should I apologize to another team for how my boss treated them?

A reader writes:

My boss, “Harold,” recently pulled me into a conflict with another team in an email. There was some back and forth regarding a request that Harold made, which culminated in Harold being condescending and insulting (perhaps inadvertently, but it could have been phrased better) a member of the other team who was copied on the email. The response from the other team demonstrated that they were clearly annoyed and Harold already has a bad history with them.

I have to work with this team regularly and don’t want to have a bad relationship with them, so I would like to apologize to their boss, who was the one having the back and forth with Harold. However, my office is gossipy and Harold can be very aggressive–I’m afraid of Harold getting upset with me for “taking their side” or being “insubordinate.”

How should I handle this situation? I wasn’t going to use email since I didn’t want it to get back to Harold that easily, but I’m worried that it will get back to him somehow even if I do it verbally. Should I just not apologize at all? But I feel badly that their team was mistreated and I want them to know I do not agree with it.

As understandable as the impulse is, I wouldn’t apologize to the other team for how your boss treated them. As right as you might be, that would be pretty undermining to your boss and signal to him that you think he did something embarrassing and apology-worthy. I think it would be fine to talk to him about that, if you have the kind of relationship that allows it, but I wouldn’t go around him to deliver that message — particularly given what you said about him being aggressive or the type of person who’d call you insubordinate for something like this.

And really, this isn’t your thing to apologize for. You’re not the one who did anything wrong here, and it sounds like they already know what your boss is like and are going to understand that this is about him, not you.

I do get your concern about not wanting to seem like you were on board with it though. And there are other ways to signal to the other team where you stand: be especially warm and helpful to them, do what you can to provide a buffer between them and your boss (if practical and not weird), and go out of your way to make their lives easier when they’re dealing with your team. That’s probably going to be more useful to them — and to your relationship with them — than an apology on behalf of someone who isn’t actually sorry anyway.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. KT*

    I completely agree with Alison–there is no reason for you to apologize, and if you do, you risk seriously undermining your boss. This is something for that team and Harold to work out, not you.

    1. A Bug!*

      Undermining your boss and likely yourself as well at the same time, because people will see that you’re willing to undermine your boss.

      It might seem like a pretty minor thing, trying to smooth things over after your boss was rude. But it’s actually a pretty big deal, because if you’ll go behind your boss’s back to secretly “correct” his behavior knowing that he doesn’t think it needs correcting, then that means you can’t really be trusted to do your own job the way your employer expects it to be done if you have other ideas about how it should be done.

  2. Apollo Warbucks*

    This seems like a case where actions speak louder than words, if you act in a reasonable and professional manner towards the other team, your bosses dumb ass behaviour shouldn’t be any reflection of you.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Right. If you’ve already been a decent human being and a helpful coworker, they probably feel sorry for you instead of blaming you for your PHB’s (Patently Hatable Boss) outbursts.

  3. LW*

    Thank you! I actually had an opportunity a few hours after this happened to email the other team without my boss copied. I threw in a “thank you so much for everything you do to help our team” and got a warm reply, which was reassuring. You are right–I wouldn’t be able to talk to Harold about the situation without him assuming I’m on his side or being angry that I wasn’t, so I’ll keep trying to be helpful to this team and do what I can to maintain the relationship.

    1. Amber Rose*

      It’s amazing how much a sincere thank you does to build strong working relationships. As long as you show yourself to be easy to work with, then people’s dealings with your boss shouldn’t affect you.

    2. bridget*

      I think this is perfect. Instead of apologizing that he *doesn’t* appreciate them, which would be an undermining finger-pointing at your boss, you told them that you *do* appreciate them. The contrast between the two of you will make the message perfectly clear to the other team, but your boss couldn’t possibly take umbrage with you saying it.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        “Instead of apologizing that he *doesn’t* appreciate them, which would be an undermining finger-pointing at your boss, you told them that you *do* appreciate them.”

        What a great way to summarize it. I completely agree – this was an excellent response. LW, it also shows to the other team that you’re not someone who will get drawn into office gossip and drama, which is a very good thing.

    3. A Bug!*

      I don’t know how I missed your comment earlier. That sentiment gets an A+ from me – it expresses your appreciation for them without throwing your boss under the bus. I think you’ve got it figured out: do your best to be polite and professional and people will know what kind of person you are.

      Just remember that if the working relationship with the other team withers away regardless of your efforts, it’s not your fault. You’ll be developing a reputation as a person who is able to maintain her professionalism under really tough conditions, and that is valuable especially if you want to move around within the company later.

  4. Katie the Fed*

    Don’t worry – everyone already knows Harold is an ass. It doesn’t reflect on you.

  5. voyager1*

    I disagree with AAM sort of. If the person on the other team is someone you work with frequently and know, then apologize to them. Something along the terms of “sorry how that email chain went with Harold” and leave it at that.

    Don’t do it in email. If they are at another location then leave it be.

    You only need to do this if you work with this person to a point where you think Harold’s actions could impact your needing to work with this person.

    Don’t apologize to the other team. Like others said, they know Harold is an ass.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I was thinking along the same lines. The LW shouldn’t apologize for Harold, but she can apologize about the situation going sour.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        I disagree, unless I’m missing something about how the exchange came about. It doesn’t sound like LW’s actions contributed to the situation going sour, or that she had any control over stopping it from going sour. She’s not responsible for Harold, only for her own relationship with the other team – and she can build that relationship without commenting one way or another on Harold.

        In my opinion, “I’m sorry” should either be for apologizing for things you take responsibility for, or for expressing sympathy in the case of something that’s clearly not your fault (e.g. “I’m sorry to hear about your broken ankle.”) This situation isn’t the LW’s fault, and it also doesn’t feel to me like it belongs in the same sympathy category as illness/death in the family/other misfortune.

        1. voyager1*

          I am not saying the apology is for what Harold did, but more of acknowledging that his actions were bad and she noticed and understands.

          1. A Bug!*

            The problem is that whether OP says “I’m sorry on behalf of Harold” or “I’m sorry for Harold’s behavior,” she is still criticizing her boss’s behavior to others. It’s unprofessional and is more likely to reflect poorly on her for her poor judgment than it is to smooth over any ruffled feathers on the other team.

  6. Graciosa*

    I agree entirely – and please think about how it would look if you were attempting to handle your boss’ issues. The person who should be doing that is his boss, not you.

    And yes, it does happen on occasion. I once found out that my boss was pulled off a call by his manager to immediately correct a behavior displayed on the call. This was done quietly with a separate call between their cells, and none of the participants on the conference call even knew until later (I wouldn’t have known if my boss hadn’t told me himself).

    Whether or not this is being addressed – and you probably wouldn’t know if it were – is up to your boss’ boss, not you. You would *really* be overstepping to apologize for his behavior to another team – that’s something a superior can do, but not a subordinate.

    As Katie said, everyone knows Harold anyway, and this does not reflect on you. Just take the lesson to heart and remember if you’re ever promoted that this is *not* the way to win friends and influence people.

  7. TotesMaGoats*

    In the most general sense I agree with AAM. However, depending on the relationships you have and your office dynamics, you could subtly make sure that the other team knows that you value your working relationship and their contributions. Sending a thank you to the boss of the other team is an idea. A heartfelt thank you to someone else’s superior goes a long way. In my personal experience, I’ve taken brownies or cookies to someone who I work closely with but go steamrolled by my boss. I’ve still got to work with them and work well. They appreciated the sweets and the gesture. That’s a YMMV thing and I know lots of folks here aren’t on board with the food giving. I am. It’s worked well…for me.

  8. Spring Sunshine*

    Agree with the stuff here. I have been in a similar situation. Work it so that the more of an arse Harold is, the nicer you are.

  9. The Cosmic Avenger*

    Actually, think about it this way: if you see a co-worker who you think is OK with a douchepants boss (DPB), and the DPB is obnoxious with you and your team, do you really expect the co-worker to apologize about their boss? That would actually seem a little weird to me. I would probably say “I’m sorry you have to put up with that DPB. By the way, did you know there’s an opening on our team?”

  10. Jeanne*

    I’ve been there. I never had to apologize to anyone for my idiotic boss. I just had to use my knowledge to help coworkers in other departments when they came to me with questions. They learned that I was helpful and knew his behavior was not in my control.

  11. Nelia Aiken*

    i work for a security company in Ga.the company says hours below 35 is partime and offer no health benefits iwork 32hrs. was told i don’t qualify for benfits under the Obamacare law is my company justified not granting 32hours a week employees benfits

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