds softer when a better word might be “immature” or “inexperienced.” I’ve worked with people who happened to be immature or inexperienced AND young, but I’ve also worked with immature or inexperienced people twice my age.

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      1. MicroManagered

        PS: I’ve also worked with people who were younger than me, but more experienced and/or more mature in some ways.

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      2. LBK

        I’d agree – I’m in my late 20s and while I’m certainly still on the younger side on the general scale of life, in a work sense of “young enough to not have learned otherwise,” I feel like I’m pretty well past that. I don’t think that lasts more than 2-3 years, maybe 5 at most. 15 is certainly no longer “young” in the sense of being inexperienced.

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      3. Sally

        Yeah, I had to re-read the beginning of this letter several times to make sure there wasn’t a typo because the combination of “has been in the job for 15 years” and “She is young, in her 30’s” just did not parse for me at first.

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        1. Sally

          I mean, it was specifically the “young” bit that seemed incongruous with the “15 years of experience” and “in her 30s.”

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          1. MicroManagered

            Yes. That and the fact that the LW says she is under 50. I would consider myself a peer to my coworkers who are older than me but under 50. It’s not a very wide age gap.

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        2. Yorick

          Normally if someone had been at a job 15 years, I’d expect them to be old. I read the “young” mention as way to explain that this has been her only job.

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          1. Trig

            That was my take too; this has been her only job, so OP is thinking this behaviour might be due to only experiencing this single workplace rather than the world at large, where she maybe wouldn’t be expected to apologize for everything.

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            1. MicroManagered

              I think that too, “this has been her only job, so OP is thinking this behaviour might be due to only experiencing this single workplace rather than the world at large,” but that still is a matter of lack of experience, not age.

              Put it another way: I work in the public sector where I sometimes come across people who’ve been at their first and only job for 30 years. They are certainly very inexperienced in some ways, but not at all young.

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    3. Hedwig

      Sounds like she is more or less the same age as LW. Maybe LW still feels young herself, especially given her senior role.

      Reply
  2. Miss Ann Thrope

    Are her apologies in the way of “I’m sorry, I…” or “Sorry you weren’t able to call in” because I think there are distinctions between the two. One is taking personal responsibility, the other is apologizing for the situation.

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    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      This is true, but if done too often it can come off as being uncertain or lacking confidence. Which sucks, because we want folks to be sympathetic/empathetic. If she’s apologizing too much for difficult situations, it can help to give her alternative phrases to use.

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      1. AdAgencyChick

        I do think whether she’s apologizing or commiserating makes a difference, if only in how I as a manager would address it with her. The first gets a “you don’t need to apologize for things that aren’t your fault — you’re a rockstar!” The second gets, “Have you noticed how often you say ‘I’m sorry’ when what you mean is ‘this is a regrettable situation’? I want you to keep an eye on that because saying ‘I’m sorry’ too often can make you look unconfident, and I want you to present yourself confidently because you’re a rock star.”

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        1. Kelsi

          Yeah no I’d use option 1 in both cases. Option 2 sounds like you’re asking her to apologize again, this time because it actually IS her fault.

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    2. AndersonDarling

      I was thinking the same thing. Is the apology just a way to begin the conversation? As in, “Sorry things didn’t go smoothly.” Or is she apologizing for other people’s mistakes? “I’m sorry Mr. Acme didn’t bring the presentation that he said he prepared, it’s all my fault.”

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    3. MCMonkeyBean

      Yes, this! “Sorry” does not always mean you are expressing a personal apology for the situation, it is also used to express sympathy. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people act like showing sympathy is like an admission of guilt.

      And even if she is really apologizing, some of these cases that is probably still the best move. Tell her she doesn’t need to apologize *to you* so much, and show her by accepting blame for your own mistakes, but even though that board member who wanted the call-in information two minutes out was in the wrong that is still definitely a situation where the email she sent was probably the best way to handle that.

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      1. Artemesia

        Women use sorry for sympathy; men read it as blame taking. So we need better language for commiseration than the language of apology.

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        1. LBK

          I don’t think it’s always so strictly gendered, but I do wonder if it even really matters if it’s being received differently than she intends it; as long as she’s not feeling emotionally burdened by constantly saying sorry (because she doesn’t mean it as an apology) and the person to whom it’s being said is satisfied (because they’re hearing it as an apology), it kind of feels like a win/win situation.

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        2. Elsajeni

          I just don’t think this is true — men generally manage to navigate situations where, for instance, they’ve had a death in the family and someone says “I’m so sorry” without responding “You mean YOU KILLED HIM? I’M CALLING THE POLICE!”, you know? And I’ve had zillions of interactions with male friends and coworkers where I’ve made some minor complaint about my day and they’ve said “ugh, sorry,” and I don’t think any of them meant that it was their fault I got rained on or whatever. I think, similar to the idea that men don’t understand a “soft no,” if a specific man in a specific situation reacts to a woman’s sympathetic “sorry” as if it were blame-taking, that’s often a choice he is making and always an error on his part, not on the part of the woman for saying sorry.

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      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Sure, but again, the way out of this is to give her different scripts (because there are people who do perceive “I’m sorry” as an expression of fault, even when it’s said as commiseration or sympathy). For example: “Oof, that sounds difficult” or “That must have been frustrating,” or “What a difficult situation.” I think reprogramming out of “sorry” in those contexts is important for people who over-apologize. It doesn’t mean the EA should never say “sorry” in sympathy, but rather, that she should have additional phrases available so that “sorry” isn’t the only/default option.

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        1. Security SemiPro

          “That sounds really frustrating” is my go-to empathizing/sympathizing/soothing without apologizing.

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        2. Not So NewReader

          “Aww, that’s too bad, Okay, I can get this fixed for you.”
          “Oh my, I see the problem. Here is the info you need…”
          Here I take out the apology and insert a variation of “I understand the problem.”

          Not for every conversation but I use Hmmm’s and ohhhhhh’s in some situations people tend to attach whatever meaning they want to these expressions. This one I use when the person is way off base and it has nothing to do with the matter at hand. “The dog has fleas so I lost my important information I need today.” I really don’t want to find out the logic in that one. Yes, I have several of the conversations daily.

          Sometimes people will spend 10 minutes telling me everything that has gone wrong in their situation. I will say, “Okay, this means your current status is that you don’t have the information you need. Okay, that is an easy fix, I will get it for you.” Here I restate the punchline briefly and then move to remedies. Some people really want to know that they have been heard and you KNOW all the things that are wrong in their lives today. Empathy without apology.

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    4. Jady

      Aye, I’m a woman who does the latter also in my early 30s. It’s never intended to be an acceptance of blame, but more of an empathetic agreement of the poor situation. ie. “Oh no, it rained at your wedding? I’m so sorry [that happened]! That’s just terrible!”

      I don’t disagree with Allison though, it would be better to break the habit, or at least phrase it in a better manner to prevent one from being walked all over.

      I will say though, when you’re dealing with crappy people, it very well could be that she just learned it’s the best way to keep the peace and not make her job more difficult. I have been in that situation a couple times. It’s not necessarily that I believe I’m responsible, or accept that I’m responsible, it’s more the simple fact that appeasing them prevents a lot of headaches, stress and roadblocks.

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  3. Murphy

    Yes to Alison’s next to last paragraph. If I was in her position, I would have apologized to the board member as well. I probably wouldn’t have actually been sorry, and I wouldn’t have blamed myself, but it can definitely help defuse a tough situation.

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    1. ZVA

      Yes, I would have done the same. I’m a sales rep & when there’s an issue with one of my clients’ projects, I often end up “apologizing” even when it’s not technically my fault: “I’m sorry to hear that”; “I’m sorry it wasn’t what you were expecting”; “I understand your concern” or “I see where you’re coming from,” etc. I don’t see it as an admission of guilt, more as expressing sympathy & showing the client that they’ve been heard. I always follow up with what my next steps are and/or what we will do differently next time; that part is more important than the apology.

      In the board member situation, I might well have said “I’m so sorry you weren’t able to join us; I was away from my desk and didn’t see that you called! Moving forward, I’m going to carry a cell phone so I’m more easily reachable in situations like this.” It sounds like the guy was super upset, and the language in the beginning could help smooth things over… Again, I don’t really see it as an apology—more an expression of sympathy. And there are plenty of times that’s warranted, even when you’re not “in the wrong.”

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    2. Jennifer

      This is why I apologize constantly in my line of work, no matter if it’s my fault or not. I’m considered guilty on some level because I work here anyway, and I desperately have to smooth over everyone’s upset ASAP, so…apologize, apologize.

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    3. ErinW

      Speaking as an assistant, I absolutely would have emailed or called to apologize to the board member, because you handle board members with kid gloves. I would have rolled my eyes with my boss– “This guy!” “Ugh, I know, he’s the worst.”– and then called and smoothed it over like everyone was blameless. A large part of being an assistant is doing crap work that other people don’t want to do or can’t take the time to do. That can include humbling yourself in front of other people’s mistakes. Hopefully it doesn’t happen all the time, or even often, but there it is.

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  4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    OP, lease say something. This isn’t always a gendered thing, but as a woman in my early 30s who apologizes too much and for things that are not my “fault” (beyond socially normal expressions of sympathy), I will always be indebted to my soph year college TA who kindly named what I was doing and tried to coach me out of it. I still apologize way too much, but having a series of amazing women mentors who’ve worked with me on this has had a tremendous impact on my leadership development and career.

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    1. No longer apologetic

      I agree, definitely do say something! I’m a woman in my early 30s (only 15 days into it!) and I always used to apologise lots and lots. I don’t do that anymore, especially in the workplace.

      I see apologies as:
      a) admission of guilt
      b) expression of remorse

      If you don’t (or shouldn’t) feel bad and you’re not guilty, then there’s no need to apologise. Don’t take the blame for something you haven’t done, and don’t feel bad when there’s no real reason for you to*.

      * There are always exceptions to this rule. In times where a polite apology might smooth over a situation, then consider apologising. But for the most part, don’t do it. Look around you and see how much (or how little) everybody else apologises. It’s probably not as much as you!

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      1. Not So NewReader

        And I think there are times where it is so obvious that the speaker did not cause the problem and it’s purely a statement of condolence.
        “I am sorry you lost your dog/your house in a fire/ your loved one.”

        I will say, I have watched people say “I am sorry” and also show that they are confident they are not losing entire parts of themselves in the process. It’s a wonderful thing to see. A good rule of thumb is not to lose parts of yourself, start there. I think experience and familiarity with the work helps a lot. I know that how I use the phrase “I am sorry” has changed over the years. There are some people who do not confuse an expression of regret with an admission of guilt.

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      2. Anonymous Pterodactyl

        My partner’s brother (can I call him my brother-out-law? :P) once said that he could tell when society started viewing him as a “man” and not a boy/kid/whatever because all of a sudden, women started apologizing to him. For no reason. Entirely out of the blue.

        He bumped into them accidentally? “Sorry!” He was mildly inconvenienced in some utterly normal way? “Sorry!” They were in line in front of him and so got served first? “Sorry!”

        It really made me think about how often I default to throwing that term in, when I don’t mean that I’m sorry and really, where nothing has happened where anybody needs empathy.

        (We have, separately, made an effort to replace all such unnecessary uses of “sorry” with “f*ck you, buddy!” to one another. Turns the automatic deference on its head, and generally results in a laugh. I’ve found it a helpful device to reframe when “sorry” is actually the right thing to say.)

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    2. KR

      I agree! I had a mentor in a previous job that basically told me that people were jerks and he would back me up, and I shouldn’t feel like I have to try to please everyone in the company because most of what mattered was if I was doing things correctly for the department and for my profession at the time. I was coming from a customer service help everyone mind set and I was also young and female and it helped me be confident . Also when I started this job I was explicitly told that obviously you have to be friendly and get along with people but it’s important to be willing to be tough and to not feel any obligation to be nice and accommodating to rude vendors because I had to do what was best for my team and my manager. It’s so important to have mentors and people in management and more experienced people telling you, it’s okay, I will back you up, you can do this and still be good at your job because women are socialized to be accommodating and reassuring and friendly to the end and always pleasant and sometimes people are rude (the board member) and maybe don’t deserve that kind of kindness.

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    3. Jadelyn

      Absolutely this. I’ve been working on this habit the last couple of years after my therapist pointed it out to me when I was talking about work. His take on it was basically, we teach people how to see us and how to treat us (to an extent, at least), and apologizing unnecessarily encourages people to let you shoulder blame for things and will subtly change how they regard you over time. (He also advised me to cut back on the self-deprecating humor, at least at work, for the same reason.)

      I also had a coworker who was helping me write an email to a group she was on the CC line of, and I had started to open the email with “Sorry I missed your call earlier, I was [whatever I’d been doing, I don’t remember]” and my coworker said “Nope, take that out. People miss calls all the time, and you don’t need to give them excuses about what you were doing unless they’re already pissed about it. And you don’t want to set the tone of the conversation with an apology. Just jump right in to addressing what they said in their voicemail.” So I did, and I’ve been trying to work on that, too, unless it’s legitimately been more than a normal amount of time between their request and my response.

      You can always apologize later if it becomes necessary. But don’t train people to see you as constantly apologetic, because it absolutely will color their view of you long-term.

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    4. ChickenSuperhero

      Why isn’t it on the OP to defend her, instead of putting the onus on a David to take on a Goliath?

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      1. Not So NewReader

        OP could start to outline some boundaries with the board.
        “A half hour before the meeting, we are setting up and we will not be available to answer your call/email.”

        Boards can be unexpectedly complex. Meeting packets are made available a week before the meeting and NO one picks up the packet until 15 minutes before the meeting. OR Board members refuse to learn how the internet works and how to use email. It’s easy to get lost in this stuff and have no energy left for anything else so out pops the default response, “I am sorry” to cover other weird situations that occur.

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  5. Sara

    I use “I’m sorry” as a counter to any anger I feel coming from the other person. Sometimes I’m not apologizing specifically for my actions, but more of an ‘I’m sorry that happened to you”. They can interpret it as me taking blame if they need to or just general agreement that whatever happened was unfortunate. I would for sure tell the angry board member – “I’m sorry I missed your call!” just because there’s no way to calm down someone like that.

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  6. Sarah

    I agree that some of this is just smart people-management. When you have an angry board member — even if that person is definitely at fault — it just makes sense to smooth things over rather than doubling down and insisting that the board member was the one in the wrong. And, it sounds like overall processes were able to be improved — the cell phone to be carried during meeting times — so actually there was something that was able to be done to fix the situation. Often in these cases, I think the apology is more coming from the organization (i.e. We are sorry that this problem happened, and have taken steps to make sure we are more available in the future by using the roving cell phone) rather than the person necessarily taking personal blame/fault through the apology. Like, in our office, if the wifi was down when we had a visitor, our admin assistant would certainly apologize to them, even though he has zero ability to control the wifi — not because he is personally at fault, but because the situation is inconvenient and you’re signalling that to the visitor. Not sure how much of the apologizing your employee is doing falls into this box, but if a lot of it is in this category, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

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    1. AndersonDarling

      I really despise how board members are often treated like deities, but I understand that is how it works in many organizations. I worked at a company that would clear out the lobby and stop the elevators so the board members could have direct access to the board room and not have to look at a single employee along the way.
      Board members never make mistakes. If something goes wrong, it has to be someone else’s fault and it’s up to the executive assistants to take the brunt of the anger and apologize until the storm passes.
      I agree that it’s not being weak, or meek, it’s good people management skills.

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      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        I also think OP should talk to the Board member, though. It’s not acceptable to leave tirades like that with staff, and Board Directors can always be replaced (especially on non-profit boards). I don’t say that to be flip, but just to be clear that for organizations with charitable missions, there is no excuse for abusive and inappropriate behavior.

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        1. Not So NewReader

          This.
          Tirades are not good for longevity. If the board wants to retain help they cannot use the help as a dumping ground.
          OP, you could ask them to stick with the chain of command and all complaints must go through you rather than ream the employee. Matter of fact, this is one way that boards can undermine the director.

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      2. Artemesia

        I worked at a place where someone was investigated 3 times on the same offhand complaint from a board member and eventually hounded to resigning when the investigations showed that the charge was totally bogus. A friend of the board member’s daughter worked with the person and he had been specifically told she was a slacker and needed to be managed better; he did so and she whined to her friend who mentioned it to her mother, the board member who off handedly mentioned a concern to a PTB and the harassment began. Often the upper level flunkies have a quick trigger and it doesn’t matter if the accusation is accurate, they are a pack of hyenas when a hint of displeasure occurs.

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        1. Lora

          Have noticed this too, that the upper levels utterly lose it over nothing much. What the heck??? My first thought is, “guys, if this is how you handle the stress of the coffee packets being untidy, how are you able to make a clear-eyed decision on layoffs and takeovers and which product to market and so forth?” I wonder if they wear themselves out with oversensitive histrionics and then by the time the day trading is closed, they’re too tired to care about finances that matter to the company?

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          1. Not So NewReader

            Right on. It’s can be a visual cue for the employees about the viability of the organization. If there are meltdowns over coffee packets the skill set in place is not that high.

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    2. LBK

      I completely agree with all this. Apologizing for things that aren’t your fault is (rightly or wrongly) a big part of customer service, whether that’s to internal or external customers. You certainly don’t have to be groveling, and if it comes to the point of consequences actually being levied against you then you can be more clear about the situation and defend your role in it. But I use the smoothing apology a lot, and I think you can successfully employ it without coming off as obsequious.

      That being said, I was part of a customer service team once that had an extremely strict policy of not apologizing to customers for things that weren’t our fault (it was a blogging site so roughly 90% of the things that were “broken” were really just people not understanding how the site worked). It was actually really refreshing and relieved some of the emotional labor off of the customer service team, but to pull it off you have to have the right environment, the right kind of support from upper management and the right kind of people who are capable of sticking to their guns when someone’s fired up and clearly believes you’re in the wrong.

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      1. Nolan

        At my job we don’t usually apologize for things that aren’t on our end, but once in a while I’ll get someone who is being very obtuse, and also really snarky about it. In those cases I like to say “I’m sorry you’re having trouble finding x/doing y…” and then giving them really granular instructions. It knocks them off their high horse while still being polite about their inability to “figure out”* how to do something.

        *actually read my response and/or follow instructions. If I give you detailed instructions on how to do something and I get your email reply 2 minutes later, I’m going to assume you didn’t actually do what I said.

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    3. Observer

      Sure, the situation did highlight an issue. But the BOD member’s calls were still over the top. In fact, those calls make me feel like she had LESS to apologize for, not more. But, as a practical matter, it was smart of the Admin to apologize.

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  7. BookCocoon

    I recently had this conversation with our office’s student assistant because she would apologize every time she took someone off hold. I read an article not too long ago suggesting the substitution of “thank you” for “sorry” wherever possible, so for example “Sorry I’m rambling” becomes “Thank you for being patient with me while I sort out my thoughts.” I asked our student assistant to try saying, “Thank you for holding” rather than “I’m sorry about that” every time.

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    1. Nolan

      I do email customer support and the two phrases I use the most are “thank you for your patience” (works as an opening AND closing line!) and “I’m happy to assist, but…” The second one is how we soften a “no”. “I’m happy to assist, but our product isn’t designed to do that. Some people do x instead” etc. Most people respond to that very well, even if the answer is super not what they wanted to hear.

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    2. Emi.

      This helps me so much! I once almost said “Sorry for who I am” to my husband in a fit of anxiety and just barely switched it to “Thank you for listening to me.”

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    3. oranges & lemons

      Haha, part of my job involves fielding many increasingly frustrated emails from people waiting on something that I don’t have any control over. I tend to use the “thank you” strategy but I’m afraid it probably comes across a bit passive aggressively sometimes.

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    4. ZVA

      I do this all the time and it works wonders! If something’s taking a while, I try not to say “Sorry this is taking so long,” but “Thanks for your patience” instead… and so forth. Highly recommended.

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  8. ArtK

    Is she saying “sorry” as in an apology or “sorry” as in regret for something that didn’t go right? The word gets used both ways but people often mistake the latter for the former. OP, make sure that you aren’t projecting your own interpretation on what she’s saying.

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    1. Is it Friday Yet?

      I’m a frequent apologizer, but it’s the latter. I see nothing wrong if LW’s assistant were to say “I’m sorry you weren’t able to reach me. I was busy setting up for the meeting. For future reference, the call in information is always available in the meeting invite.” I wouldn’t tell him she now carries a cell phone…

      Reply
    2. NaoNao

      Most people interpret “sorry” as “I apologize”, I think the majority of people see it that way. I have often seen a lightbulb come on over people’s heads when I advise them to offer “I’m sorry [about that]” as a way to smooth things over, noting “I’m sorry” means you regret the events. “I apologize” means you take some responsibility.

      So it could be that the OP is very fairly interpreting it how most people do: as a mix of regret and self-blame.

      Reply
  9. Gazebo Slayer

    I’m a woman in my mid-30s with a long ingrained habit of apologizing for everything, often to the point of abject self-abasement. I’ve seriously messed up a lot of things in my career and life and ofren honestly feel like I *should* be apologizing for everything down to my very existence and like I should be grateful for any chance I am ever given. I’ve also worked with people who criticized and blamed me for everything. Constant apologies are a way for me to deflect aggression and a way for me to plead not to be scolded or not to be fired.

    Maybe your employee has a history of abusive bosses (or other abusive authority figures), or a history of serious mistakes or misconduct in her own life, or both.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer

      Seconding all of this.
      Anyone who tells me not to apologize so much can bite me, because apologizing “too much” is the one thing I won’t apologize for. I *need* to apologize to keep people from ripping new holes in me at my job, thanks.

      Reply
  10. Dee-Nice

    I’m an EA and might be overthinking this, but often I consider it part of my job to anticipate possibilities, even to include mistakes *other* people might make, and plan for that if it will make life easier for the people I support. So when someone else, for instance, forgets to bring their print-out or something, I’ll apologize because I see it as my job to have thought of that and had extras on hand. Or if someone dials the call-in incorrectly, I’ll apologize because perhaps I could have made it more accessible in some way. I also see this as a way of releasing tension in a situation– no one has to feel weird about not having a print-out because *I* should have had one ready, it’s my fault, so don’t worry about it. If someone were to use this against me to actually call me out on the carpet for something, it’d be different, but that has never happened, so I don’t mind taking nominal blame for small things in order to contribute to a smoother-running event/meeting/call, etc.

    Reply
    1. Kimberlee, Esq.

      I totally agree. I think Alison’s advice is really good for this sort of thing generally, but I actually disagree that it is the best thing for this situation. This woman has been doing this job for 15 years, it’s the only job she has ever had, and she knows how to do it. If I had a manager talk to me about something like this, even if it were just a “I am worried it will impact how you’re perceived” I would feel compelled to take it as feedback and try to change, not because I wanted to but because it’s now A Thing. Honestly, so much of a job is picking out what battles to fight, and so much of an admin’s job in particular is losing those fights if you need to (to spare someone else losing). Not saying it’s the ideal way of the job working, but if I’ve been doing it for 15 years, I don’t really want someone telling me I should be doing it differently, just because some women, out there in some jobs that I clearly don’t want for myself, apologize too much.

      Reply
      1. Dee-Nice

        “Honestly, so much of a job is picking out what battles to fight, and so much of an admin’s job in particular is losing those fights if you need to (to spare someone else losing). ”

        YES. And honestly, if you work for the right people, they notice this kind of thing and you do get credit for it. And if they don’t notice that in particular then they notice that things tend to run more smoothly when you’re around and that you have good professional relationships with important people.

        Reply
    2. JAM

      Definitely, I’m the head admin and I got to this role by anticipating everything, even that someone will take the wrong spoke of the roundabout half a mile away. I wish it wasn’t always part of my job but I see that it is and I know guests think it’s someone’s job so we both feel best if I go out of my way in those situations. It’s exhausting to take on that responsibility some days but if I don’t apologize no one will and then the guest is usually unhappy. I try to soften things with “I’m so sorry parking is tight this morning – I’ve already prepped your seat at the table so please let me know if I can bring a drink to you so you can get started as quickly as possible” which often makes them happy since they see the inconvenience I’m apologizing for lessened.

      Reply
      1. Dee-Nice

        Yeah, I think pre-apologizing in these instances can make the other person feel as if, even though it’s not really your fault, you’re also not blaming THEM, so they don’t have to get defensive or crusty or even apologetic themselves. You can just move on to the matter at hand.

        Reply
      2. Jennifer

        “It’s exhausting to take on that responsibility some days but if I don’t apologize no one will and then the guest is usually unhappy. ”

        Oh heck yeah. You have to “take one for the team” or otherwise show submission in order to please.

        (Yes, I’m very sick of admin-ing, but that’s all there is.)

        Reply
  11. Mary

    I think it’s worth making her aware of it and asking her to be aware of it and to consider whether she always needs to apologise, but it could well be that it’s a considered response that works well for her. If she’s working with a bunch of crotchety and entitled older men, then being emollient could well be a devastatingly efficient tactic that allows her to Get Shit Done.

    Do you actually need your EA to stop apologising? Do you think it reflects badly on the company? Does it get up your nose when she does it to you? If there’s a good business reason for it, then it’s something to tackle, but I don’t think it’s necessary to ask her to change it if it’s simply different from your style.

    (I do a lot of the stuff that appears in “LADEEZ – don’t communicate like this, communicate more like a man!” articles, and they annoy the heck out of me. I am perfectly happy smiling, apologising when I know it’s not technically my fault, and using, “If you could XYZ, that would be great!” type language. All of these things create less friction and therefore less work for me, without harming anyone else: being more direct would be significantly more emotional labour and just generally make work less pleasant for me. (Of course, there are situations where I need to be more direct: I am currently learning which of my reports need more direct instructions and adapting to that, but that’s OK! I can do learning! I’m not going to do it just because Being More Direct is supposedly more masculine or leadery.)

    Reply
    1. Gazebo Slayer

      THIS A MILLION TIMES THANK YOU.

      I hate the constant advice to women to be more like men. Men are socialized to be rude, inconsiderate, arrogant, and entitled. They’re socialized not to apologize or worry about people’s feelings or show that they have any feelings of their own other than anger. Let’s stop telling women to be more like men and start telling men to be more like women.

      Reply
      1. RVA Cat

        This. I don’t think you have an EA apology problem. I think you have an unreasonable jerk on the board problem.

        Reply
    2. The OG Anonsie

      Agreed, I wonder if this is something that needs to change at all. As other people have said upthread, often a quick sorry is not “I am to blame for this,” but rather acknowledging the situation in a sympathetic way to smooth things along. It’s not appropriate for everyone in all roles to do, but it certainly can be the right way for someone in a supporting role to a lot of capital-P Personalities to keep the wheels greased when they otherwise might derail.

      Now, stepping back, is there a gendered component to having female support staff in general, along with this sort of practice and expectation for those roles? Absolutely. Does that mean this individual EA needs to stop using this specific kind of social grease? Probably not, although it depends on exactly how she’s doing it. In the given example, something like “I’m sorry you weren’t able to reach me, here is how to reach out in the future” isn’t overly apologetic or conciliatory. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to answer your call, I should have been at my desk” is an entirely different thing.

      Reply
    3. Chinook

      “If she’s working with a bunch of crotchety and entitled older men, then being emollient could well be a devastatingly efficient tactic that allows her to Get Shit Done. ”

      I agree wholeheartedly. Sometimes acting more subservient makes your job easier and doesn’t mean that you see yourself as lesser than.

      That being said, I like the idea of replacing “I’m sorry” with “Thank you” as the social lubricant that was mentioned earlier.

      Reply
  12. Bend & Snap

    One of my best bosses gave me amazing advice re: apologizing: Don’t do it at work unless you REALLY messed up.

    It’s served me well, especially in the context that men never seem to apologize and nobody expects them to.

    Reply
    1. Lily in NYC

      My male boss apologizes constantly. He apologized to me when I stepped on his foot! It was actually brought up in his review but he just couldn’t control himself.

      Reply
        1. MicroManagered

          I think it’s a fair generalization. Have you ever worked with women who say “sorry” every time they speak to you? As in:

          *Knocks on your door “Sorry! Do you have a minute?”
          *Explains question, listens to answer “Ok thanks! Sorry to bother you!”
          *Walks out of office, side steps with someone walking past “Oops! Sorry!”

          Is there a man on earth who does that? Probably. But I’d say generally the only time men apologize to me in my job is when they truly made a mistake or know they’ve somehow caused me extra work.

          Reply
          1. Stardust

            I think I was that person when I was younger. I remember I used to say “sorry” a lot, but it made me seem like a little mouse. At the time I thought it was just a way to be polite but I do think it gives the wrong impression to use that phrase so frequently. There’s a lot of options, from smiling to “excuse me” to saying “hi” which might work in the context better.

            Reply
  13. Dust Bunny

    I’m an “apologizer”, too, but I feel like there is a difference between taking responsibility for something and being generally regretful that it didn’t go as planned.

    “I’m sorry” has multiple meanings. When I say it, I don’t necessarily mean I feel responsible. I often just feel slightly badly that the situation was not ideal, as with the voicemail situation above. People who are not “apologizers” don’t seem to understand this and think I feel responsible for a lot of things for which I don’t actually feel responsible. I don’t go around feeling guilty about other peoples’ mistakes all the time, even though I do often wish a whole scenario had worked out better for everyone.

    I’ve actually said, I’m sorry, when people told me they weren’t feeling well, and had them tell me it’s not my fault. Well, duh–I know that. But I’m still sorry *for them* that they don’t feel well, because being sick stinks. But I don’t feel responsible for it. I’m still kind of mystified when people make the assumption that I’m claiming responsibility.

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      I agree! For me, saying sorry as an expression of commiseration is akin to “dommage” in French or “schade” in German. I also feel (on a bit of a side note) that while our society says women apologize too much, it is also true that men ought to apologize more. In the absence of the change I’d like to see, though, I’ll be judicious about how and to whom I apologize, even though it is my default.

      Reply
      1. blackcat

        Yes, I feel like other languages have better options for quickly expressing “That sucks/is unfortunate/etc and I wish to show empathy” in a way that is distinct from apologizing.

        Reply
    2. MommyMD

      You make good points. I’d let her be, personally. I see nothing good about bringing it to her attention implying 15 years of behavior has been wrong. This is a personality trait.

      Reply
  14. Confused

    Often times people in roles like this are blamed for things that are not their fault, so she may just be conditioned to do this.

    Reply
    1. Kimberlee, Esq.

      And, like, while that may be shitty from time to time, sometimes taking the blame and moving on is much easier than trying to clear the record. I have definitely taken blame for stuff at work that wasn’t really my fault just because I did not want to continue to be in that particular conversation with that person anymore.
      (I of course don’t do this in situations where either my reputation might take a hit or there needs to be a significant process correction for someone else, but I absolutely reserve the right to take the L if I just don’t care about what you’re blaming me for and it will let me get back to doing whatever it was I was doing before!)

      Reply
  15. TootsNYC

    I had someone working for me who did this.

    I actually sort of did -eventually- approach it as, “I want this to stop.” (I’d already done the “how people will perceive you” and “want you to be confident that you have my good opinion.”

    I ended up saying, “This is taking up too much time and mind-space. I have to divert too much energy to making you feel better, and you are spending too much brain power on apologizing instead of simply moving confidently forward.”

    And then I continued to compliment and trust–but now and then I had to say, “No, no apologies” and then talk right over her, brightly and in a friendly manner, to take the conversation into the “what now” or “thank you for alerting me, that’s great that you told me” and even walk away.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Meant to say: she stopped doing it as much, and I think that eventually she did feel more confident, because she wasn’t undermining herself all the time.

      Reply
    2. Fishcakes

      I would be really upset if a supervisor said those things to me. I’d view it as rude, patronizing, and just as controlling as former bosses who have ordered me to fawn over them more.

      Reply
      1. Kimberlee, Esq.

        Yeah, me too. My reaction (in my mind) would be “it’s really not my problem if you’re diverting energy to making me feel better when you don’t need to” and then job-searching.

        Reply
        1. Government Worker

          I think it’s really a matter of degree. A supervisor shouldn’t go to these lengths to get an employee to stop throwing off a quick “sorry!” all the time. But if someone is apologizing repeatedly to the point where it’s coming across like a movie henchman trying to appease an angry villain, then it really can be distracting and annoying, and worth putting a stop to.

          Reply
    3. SebbyGrrl

      Someone said it above – you find her to be a rockstar at her job.
      Tell her that first.
      When I read the headline my first thought was “Well, that is like 50% of an EA’s job.”
      So acknowledge that too and how well this helps with over important board members.
      This is more of a culture change than just your EA shifting this particular aspect.
      It needs to go top down.
      Tell board members and other high execs that all responsibility for smoothly flowing meetings will not rest on your EA’s shoulders. i.e. they forgot a document = not her responsibility, and so forth.
      Then divide the “I’m sorry I”…made a mistake when it isn’t hers from the “I’m sorry this” thing happened and it is an inconvenience-one can change the wording but again this is part of the job unless you make it not so and inform EVERYONE of the change.
      Have her back, when people try to make something her problem, tell them they are not right and it is not you EA’s job it’s theirs.
      BE CLEAR AND CONSISTENT WITH EVERYONE.
      I’ve been in this position and my boss didn’t have my back and there were a million and one unspoken exceptions and in the end the attempt to change made it worse. The lack of clear roles and responsibilities made it insane.
      Make sure you are improving things not just following a ‘belief’ that she shouldn’t have to apologize.

      Reply
  16. T

    I’m the same age as the EA and have worked as an EA for several years. The worst person I’ve ever worked for was exactly the kind of manager that Allison describes above “who threw a lot of blame or had high needs for soothing and appeasement”. Please don’t underestimate the kind of negative affect that can have on someone in an EA position. Even though my current boss is the least intense or blame-throwing person I’ve ever worked for, two years in I still find myself bracing for nasty, condescending lectures that never actually materialize. I’m so grateful for the insights on this site about unlearning toxic workplace behavior before it becomes your normal and informs how other people interact with you.. Please do say something to your EA, I know she’s already an outstanding assistant, but this could benefit her in a way you might not realize.

    Reply
  17. CMDRBNA

    I worked in a position where I interacted with board members frequently and spent a lot of time apologizing for stuff that wasn’t my fault, wasn’t my job, and I didn’t have control over (or apologizing for the foreseeable bad outcomes of the poor decisions made by my higher-ups). I’m so sorry THAT HAPPENED is a good way to “apologize” without it seeming like you’re acknowledging culpability.

    It’s just way, way easier to apologize for stuff and forget it than dig in and try to prove that you’re right about something or that something wasn’t your fault.

    Of course, I rarely see guys do that. So.

    Reply
    1. Mary

      Or “I’m so sorry to hear that!” Acknowledges the other person’s frustration, doesn’t take responsibility.

      Reply
    2. The OG Anonsie

      Yep. It’s just a skip away from “I’m sorry you feel that way” in its level of actual non-apology-ness.

      Reply
  18. Lily in NYC

    EAs are so accustomed to being blamed for everything that goes wrong that it becomes second nature to apologize for things that aren’t our fault.

    Reply
    1. Kelly L.

      Yep. I once caught myself apologizing to someone for them giving me a contagious illness. And it’s because of getting blamed for random crap at various jobs.

      Reply
  19. Anon for Sure

    I think some of this is the industry. I find in some industries (healthcare, most notably), that there is always a group of volunteers who believe that they should receive an apology. And if a previous Executive Director has reinforced this behavior, then it’s no wonder that your assistant does this.

    To me it sounds like you not only need to talk to your executive assistant but also the board and the volunteers that you are working with regularly. It also needs to be clear to them, that they are responsible for preparing in advance, bringing their own paperwork, having the dial-in information, etc., and that angry voice mails and demands for apologies will not be tolerated.

    Reply
  20. Fishcakes

    The apologising may make you uncomfortable, but it’s what is expected of admin staff, especially when dealing with board members, the public, stakeholders, superiors, etc. I’ve been reprimanded for not being obsequious enough (apparently, “have a lovely afternoon!” is v. snarky and not groveling-sounding). I hate it, but it’s how it is.

    Reply
  21. SansaStark

    I’ve caught myself doing this, too, and a manager in my department once suggested using the word “unfortunate” in a statement instead of “I’m sorry” and it has really helped me re-frame how I respond. The situation in which you find yourself is unfortunate, but I’m not sorry that you created a bad situation for yourself.

    Reply
  22. my two cents

    Having worked in an in-bound call center during highschool, I learned the art of the ‘soft apology’ at a fairly young age. There were PLENTY of things folks called in about that I, as an order-taker, had no control over. But you’re still left dealing with the Very Angry Voice, and acknowledging the frustration and/or anger can help dissipate the heat. Plainly put, apologizing as a ‘social smoother’ of sorts can be the fastest way to placate a very angry coworker/customer.

    OP – Just be sure that she understands the difference between smoothing ‘soft’ apologies, and when she might have to really buck up and admit fault for something in the future. There’s no way you’ll be able to stop 100% of her knee-jerk apologies, but it might help her to know she can further differentiate the two ‘types’ in her communication moving forward to try to avoid undermining herself.

    Reply
  23. kb

    I picked up the habit of apologizing for everything while I worked in retail, so I imagine a similar habit could form for assistants in certain work environments. I leaned on it to placate people more often than I actually felt responsible for what I was apologizing for. It is definitely a useful tool in a service dynamic because proving the incompetence of the people you are supposed to be serving is pointless at best and ultimately counterproductive.
    I would address it once with your assistant to make sure she knows you don’t need the apologies and that you appreciate her work.
    If I were in your assistant’s shoes, I think I would appreciate if you called out your board members who tried to shirk blame to your assistant. I also don’t know how angry the voicemails that one board member left were, but if they crossed the line, I would tell them not to speak to your assistant that way. I don’t say this because your assistant needs protecting, just that the types of people who are rude to assistants to tend only shape up once they realize someone their level or above is watching.

    Reply
  24. MommyMD

    You state she’s an excellent employee. I’d leave her be. This is just how she is. Any way this is handled is going to make her feel bad and she will want to apologize for apologizing. Her behavior doesn’t hurt anyone and it does smooth people over.

    The most I would personally do is at times reply with “it’s not your fault.”

    I think hitting her with this is going to make her uncomfortable around you.

    Reply
    1. Hedwig

      I agree this has the potential to make her uncomfortable. If a conversation happens, it should be low key and to the effect that LW doesn’t know if previous directors expected all these apologies but that she does not. No demands that it stop, at most a statement that it is not necessary.

      Reply
  25. EmKay

    Admin assistant here. At OldJob I had one manager who would flip out at every little thing. If I prefaced the situation with “I’m sorry but…”, there was a better chance that he would stay calm. So I was always apologizing with him. Hated. It.

    Reply
  26. lbiz

    I think it would be kind of you to say something! I used to do a lot of that also, until I had a boss who drilled it out of me. He would not allow me to apologize in general or for anything that wasn’t my fault – he taught me that if something was my fault I should apologize specifically and name the thing I messed up – like, “I apologize for forgetting to respond to your last email” or whatever, never just “Sorry, here’s this document.” He said if I couldn’t point to a specific thing I had done wrong, it was not my fault and therefore I was not allowed to apologize for it. (He was a bit of a jerk but this thing in particular helped me a lot!)

    Allison is right though that there are some situations where it’s kind of the EA’s job to give herself unwarranted blame, and that board member situation is one of them. Unless the OP herself would tell the board member it was his fault, the EA certainly shouldn’t be expected to tell him he was wrong and apologizing is the natural response. But in other, especially internal cases, I think coaching her out of constant apologies would be doing her a great service.

    Reply
    1. lbiz

      Also, though, OP – you should talk with the angry board member, if you haven’t already. It’s unacceptable for someone to leave multiple angry voicemails, and part of your job as a good boss is to advocate for your employees when necessary. Your EA doesn’t have the clout to push back against him, but you likely do, and if this guy is so upset about a relatively minor thing I’m sure he’s being obnoxious about lots of other stuff your EA is handling in the background. Make sure you’re creating a fruitful work environment for your EA before you start coaching her on behaviors that may be related to things you can fix.

      Reply
  27. Fake Eleanor

    As others have noted, “I’m sorry” can mean “I apologize” … but it also means (and has meant for a long time) “I sympathize.”
    If your employee would like to change the language she uses, one simple thing to do is to be clear when she means the second one. Instead of just “I’m sorry,” explicitly say “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
    (One thing this does: It makes the “sorry” whens she’s apologizing worth more. When the language is a reflex or a habit, it’s no longer really an apology at all — a real apology requires even a little thought behind it.)

    Reply
    1. LS

      Where I’m from, people express sympathy by saying “shame!”

      As in, “I tripped on the stairs and twisted my ankle!” “Oh, shame!”

      Apparently this sounds really strange to other people.

      Reply
      1. SSS

        Now with the Game of Thrones episode, using the “shame” comment will likely bring on all sorts of odd reactions.

        Reply
  28. Actuarial Octagon

    I also definitely do this, a hold over from working in high end retail I think. I’m just not sure how to get around it. What could this EA say to the irritated board member that doesn’t start with “I’m sorry I missed your call…”?

    Reply
  29. Roman Holiday

    I’ve worked hard to break myself of the habit of apologizing necessarily, or undermining myself when giving my opinion (eg changing “I just think we should change the TPS reports from X to Y”, to something like “Let’s change the TPS reports from X to Y”). Now, when I hear an unnecessary apology, I try to counter with something like, “no need to apologize, this clearly isn’t your fault!” I hear this kind of thing a lot from assistants, receptionists and customer service reps, and to me it reads that they’re used to be chastised for things outside of their control, which sucks no matter what your job is. Kudos to the OP for having their EAs back!

    Reply
  30. Darcy

    There is also a difference in the intent between the language, “I’m sorry” which means I feel bad that this happened versus “I apologize” which means I’m at fault and accepting blame. Unfortunately not everyone views it this way and some people assign blame to an “I’m sorry” that wasn’t intended to denote blame.

    Reply
  31. overcaffeinatedandqueer

    I know this isn’t funny, but this person remind me of me! The Onion once did a headline of something like “Area Woman Has Said “Sorry” 50 Times Already Today,” and I think I literally sometimes do that!

    Between living in Minnesota, and having a perfectionist tiger parent, I will actually apologize to YOU if you run into me!

    I am getting better at it, and I don’t apologize as much in close relationships, but my first gut reflex to a conflict (unless I am arguing for others or the person is being racist or hateful or homophobic), is to, emotionally speaking, roll over, protect my head, and try to mitigate by apologizing.

    Reply
  32. Noel

    Maybe this is just the Canadian in me, but I don’t see anything wrong with saying sorry. Sorry can mean a lot of things from “I regret my mistake” to “I wish someone else hadn’t made this mistake.”

    I’ve noticed while browsing this site that Americans seem a lot more wary of apologies. I guess it’s a cultural thing.

    Reply
    1. MommyMD

      I’d be happy I had such an excellent employee and leave it at that. It’s obviously a personality trait of this particular employee and seems to be bothering only the OP. “Sorry” does have multiple meanings.

      Reply
    2. overcaffeinatedandqueer

      I guess that’s one thing Minnesota and Canada have in common! Once, I was coming into a coffee shop in a converted old house, with a really heavy door. I was about to open it when someone opened it from the inside- it smacked me in the face, and the blowback from the door hitting me tripped him.

      In unison: “oh my god, I am so sorry! Are you okay? Sorry!”

      Still in unison: “Yes, I am, thank you.”

      Reply
    3. Tee

      Yeah, I’m Canadian as well and I just don’t get the big deal about saying “sorry.” Although I think everyone apologizes for everything here men, women, children, you name it. I don’t view it as admitting fault or assigning blame, but people here apologize when THEY are the one who was bumped into or their foot was stepped on, etc. I don’t think that ever happens America. People here say “sorry” and move on!

      Reply
      1. Eden

        I apologize when I’m bumped into also and I’m American (but have lived in and frequently visit Minnesota – coincidence?). I also frequently use “I’m sorry” in contexts where I’m sympathizing, not apologizing. I am in a service role and drawing a strict line on this would not make sense for me.

        Reply
      2. Chinook

        Sign me as another Canadian who doesn’t see the big deal for the Admin. saying sorry for an inconvenient situation. Up here, it is a social lubricant signifying that the situation isn’t ideal and is used by both men and women.

        I joke with my immigrant colleagues that they know they have become fully integrated Canadian when someone steps on their toes or bumps into them and they are the one apologizing for being in the way (in the same way overcaffeinatedandqueer mentioned).

        Reply
        1. Isobel

          It’s interesting to note which groups say sorry a lot – I knew Canadians have a reputation for this but didn’t know about Minnesotans.
          Sorry has a lot of meanings e.g
          “Sorry, is this your bag?” actually meaning “hello, excuse me”, or “sorry?” meaning “I didn’t catch what you said”.
          I’m in the UK and many of us also apologise if someone bumps into us…

          Reply
          1. seevee

            Minnesota, along with North and South Dakota, actually have very similar cultures to some Canadian provinces in my experience. I’m from Manitoba (right above North Dakota) and I find I have a lot more in common culturally (including apologizing when people bump into me and using “sorry” as a shorthand for “this is not ideal”) with people from the states mentioned above than I do with people from other Canadian provinces like BC and Quebec. It probably comes from our shared ability to withstand -40 degrees Celsius during the winters, as well as living in the middle of a sparsely populated horizontal prairie desert.

            Reply
    4. I'm sorry, I'm Canadian

      Agreed. Americans are very uncomfortable with these social lubricant apologies and make them about confidence and feminism and beat it out of women in particular (and probably men as well). And while I suppose they may be right in some situations and these apologies really are a mark of some kind of character weakness, it’s also just a cultural difference. Anyone raised in a commonwealth country is going to apologize a lot. I presume the children of people who were raised in a commonwealth country probably do as well. In the name of diversity, let us have our sorrys!

      Reply
  33. Overeducated

    I think any talk the LW has with her should include the explicit message, “And I’ll have your back.” I understand apologies as social smoother but this sounds extreme enough, with the board member’s behavior, that I can’t help thinking the EA has been thrown under the bus before so others didn’t have to take responsibility. I wouldn’t take risks by changing my interactions with superiors if I didn’t know my supervisor would support me.

    Reply
    1. KR

      Yes this is so important. If she doesn’t apologize and people turn to OP with complaints about her rudeness (because a woman who is unapologetic is usually considered rude by people who are used to being apologized to and coddled) the employee needs to know OP will stick up for her.

      Reply
  34. Sarah

    I am an over-apologizer. I’m much better in e-mail where I can edit.What are some good replacement phrases for expressing regret that isn’t your fault? I’m sorry comes so naturally to me, but usually I mean “sorry that happened” not “I’m sorry for my mistake.”

    Here is what I could think of:
    – That’s too bad!
    – Nothing – i.e. say whatever you were going o say without appending a sorry on it

    Google has a lot more ideas…

    I wish that the work world didn’t hold us to a standard that made general niceties (that women are socialized to conform to) something to look down upon and a reflection of unconfident. But I don’t expect that to change quickly, so it is much easier to adopt the more curt / direct style that is valued

    Reply
    1. overcaffeinatedandqueer

      I actually apologize less in German (am bilingual), because they have a succinct, non-sweary word or phrase for expressing that something is…s***y or inconvenient that isn’t “sorry.”

      Just “Schade.” Most closely translates to…that’s a shame, I think.

      So I think English does lack the linguistics to express without apologies either.

      Reply
      1. CMDRBNA

        Yes! German is my second language and schade is a great, all-purpose way of expressing vague sympathy. I think the only English equivalent is “bummer” which is probably too slangy for work.

        I personally would be happy to use my natural curt, direct style of communicating, but I’m a woman and have gotten feedback that I’m too abrupt or not nice enough. So, YMMV.

        I think it might be better for this manager to convey this not as something general the EA needs to stop but something the manager personally doesn’t want her to do. I’m just imagining her moving on to another job that does expect that sort of non-stop apology and ‘niceness’ and getting told she’s not nice enough, or something.

        It is really annoying that women are expected to be pleasant in a way that men aren’t, but that very pleasantness is looked down on or considered weak.

        Reply
    2. Grapey

      I do some support work and I say “sorry you’re experiencing that” to give vague emapthy without taking accountability. I usually follow it up with some form of what I can do to help since I can only affect the present and future.

      Reply
  35. Zathras

    There’s a difference between a groveling apology made by person who is flustered, and someone breezily saying “Sorry I missed your call, I was away from my desk.”. The former can be a problem when it’s out of proportion to the situation and it’s common in inexperienced people who haven’t yet realized that it’s ok to make mistakes. It also happens with more experienced people who have been conditioned into it by working for jerks. If your EA is doing that, I think letting her know she doesn’t have to and that you will have her back against jerks is good. Because in that case the message is really “you don’t have to stand there and take it when people are being unreasonable.”

    If it’s the second case I wouldn’t bring it up at all.

    Reply
  36. LS

    I prefer “No need to apologise! That wasn’t your fault.”

    If it persists after you’ve said that a few times, then I’d go to Alison’s script.

    But she may just need to be made aware that she *is* apologising constantly (it could be a verbal tic) or that you don’t expect her to apologise for everything and everyone. Or both.

    Reply
    1. Fake Eleanor

      Please don’t use that script if she’s saying “sorry” to be empathetic, rather than apologizing. Many people find it rude to have their expressions of sympathy thrown back in their face.

      Reply
      1. FDCA In Canada

        Good Lord, yes. Nothing is more aggravating than trying to express empathy with a crappy situation by saying “Sorry” as shorthand for “I’m sorrowful that that happened to you” than someone saying “No need to apologize! It wasn’t your fault.” I know it wasn’t. I didn’t give you a flat tire/sicken your pet/cause the rain, I’m just saying how disappointing it is that it happened to you.

        Reply
  37. The Strand

    I sometimes use an apology for customer service purposes, so bear in mind that that could be another reason why she uses it. Nine times out of ten, it definitely isn’t my fault, it’s the fault of the person who is ranting and raving. “I apologize for the inconvenience” or “I apologize for the confusion,” seems to get some people out of rant mode and into problem solving. It’s great, OP, that you don’t need that back massage some leaders need; I’m sure you’ll develop a much better, closer communication style with your assistant over time.

    But my job involves some crossover with IT-related tickets. I have literally had people cry on the phone with me before. Users often blame IT people for their mistakes, when it is actually their actions that caused a problem, but telling them they did it to themselves – if it’s technology/widget related – really makes things worse. Many people are insecure about their technology skills, or have interacted with less than supportive tech CSRs already (which can flip the “rant” switch). So, starting with an apology like, “I’m sorry this happened” works wonders – and then you can factually explain how widgets work.

    Reply
  38. lily

    Yes. This was me. I was young, first “big girl” job out of college, and I always heard about how people complained of younger people being entitled and not professional, and all of that. Pair that with the fact that my boss was an absolute brat – throwing tantrums, loud, unreasonable expectations. I would be assigned something on a Monday, it be due on Friday, and she would yell at me in front of the entire department if I didn’t finish it within an hour of it being assigned. This is a small incident, but: She asked me to print out a report – a report that didn’t exist – for a meeting. I explained that X report didn’t exist, and that I could bring Y report, which was the closest thing to X. She said she understood. I show up to the meeting and she interrupts me and goes “And why didn’t you bring X report like you said?” and then I have to explain, again, in front of my department, without sounding rude, that X report doesn’t exist.

    But the most humiliating is when photos went missing off of our shared drive. Supposedly, this was a $2500 photoshoot. I know for a fact I didn’t get rid of the photos, but they were missing, and I took the fall for it. Instead of standing up for myself, I gave a wishy washy “Well, I don’t actually know if I did it? Maybe I did? I don’t remember dealing with the photos?” which made her blame me. She yelled at me every day for weeks about these photos. I actually managed recovered most of them. She would send emails to the entire department, addressing me, “Where are the photos?” Even in the middle of meetings, even if it had nothing to do with the photos, she would interrupt and go “And you are going to resolve the photos, right?”

    Turns out, she had the CD of the photos sitting on her desk the entire time. At one point I actually got sick, had weird symptoms for days, and I was checked out by a doctor – stress, apparently. I really thought I was going to lose my job over this, I took the fall for something I didn’t do, I was blamed for it, and she had the photos the entire time.

    Reply
  39. LilySparrow

    I spent 12+ years working as an EA in various law firms as a day job to support my creative work. There is no upward career path to speak of in a role like that, without making a shift into a department like HR or marketing. But I didn’t really care about that.

    I apologized all.the.time. For car service being late. For errors by catering or the mailroom. For my predecessor misfiling documents.
    I didn’t believe these things were my fault, and it wasn’t a reflexive tic. It was a choice to redirect the complaining person and get them out of my way so I could get on with my work, and make them more likely to cooperate with me when I needed it. And it was extremely effective.

    Rational people would feel at least subconsciously guilty when I took “blame” for something I had no control over. Then they feel a sense of obligation. A big part of being effective at my job was calling in chips to get things expedited, upgraded, or approved for my bosses. Those apologies created currency.

    As for irrational people – well, there’s no point provoking a confrontation. An apology makes them feel better, and they go away.

    Reply
  40. RUKiddingMe

    I don’t want to come off sounding…IDK arrogant I guess (or something) but OP you say you are new in this role, your EA has been in it for the past 15 years under four predecessors. Maybe she knows what she’s doing and how best to interact with these people.

    I agree she shouldn’t have to be apologizing for others’ mistakes, especially as women are socialized to think we have to always be apologizing for…existing apparently, but I think this probably falls under the “I got this” section of being an EA.

    Reply

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