my employee apologizes for mistakes she didn’t make

A reader writes:

I’m a new executive director. My assistant is amazing and I couldn’t ask for a better one. She anticipates my expectations and needs very little direction, and 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.

The things she apologizes for 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, when 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’m in her age group and the first female executive director in the history of the company. I am not sure if that plays into it at all. I also acknowledge that this might just be how she is as a person.

Is there a way to approach her without her feeling like I am coming down on her? Should I even bother saying anything at all?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 191 comments… read them below }

  1. A Teacher*

    It is hard to overcome the impulse to apologize when you didn’t do anything wrong but there was an error. I am almost 40 and 18 years into the working world and finally asked myself, “why am I apologizing for doing my job?” My original career, for which I still provide PRN coverage, is male dominated and as a profession but particularly as women in that profession, we are socialized to apologize for mistakes-even if not our own. Helping her to see that she doesn’t have to do this and helping her to reframe why is a great thing you can do for her as a supervisor.

    1. MissEA*

      It’s possible she’s not apologising because she’s actually sorry, but because she knows it will smooth the situation and ultimately make her job easier – and your job easier too. I’m a career EA and its definitely a tool in my arsenal. Especially when you are dealing with Execs and board members who tend to be a specific subset of people with very dated attitudes.

    1. OyHiOh*

      I swear there is a board member like this in every organization that has a governing board. In some cases, like a particularly notorious case I’m aware of, in a finance industry niche, the model is member driven and you can’t really politely (or otherwise!) maneuver a Missing Stair off the board. In most cases, the board itself has to get fed up enough with a Missing Stair’s antics to decline to renew their seat.

        1. OyHiOh*

          Years ago in my community, a particularly awful person on a credit union board. Nothing that would ever attract regional or national attention, just a chronic case of Unpleasant Older White Male syndrome. Because of the way credit union boards are required to set up their boards and govern, he couldn’t be quietly removed. He literally had to either die or choose to step down himself. I’m also recalling a situation that is more than 15 years in the past. The NCUA rules for boards and their governance may have changed significantly since!

    2. Rayray*

      I once was an assistant to a business manager for a wealthy billionaire. The billionaire grand boss was on many local boards. One day, I get a phone call looking for him. I informed the caller that he was out of the office but could I please take a message. The caller was rude and abrupt, giving me attitude and refused to give me any clue why he was calling. Not having the patience to deal with a little man tantrum anymore, I just instead took his name and let my boss know. She was busy with someone else and per the 200 page employee manual, I was not to disturb her and to give her phone messages when she was free.

      I then got a tongue lashing because apparently this was some director of the local hospital group and I was supposed to interrupt boss’ meeting because that was important. I jus refused deadpan and repeated to her what was in the manual and asked if she would like me to change it. She got a little huffy and then went to deal with the issue.

      Now, if this caller had said simply “This is Hospital Board Director and we had a scheduled call” I would have acted more urgently and gotten my boss. Instead, he was rude and refused to answer any of my questions or simply just COMMUNICATE. Turns out, his assistant didn’t get the memo that my grand boss was at one of his vacation homes in Idaho and she was supposed to give him that phone number. So all because a couple people couldn’t coordinate their own schedules and phone calls, I got in trouble and I’m sure she did as well.

      This is why I want to stay as far away from
      That kind of world as I can. I just can’t stand it. I’ll see his name occasionally in the news or something and just remember he’s an unpleasant man that somehow wormed his way to be a board director with minimal people skills.

      1. Good Wilhelmina Hunting*

        Reminds me of why I ran screaming from the corporate world, and why no one could ever pay me enough to take another support staff role.

        1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

          I ran screaming from not-for-profit development work due to tantrum-throwing moneybags. My boss could be pretty feisty herself, and when I saw her get screamed at without defending herself, I knew I wasn’t cut out for that lineof work. I still stuck with the not-for-profit, just in an area far, far away from the big donors and board jerks.

          1. RC*

            OMG this. I have a lot of respect for folks in development at nonprofits that can do this. I know I can’t, and since I’m in marketing and the two overlap, it’s kept me from applying to some jobs.

  2. Wisteria*

    This is really not a thing that needs correcting. Sometimes apologizing is a way of expressing regret for the situation, which doesn’t mean taking responsibility for it. Coming from an admin, it is probably also a way, probably unconscious, of mitigating the ire that she knows will be aimed at her. Instead of correcting her, try viewing it differently.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      I totally agree! Sorry isn’t always “It was my fault,” for one thing, and for another, apologizing is a super important mitigation tool, and I’ve even been told that in work classes.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Agreed. “Sorry” can mean “My condolences” as often as “I apologize.”

      2. Loulou*

        Agreed, and Alison’s answer did acknowledge that, but after advising OP to talk to her employee about apologizing less. Without knowing the context of her other apologies, it’s hard to know if that’s warranted or not. If all the other examples are similar, than OP’s employee probably has a good handle on when it’s necessary to apologize.

        1. Macapito*

          This, especially about the assistant probably having a good handle on when to apologize, and, I expect, a better handle on the ins-and-outs of the board member personalities. OP is new to the role and possibly to the org (?). I don’t think it was said if the assistant has been there for a while; if so, I’d trust the assistant’s read.

          I’m probably reading into dynamics here, but a few things LW said {like the board member’s lateness is not the assistant’s problem, they’re in the same age group, etc} give me the impression that LW may be expecting the assistant to respond how LW would respond, which doesn’t typically work well for support staff/assistants. I’ve seen that happen with assistants I worked with, where an exec-level same-age-peer expected the assistant to handle things the way the same-age-exec would handle them, and…no. Part of that was an underlying “well, I’m her age, and I came this far, so I have good advice to help her get ahead, too!” and, also…no. People in different roles have different levels of political capital to spend or not spend. I’m NOT saying that’s what LW is doing, but something in that vein is pinging my radar. For instance, it doesn’t seem like LW would ever entertain apologizing for the board member screwing up his own schedule, and neither would I, but I’m not an assistant. For an assistant whose job is to make sure scheduling for those meetings goes smoothly as planned, it’s a big deal to have it be messed up, and publicly so. And then to have the Worst Possible Thing happen and get absolutely lit up by an angry board member, I think the Even Worst Possible Thing would be for the brand new ED to come along and tell the assistant “don’t apologize! You apologize too much! Here’s how you need to handle it instead!” Egads, no.

          1. Sammy Keyes*

            Yeah, this completely makes sense to me. It’s sometimes hard for people who are not in support/admin roles (and have never been on that type of track) that there is often just a different expectation for how you interact with the people you support. As an assistant, you learn pretty quickly that it doesn’t actually matter if something wasn’t your fault – you need to fix it/smooth it over anyway as if it is. And tending the fragile ego of a board member is exactly the kind of thing that you’re expected to manage.

          2. raida7*

            I think that for specific situations that the ED can tell her Assistant to let her handle it, and talk to the board member about how they do not expect angry blaming voicemails left for her Assistant while they are busy doing their job.

            One of my old bosses was copied into an email from someone huffy about a recurring problem that my team didn’t cause who decided it was high time someone told us not to waste their Director’s or team’s time with this stuff anymore. Many people were copied in. It was very blaming and pointed.

            Our boss came into my team’s room, told us to not worry about it, he would handle it, we can all go get coffees if we’d like, on him, to decompress from that email.

            He went in person to find that foolish, foolish person and let them know a) they didn’t understand the subject matter b) my team didn’t cause these issues c) they do *not* have any authority to give my team instructions d) they are not to contact my team again unless it is for work their actual job covers, such as their Director asking them to e) if anyone in their area wants to have a go at my team they can talk directly to him and he, as our manager, will be the person to communicate what needs to be done and organise it and he needs to know about issues or he can’t do his job as the head of business systems.
            And he did that with their Director as the other person in the room. That whole section stopped complaining when they realised there was a boss willing to actually hold them to standard simple process for issues and he’d pop up in person and talk plainly and directly about how his staff are not to be spoken to or about. If you’ve got an issue, work with us to find a solution.
            Never. Talk. To. His. Staff. Like. That. Again. And if you really feel the need to, do it in person with our boss in the room and not by copying in a dozen other people to watch you publicly dress them down.

            gosh oh gee how nice that was! The entire section thought very highly of him for the few occasions where that kind of intervention was done, gave us all a lot of confidence that he would not take someone’s word blindly in a whinge about any of us and he would happily stand in the way of anyone that interrupted his teams’ days with unfair expectations.

          3. MM*

            Ding ding. I haven’t been an assistant, but I’ve been an event coordinator, and I’ve been in situations much like that one with the board member. The assistant absolutely did the right thing, just as I’d say “sorry about that” to an attendee who didn’t have a namecard at the ready for their place even though they didn’t confirm they were coming until an hour before, or whatever. A big part of managing meetings and events (as the point person on logistics and prep etc., not the person leading the meeting) is giving the impression of everything being as seamless as possible. (In some ways, for roles like this one, “Sorry about that, I’ll take care of it for you” is an expression or maintenance of power and standing much more than it is giving it up.) It is not the scenario in which you want to be putting your foot down about these things unless it’s totally egregious or unreasonable, and in the latter situation you want your boss to step in and do it for you if it’s at all possible.

            Now, I think that sort of scenario is almost completely separate from whether the assistant needs to apologize to OP so much or for all the same things. I think it’s fine for OP to make it clear to assistant that she doesn’t want or need that, and that she views the situation as the two of them being on the same side and problem-solving together. It was like that with me and my boss and it can be a good dynamic. My friend/former colleague who was the assistant to our exec (different job) routinely got blamed to external parties for his fuckup–if he missed an appointment or whatever he’d say it was her fault. That’s shitty, but it’s not uncommon, and OP’s predecessor or others the assistant has worked with in the past may have been more in this vein. Especially with OP being new, it’s not unwise for assistant to err on the side of smoothing-over. I think it’s ok for OP to let her know that’s not her style, but it should be clear–both to OP and to assistant–that this is not the same as instructing the assistant that she should be doing other parts of her job differently.

      3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Agree, in this case especially it read to me as meaning “sorry this happened to you”, rather than “I apologize profusely for the thing that is 100% not my fault.”

    2. AnonInCanada*

      Agreed. I find myself apologizing for things beyond my control or not my issue, if only to placate a customer. Case in point: most of the northeast US and Southern Ontario got gob-smacked with a crapload of snow yesterday. Of course there’ll be that one customer who thinks we can magically get our delivery vehicles out of this to get their precious order to them on time. When they call to complain I will apologize for the inconvenience this caused, but there was no way we can deliver to them with all the snow falling. Internally, I would be screaming “You $@(%! Have you looked outside your $*@(#ing window???” But you always have to put on your best face, no matter how unreasonable they may be.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        I once found myself apologizing for the smoke and fires in my state (which closed my entire organization for a week and a half) to the international clientele. Even I thought that was ridiculous-but clearly it needed to be done.

      2. Macapito*

        I hear that. To go way off topic, a higher end clothing company once jerked me around on a delivery that got held up by natural factors, but they were sending emails that said “it’s still on time!” and “it’s almost there!” When I called customer service to ask about the delivery date, which had changed four times and was a week and a half late, they said it was still on time and seemed really confused by the shipment info. Only then did a supervisor disclose that their shipment center had a ton of late deliveries due to that natural factor, which I hadn’t even heard of in my part of the world. If they’d just said “hey, Natural Factor has impacted shipping for your expensive item that you’ve already been charged for; expect delays!” everything would have been fine. Clear, honest communication matters and helps avoid most angry people. Although some people are gonna angry no matter what.

        1. Katt*

          I totally agree with this. There’s a local shipping company that has a tendency to mark orders as delivered before they even arrive. It drives me up the wall, because then if it is delayed, well, they’ve already marked it as delivered so the tracking will never update again, and you just have to wait for it to show up. I guess they probably do that to fill quotas, but come on.

          There used to be another company in my area that would mark Amazon items delivered on the day they were due to arrive, then actually deliver them a few days later. I actually opened a couple theft claims with Amazon because I was assuming the items were getting stolen before I got home from work. Then, one day, I had already been refunded for the item and was out and about running errands when I got a phone call from the person who was delivering my item. I was shocked, and said I wasn’t home, to which she seemed really annoyed – but I was assuming the item had been delivered previously and stolen, so why would I be sitting at home waiting for something I didn’t think was still coming? Huge hassle. Amazon no longer uses them, so I guess they had enough complaints that Amazon dumped them.

      3. DoggoMom*

        I’m very glad that I have today off. I know it would be many, many calls about why aren’t we forcing UPS to deliver our orders despite the snowstorm. I’ve had to apologize to someone because they entered their address wrong. Apparently it was “ridiculous” that we didn’t catch this error and we should call people to verify. (Yes, because all online retailers personally call everyone that orders online to verify that everything is correct.)

      4. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        My area got hit by the snowstorm harder than I’d expected it to be! (It is my first year living in this neighborhood, my old house was in the snow belt area, but this city is not – got a foot and a half dumped on it anyway!) The city/landlords in the apartment buildings where I live, did their best to plow the streets and snowblow the sidewalks at least in some capacity, so people could get out of their homes if needed. Never crossed my mind to expect delivery in that weather. My old city canceled its trash collection on Monday, because it simply was not possible. But yeah, I agree that “I am sorry that your order is being delayed due to a snow storm” is the right way to go. I mean, I do feel their pain, even though I can’t stop the snow from coming down.

      1. ursula*

        Given the barrage of angry voicemails from the board member over a pretty trivial and understandable issue, I’m guessing she absolutely does!

      2. Loulou*

        I’m not quite understanding this comment, maybe because of the quotes. Who are you saying should find the apologies exhausting? The admin, the recipient, OP?

    3. Threeve*

      Many people use “sorry” to mean “I’m sharing bad news.”

      Nothing to do with taking responsibility for the bad news, just acknowledgment that they know it’s bad.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        One SO that I had, would deliver the bad news by calling me and then answering my “Hi” immediately with a somber “Babe, I’ve got terrible news” (and then the terrible news would turn out to be something innocuous, like that he’s going to be an hour late when he comes to visit on the upcoming weekend, etc.) Almost gave me a heart attack the first few times he did this! The evil me is tempted to do this to bad customers, like that board member. Lead with “I’ve got terrible news”. Maybe then they’ll feel relieved when it ends up being “we were in the meeting doing the presentation and had no way of knowing you’d call me at my desk.” Keep them guessing. (Don’t really do that, of course.)

    4. Macapito*

      Right. It’s like saying “I’m so sorry” when someone announces bad news, and they respond with, “Oh, it’s not your fault.” Yes. I was expressing regret that the bad thing occurred, not taking responsibility for the bad news; I figured that was always contextually implied but I’ve gotten the “it’s not your fault” response so many times that I go with “I’m sorry to hear that” or “I’m sorry to hear that happened to you” now. Sometimes “I’m sorry” is a social nicety, that’s all.

      1. Cathie from Canada*

        “Its not your fault” is a rude response to what is usually a kindly-meant condolence.
        The only time I ever justifiably used this phrase was when an acquaintance of my aunt found out about her death in hospital, and she started going on and on about how sorry she was that she hadn’t visited because she could have told the doctors how to treat my aunt’s condition — egotistical and offensive; we could only keep saying “it’s not your fault” until she finally stopped talking!

        1. STG*

          I think that some people view the statement “I’m sorry” as an apology by default. Hence the response. I think it’s less about manners and more about differences in language/communication.

          1. MM*

            I think it’s some mixture of that and people wanting to kind of play or shrug it off, at least in US culture. For whatever reason, just accepting an “I’m sorry” with “thank you” is somehow awkward for us–maybe because we feel like we’re supposed to “be strong” or not “seek attention” or something, or just a general awkwardness around emotions. If the automatic “it’s ok” or “no big deal” isn’t available (because it in fact is not the other person’s fault, or because it’s actually not ok/is a big deal), nobody knows what to do. “It’s not your fault” is also a deflection sometimes, which isn’t mutually exclusive with its being a misunderstanding. I just offer a “I meant, I’m sorry for your trouble,” which seems to work as a decent dismount for everybody.

      2. L'étrangere*

        It’s ratger narrow minded to interpret “I’m sorry” as meaning that someone is taking responsibility for something. I’m sorry your dog died, your house burned down, you’re too stupid to show up prepared to a meeting.. Nothing to do with me, I’m just trying to express sympathy politely (and don’t assume any real depth of feelings either). There are other languages than English, and mercifully there are cultures more polite than the American one. Get used to it, setting aside that strange apology fetish. If I see fit to apologize for something, you’ll know, and it won’t start with “I’m sorry”

    5. PB Bunny Watson*

      I agree. My first thought was this. I often say “I’m sorry” to mean that I’m empathetic not that I’m to blame. But it does slightly irk me when people think they are being kind by saying, “Don’t apologize, it isn’t your fault.” I wasn’t saying it was my fault that your mother died… I was simply saying that I’m sorry for your loss.

    6. Ashley*

      Sometimes it does. Sometimes there a societal niceties for apologizing, but some of this can be gendered too. Not everyone recognizes this isn’t the assistants fault but they may begin to wonder if they are just hearing apologies. There is a time and a place for apologies but it shouldn’t be a regular thing when you did nothing wrong.

    7. anonymous73*

      I disagree. In this situation it does need correcting because the admin is taking the blame for issues that she is not responsible for creating. And words matter. You can say you’re sorry without taking the blame. “I was away from my desk setting up for the meeting. I’m sorry you missed it but you explained you would not be in attendance.” People, especially women, need to stop apologizing for every damn thing that goes wrong in life.

      1. Gouda*

        I agree. I’d like to push back on the idea that women overall need to say sorry less. This of course is not on you, but I do think we need to think seriously about making the traditonal, masculine ways of business communication the default, and telling women that they are the ones who need to adjust. If anything, men should say sorry more often. Saying sorry is a nice thing to do most of the time, just like in your example! More people saying sorry in that manner would make professional communication more pleasant and efficient.

      2. Macapito*

        In this situation, a self-described new director is assuming an assistant is unfairly taking blame while also admitting that the Board of Directors expects the assistant to take the blame. The director blames the assistant for this dynamic… Beyond that, there are layers here, and, depending on how new the director is, I’m not convinced the director has a full grasp on what could be several years, if not decades, of dynamics at play. Instead of telling the assistant to change how she behaves or responds to situations, having an open conversation about history, dynamics, and prior/current expectations would be the preferred route.

        Beyond that, I don’t think any script that goes “I’m sorry…but you…” ends well in most situations, particularly coming from an assistant to a board member.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Yes, the assistant has been there longer and knows how to read the room. Now, if the OP wants to go to bat for the assistant with the snarky board member, well, hey, that would be great! But I don’t see any indication that the OP did that. The assistant knows who’s going to get yelled at.

    8. Bamcheeks*

      Yes, I think the tone of the “apology” is much more important than the words. There’s a slightly cringing, “I’m sorry!” which can sound like a lack of confidence, and there’s a very smooth professional, “I’m sorry” which means, “I’m sorry to hear that, let’s see what we can so” which is an absolutely vital tool in the arsenal of anyone with a customer service element to their role and can be very assertive. It’s an extremely effective way of disarming a pompous superior.

      I would frankly be quite pissed off if someone took my carefully judged, “I’m sorry + solution” and started telling me this was a gendered language that I should avoid. So I’d tread very carefully here.

    9. Pool Lounger*

      This is how I use it to. I went to Japan a few years ago and learned the word “sumimasen,” “sorry/excuse me.” People used it all the time. I think that’s what “sorry” is for a lot of us—a multipurpose word meaning “I’m sorry/excuse me/my condolences/pardon me.” If the person saying it a lot doesn’t act super upset and penitent I’d assume this is how they were using it. (I’ve had other women call me out on saying sorry too much and it just made ne uncomfortable around them. Didn’t help me break the habit.)

      1. L'étrangere*

        Exactly. I’d guess the US is pretty unique in this weird assumption of guilt around a straightforward expression of sympathy

    10. Critical Rolls*

      I think this falls within the “accept the LW’s reading” parameter. She presumably understands that “I’m sorry” isn’t always an apology, so I’ll believe her when she says the assistant is apologizing excessively, or in ways that unnecessarily take responsibility. I’ve seen that behavior before, so it doesn’t seem incredible to me.

      1. Macapito*

        I question that the only provided example of excessive apologizing is one where the average employee would say “sorry” out of self-preservation and panic.

    11. bluephone*

      Former admin here including a role that dealt with A LOT of rich, connected board members. Apologizing for stuff, including stuff that isn’t your fault, is kind of baked into the job description. Like Wisteria said, it’s usually a path of least resistance tactic too. If it helps you do your job easier, then why turn your nose up at it?

      1. PT*

        It’s social smoothing over. “I’m sorry you’re unhappy with your experience!” it is not “I accept full responsibility for your displeasure.”

        If you get kicked out of Disney World for flinging a poopy diaper at Snow White, they are going to say, “We are so sorry you’re unhappy with your visit here!” as they escort you to the gate and throw you out.

        1. bluephone*

          Yes, that’s the phrase I couldn’t think of! I tend to apologize all the time, including for things that aren’t my fault and it’s partly that social lubrication, but partly me being a wallflower, I guess. And honestly, having people constantly nag me about how I apologize too much does not help the situation? It just makes me self-conscious and more likely to over-apologize!

    12. I'm just here for the cats*

      exactly. This could also be how/ where she was raised. It seems to me that more people from Upper midwest (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin) say sorry more than someone who is from East Cost.
      When I’ve said I’m sorry to someone like the board member it means I’m sorry that you’re frustrated, or angry, (or an idiot). It was actually drilled into us during training at a call center I worked at. We had to express empathy with a statement about the situation and most times it was easiest to do that by saying I’m sorry as in I’m sorry you dropped your new iPhone and you don’t have insurance….

      Also from personal experience people who may have experienced domestic abuse like controlling behavior and yelling often apologize. It’s something that I’m aware of and actually really annoys me but having someone yell at you can be such a trigger that you fall back on it.

    13. Ot your typical admin*

      I agree! There’s a huge difference between “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong”. I can say I’m sorry to someone who’s sick, gotten bad news, or a ton of other things without it meaning I’m at fault for something. I’ve found it goes a long way sometimes with people as a way to acknowledge their feelings and experiences.

    14. Corpse Grinder Guy*

      Another POV: When I worked at a similar level, this sort of “running interference” was actually expected of us. It was universally understood that things like a senior person being late was not a clerk’s fault, but the clerk – myself – explaining the situation and making the apology kept things moving, observed the social niceties, but also kept the senior person from having to make any embarrassing admissions. In retrospect it is maybe archaic – the serf falling on his sword for his Lady – but it was the culture.

    15. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah, unless she was being really over-the-top about it most of these don’t sound like *apologies.* “Sorry” is often just a polite way to preface bad/annoying news. It doesn’t not mean she was actually taking blame for the situation. If you both know she didn’t actually do anything wrong I don’t think there was any problem here.

      The email to the board member does sound more like an actual apology, and I would agree that situation was obviously not her fault and he sounds like a dick. But I think sending that email was probably a good idea anyway.

    16. calonkat*

      What I don’t understand is a board member who doesn’t call everyone else in the organization :)

      My experience is that they start calling every other person they know at the company, then start calling random people off the website until they find someone to talk to.

      And I’m somewhat proud that as a fairly new employee I got the message to the right person!

  3. Holycookiesbatman*

    I commiserate with this and have been actively trying to stop this in my professional and personal life!

    Example from this weekend: I was heading into the bathroom, opened the solid wood door, and there was someone standing right at the door to exit. I apologized to her for… not seeing her through the solid wood door? Funnily enough the same thing happened to me as I was leaving the bathroom (someone outside opened right before I started pushing) and she apologized to me too!

    It’s amazing how much women go through life apologizing for their existence.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      On the one hand, I technically know it’s bad that I apologize for my existence.

      On the other hand, so many people are angry about my existence and being reminded of that existence.

      1. Fikly*

        And when not apologizing makes you unsafe, you often end up apologizing, even though the need to do so fills me with anger.

      2. NPPross*

        I love the trick of replacing “I’m sorry” with “Thank you”. In this case, I would have instructed my assistant to replace with “thank you for your patience while I jungle multiple priorities” or “thank you for understanding how important this meeting is and making an attempt to attend”. I find this helpful with people who need to acknowledge that a person is upset in not taking on the burden. It’s also often hard for the angry person to keep yelling when someone is thanking them.

    2. Phony Genius*

      Same thing happens at men’s room doors. My experience is men behave the same way for this one, with one party apologizing to the other. I think it’s a “sorry for opening the door all the way instead of a few inches first to see if anyone was there, even though nobody does this.”

      That said, should we as a society get into the habit of saying “opening” when opening a door we can’t see on the other side of?

      1. Sabine the Very Mean*

        My mom taught me about Blind Doors and how to open them politely. I shall teach my children-I-probably-won’t-have the same thing. A motion activated red light on the in-swinging side is probably a better system.

    3. hockeymaplesyruplumberjack*

      As a Canadian man, this sounds like a perfectly reasonable situation for anyone to apologize! I’d do the same and wouldn’t think twice about it… maybe I’d feel a little smug for being so darn polite.

      1. londonedit*

        Yep, in Britain this interaction would go ‘Oh! Sorry! Didn’t see you!’ from the person opening the door, ‘Oh, sorry!’ from the person behind the door, followed by an awkward whoops-sorry-no-I’ll-let-you-past-no-you-go-ahead-ha-ha-sorry dance.

    4. Insert Clever Name Here*

      I think apologizing for almost hitting someone with a door (obviously unintentionally!) is an ok time to apologize.

      Not an ok time? In my own voicemail message. I had to set up a new voicemail at work and on listening back to the message I realized…am I *really* sorry I missed a phone call? Maybe once or twice, for something time sensitive, but certainly not enough that the first thing people hear after my name is “sorry I missed your call.” It felt really good to remove that from my message! “You’ve reached Insert Clever with Llamas R Us. Please email me or leave your name, number, and a brief message. Thank you.” Still professional and informative, but not apologizing for no reason :)

      1. Filosofickle*

        We all have our weird peeves, and mine is people apologizing for missing my call! Not because the person is offending me or anything, but what it says about our beliefs about availability and taking responsibility. No apology needed, just call back when it’s a good time. This is a great example of the kind of low-stakes “sorry” than can simply be eliminated with zero consequences. Small but meaningful.

        1. Loulou*

          We are all entitled to our pet peeves and lord knows I have silly things that I’d love to never hear again, but I would disagree that eliminating “sorry I missed your call” is meaningful. It’s totally standard business boilerplate. There are pre made “sorry we missed you” sticky notes! As with other examples, I’ve always seen it more as expressing mild regret than “I did something bad by leaving my phone to go to the bathroom, please forgive me.”

          1. Filosofickle*

            Well, it’s meaningful because Insert Clever Name said it was not okay and it felt really good to remove that. It matters to them, doesn’t matter if it’s meaningful to anyone else.

          2. Insert Clever Name Here*

            I agree that it’s meant as an expression of regret when it comes to something like a missed call and definitely has its place as a social lubricant in both professional and personal situations. But since I am not in a customer service field and I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone, “I’m sorry I missed your call” is a business boilerplate that doesn’t apply to me in my role and was just taking up time in my outgoing voicemail message. It may be necessary or feel good for other people to include it in their voicemail and that’s fine — I’m not judging anyone based on whether they do or don’t include it.

            1. Loulou*

              Makes perfect sense! I was really responding to the comment that I took to be saying they were glad you did this because “sorry I missed your call” is a pet peeve of theirs. Your choice to remove it seems very logical, but I dont find the idea that “sorry I missed your call” says much of anything about cultural attitudes towards availability very persuasive. Sorry (heh) if my comment was unclear.

    5. Cold Fish*

      I’ve worked really hard to eliminate this habit. I’ve tried to replace the majority with “I understand” and “I hope”. That covers 90%. In situations like your example I try and go with something along the line of “Oh, I wasn’t expecting you there!” or “Goodness, that woke us up!” A comment, not an apology for something I could not have known. If anything I probably lean to far the other way now. I will acknowledge my mistakes but rarely apologize for them now.

      Although I do find the habit harder to break in written form and find myself using it more often in those cases. I think because there are so few ways to indicate tone in written form.

    6. Loulou*

      I think saying “sorry” when you bump into someone, nearly bump into someone, momentarily impede them, etc. is totally fine and very low on the list of things we should worry about. There are definitely cultures where this is not common, but if you’re in a place where this is normal to do, I say just do it and don’t spend any brain power training yourself out of this harmless social nicety.

      1. Allonge*

        Yes, this is not a problem. The setup is at fault*, but in this case I am sorry is a reasonable response to the startled!face teh person on the other side of the door is doing.

        *Ok, there is a reason bathroom doors are solid, and in most cases they need to open somewhere, so…

      2. Holycookiesbatman*

        I’d like to clarify that the door was not being pushed toward the other human but pulled away from in both cases. If I every actually hit or ran into someone that would be apology worthy!

        I like the idea of ‘oh I wasn’t expecting you!’ It’s much better if going to try to remember that in the future.

        1. Loulou*

          I…don’t like the idea of “I wasn’t expecting you,” tbh. The point of things like “sorry” or “good morning” or whatever is that there’s a social script the responder can use and they don’t think a thing about it. In a situation like what you described, both people say sorry, or one person says sorry and the other says no problem and everyone goes on with their day. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but saying something somewhat novel that this other person then has to process and acknowledge appropriately seems like it’s just creating awkwardness in a situation where none would exist otherwise?

    7. Yorick*

      Being in the way/hitting someone with a door is a fine thing to use “sorry” for, although “oops! excuse me!” would also be fine.

      1. Loulou*

        Yeah, I’d be more likely to say “excuse me” but they’re functionally identical in this case.

    8. Metadata minion*

      To me, that sort of apology basically means “I acknowledge my role in this shared moment of awkwardness”. If I almost open a door on someone, or almost get a door in my own face, it would just feel *weird* and kind of rude if neither of us said anything, even though that is the nature of opaque doors and is nobody’s fault.

  4. Gouda*

    I think it’s important to reframe the situtation; the problem isn’t apologizing, it’s taking responsibility for other people’s mistakes. Sometimes when we focus too much on the act of apologizing, it can get a little too in the weeds without addressing the root issue. After all, we all understand that sometimes “I’m sorry about that” means “I’m sorry that happened,” not “I’m sorry, that’s my fault,” otherwise telling someone you’re sorry that their dog died or something would be really nefarious! “I’m sorry you didn’t have the call in code” doesn’t ALWAYS mean “I’m sorry you didn’t have the call in code, and I am to blame.” The idea that she is to blame is the problem, not saying “Sorry.”

    1. Gouda*

      I only mention this because I don’t love the idea that “professional” communication means removing polite fillers like “Sorry” and “Just” and phrases that are associated primarily with women’s communication.

      1. Momma Bear*

        I agree. “Sorry about that…” is different than taking responsibility for something beyond your control. The board member being late is their problem/fault, not hers. The EA will benefit from being encouraged to be more assertive. The OP can also help by stepping in as the boss/peer when necessary. I had someone talk over me in a meeting. The PM called that behavior out and it stopped. If OP is their peer now, she should also let them know that her EA isn’t going to apologize for breathing.

        Secondarily, she should put all the info in the meeting invite and tell people to look there. That way no one can say they didn’t get it. Those kinds of steps may also help her not feel guilty when it doesn’t work out right.

        1. jtr*

          I know this is going off in the weeds a bit, sorry (heh) but, I kinda think that there was no way she hadn’t put the meeting info on the original invitation. I think Board Member couldn’t find it in their inbox (or didn’t bother looking). I think calling 2 minutes before the meeting is reasonable, but getting angry because she wasn’t available at that time, and continually calling leaving angry voicemails, is an entitled A-hole move. Do they not have the cell phone number of any of the OTHER board members? She was probably in the meeting taking minutes!

          I have experience with parents of students, not board members, but there are always those who think, despite the MYRIAD places that the information is available to them (handouts, flyers on the wall at school, on the member app on their effing phone!!!) that their one little call just before testing won’t be a problem, of course she won’t mind one little call!!! times 20 parents who think that way == a pissed off and stressed judge for your kid’s testing. (who has now moved to a google voice number, so I no longer even SEE the call coming in)

          1. Momma Bear*

            It would be logical to assume the info was all there, but I’ve had the experience where it was only in an email and not in the invite itself. It got to the point where it was assumed that everyone knew the call in number and didn’t need it reiterated for every meeting. The meetings were largely in person and call ins were outliers. So…no harm in checking that. Even if Board Member won’t look it up, at least that’s a CYA for the EA.

      2. a thought*

        I also came to say something similar! I think there’s a big difference between saying “So sorry you weren’t able to get in – unfortunately, I was already at the meeting in person” vs. “That was my fault you couldn’t get in and I’m sorry”. And there’s a difference between saying “this was my fault” and “the organization doesn’t have a system for this and it’s within my role to fix that”.

      3. Paulina*

        Thank you. Saying “sorry” can be a communication lubricant, rather than accepting blame. Also, I find that, as a woman, me dropping these niceties can make me come across as abrupt and hostile, when that isn’t the case for my male colleagues.

    2. Nanani*

      You said exactly what I was thinking but better.

      I think it’s important not to police her phrasing but dig down into what’s actually happening. Expressing sympathy for someone’s tech trouble isn’t necessarily blaming herself.
      Employee doesn’t need to excise her vocabulary, she needs support when being unreasonably blamed and empowerment to do her job, perhaps a deflector (could be LW, could be someone else) when board members are being unreasonable.

    3. Anon Today*

      I agree with this so much. I used to date a “sorry” literalist, and always hearing “Why? It’s not your fault” when I was trying to sympathize with their family issues… well, it did make me slightly less sorry/sympathetic, so there’s that.

      1. Laney Boggs*

        I’ve trained my male best friend out of the same, lol. “I’m expressing sympathy, not apologizing” a few times and he blessedly got the picture (otherwise I, like you, would have just felt less sorry!!)

      2. Gerry Keay*

        Sometimes it’s a gentler way of saying “eff your sympathy, it doesn’t do anything for me,” which is sometimes what it can feel like being on the receiving end of sympathy.

    4. Nomorejustsorums*

      Or to reword it as “that must have been frustrating. In the future, we’ll send out the information to everyone in case the plans change last minute.” No blame, no apology, but acknowledging the upset.

      1. Free Meerkats*

        Personally, I would lean more toward, “That must have been frustrating, but the information was in the meeting invitation and the email you were sent on {date}.” That way you acknowledge the upset and place the reason for it where it belongs.

    5. Kimmy Schmidt*

      I’d be curious to know if the employee is truly offering an in-depth apology or if she’s only saying “I’m sorry about that”. I feel like “I’m sorry about that” is an almost boilerplate professional norm that we’ve agreed is a polite way to communicate, kind of like “thanks for your patience” or “good to hear from you”.

      I use “sorry about that” all the time when I’m trying to resolve a tech issue with students. It’s not their fault, and it’s not my fault, but I feel the need to express some kind of sympathy that they’re having an issue in the first place.

      1. Robert*

        Yeah, there’s a massive difference between saying it matter-of-factly and moving on (perfectly fine imo) and doing what a former colleague of mine used to do: repeatedly apologising and genuflecting and so on, which was really grating.

        If the email said something like “Apologies for the confusion, in the future board members can use this number to contact a member of the team” then I don’t really see an issue here. If there was a lot of self-flagellation going on then sure the OP should say something.

  5. AnonEMoose*

    It’s tricky. In a previous job in which I was an assistant, a client once tried to throw me under the bus for not arranging her travel…which was absolutely not my job in any way. Fortunately my boss had my back on that one. Sadly, that seems to be too often part of the reality of being an assistant – being a target for blame and frustration for anyone who perceives themselves as higher in the hierarchy than you are…which can be pretty much everyone. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, but it’s a thing.

    So she may have developed this as a survival mechanism, because she’s gotten the message that just because it’s not her fault doesn’t mean she won’t be blamed. And if the board members, in particular, tend toward being entitled…and she’s been told she’s expected to facilitate things/keep them happy…well…

    I’m not saying not to have the conversation with her, but maybe be open to her saying that this is part of how she keeps things running smoothly. If you’re willing to work with her on trying to change or improve the dynamic, then be aware you may need to stand up for her to people who aren’t used to being challenged. Because from her perspective, this could feel a lot like she first gets blamed/dumped on for things that aren’t her fault, and now she’s getting “talked to” for how she copes with that.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Seconding this. She is clearly getting blamed as her fault even if it technically isn’t by these people.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      I was just having this conversation! My husband and I were watching Rick and Morty “Morty’s Mind Blowers” episode and at the end Rick and Morty are cussing out Summer. No Spoilers version-> Summer saved the day and Rick and Morty wake up confused and automatically blame Summer for everything.
      I told my husband, “That’s what it’s like working as a woman. When someone gets confused, they look for the lowest level woman and blame her.” When I was an admin, that was part of my job, to take the blame for other’s mistakes. I never articulated it until I was older and distant from that career, but it really was my job.
      The best thing the OP can do is acknowledge when things aren’t really the assistant’s fault, and step in when abuse is happening. People can voice frustration, but they should never insult, belittle, or shame anyone. When that behavior is witnessed, someone with power needs to step in and call it out as unacceptable.

  6. Aggretsuko*

    I’m one of these people and I’m really tired of people telling me not to apologize for what isn’t my fault. You know what? To some degree it IS my job to apologize for anything regarding my organization, even if I didn’t personally actually DO it TO YOU. At the very least, appeasing anger is a huge part of my job, and if apologizing for whatever makes a customer less angry, then that’s what I’m going to do to get them to calm down.

    I also note in this person’s case that (a) I’d bet money the board members don’t apologize for their own mistakes and (b) the board members actually DO blame her for their mistakes. So whether or not it’s actually her fault, it’s the office’s culture that it IS her fault. Of course she’s going to apologize when her office DOES blame her and DOES expect her to. Especially when it’s higher-ups setting that expectation.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Well then the expectations needs to change. Board Members are presumably adults who are responsible for their own actions. if you don’t remember to bring the paperwork you were supposed to bring it is not the admin’s fault. the admin is not going to waste time sending multiple emails to alleged adults to remind them to bring their stuff. Or whatever the issue is.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Easy to say that…really hard to do. Yes, supposedly they’re adults who are responsible for their own stuff…but in my experience, too often, they’re not going to admit they’re wrong. And if it means they’re going to save face, at least in their own eyes/minds, they’re going to blame the easiest target…usually the admin.

      2. Aggretsuko*

        This kind of thing is what I call “sane world thinking.” It’s just not reasonable to assume that people in power are going to shape up and stop acting like that.

        Also, let’s face it, some admin jobs are about reminding people to bring their stuff and otherwise being their mommy/nanny.

      3. Macapito*

        One of my old bosses had to go to his boss with a detailed updated workflow plan, when he decided that our department’s assistant no longer needed to print everyone’s one-off “print jobs,” like 2-page reference sheets or personal UPS return labels, and deliver them to the mailboxes down the hallway all throughout the day. Grown adults were in tears, threatening to quit, and demanding the assistant schedule immediate ASAP emergency meetings with the boss. But sure, yeah, people are presumably, alleged adults who SHOULD be able to X, Y, and Z without an assistant babysitting them. But reality is often something different.

    2. AnonEMoose*

      I would bet the exact same way…I would bet that the Board members are going to deflect blame wherever they can, and she’s the easiest target because she’s “just” the assistant. I hate that dynamic with a white-hot passion, but it’s very real.

    3. Rolly*

      I have a somewhat different situation at work – one board member chewing me out in email to a whole bunch of people for something that was not my fault. I apologized along the lines of “sorry to hear that” – not saying it was my fault. And told my boss and others what was actually up. And someone else on staff chimed in about the board member “They don’t seem to recognize how ridiculous they sound” which made my day.

    4. worker bee*

      It’s also tiring to me because I often use “apologies” at work in a customer service setting, but they’re always intended as some form of “I’m sorry to hear that you’re dealing with an inconvenience, let me see what I can do to rectify that” and not “I’m sorry because I feel that I’m to blame for this inconvenience”

      I mean, some people do genuinely need to reframe from the latter to the former in their thinking, but having already made that shift it feels a little, I don’t know, condescending? to hear someone white knight for me about not needing to apologize. Sure, I don’t have to, but if it’s likely to diffuse a customer quicker and is no sweat off my back why wouldn’t I?

      1. Loulou*

        Yup, I really relate to your comment about the “stop apologizing, girlfriend!!!!!” stuff feeling condescending. It just feels like the person saying this has decided apologies are the same as grovelling or admitting fault and hasn’t understood the social function of an apology.

        There are times when we are specifically instructed NOT to apologize (eg a memo that specifically said we should not apologize about masks being required) but for the most part, an apology can go a long way and people do deserve to hear them when they’re dealing with a frustrating situation (not the board member, who sounds obnoxious). And I frequently am apologizing for what is technically the customer’s mistake, so I guess what I’m really saying is “I’m sorry our systems can be so confusing that you made this mistake.”

    5. QKL*

      Yes! For admins, part of our job is apologizing. It doesn’t help to have to remember who does and doesn’t want apologizing in the language we used to deliver information and problem solving. If women in power don’t like women in admin apologizing, change the culture at your level first, it doesn’t help me when every other high level employee expects news in apology form and that high level employee is standing there after giving me some lecture about women’s empowerment. I already feel like the office housewife, I don’t need additional politics and I’m not moving up anytime soon, stop making my job harder.

      1. QKL*

        I will add that I have been told to stop apologizing, but when I did, same boss accused me of not caring about the problem. That’s been my experience across the board, without the apology, they get upset that you don’t “care” about the company or the problem. I just apologize, and when someone says not to, I apologize for apologizing. It’s the easiest way to deal with the boss thinking they want something that they don’t actually want.

    6. Laney Boggs*

      This might be getting *too* in the weeds, but it always comes back to “to be professional you need to act like a cishet white man.”

      Maybe men should use the “polite apology” more, not women use it less.

    7. Olivia Oil*

      I think there is a difference between apologizing on behalf of the organization as a way to appease people and preemptively apologizing for no reason. My read of the letter is that both are going on. I’ve worked in a lot of service and client facing roles. If I’m the receiving end of an external complaint (eg someone got the wrong order or something), even if I had nothing to do with it, of course it’s my job to apologize to the customer and do what I can to solve the problem. But in situations where there isn’t conflict, the assistant doesn’t need to invite people to blame her for stuff. I understand it can be a nervous tic but it can make someone seem very insecure.

    8. kittymommy*

      As an executive assistant, yeah, I agree with this. Is it fair? No, not really, but part of the job is unruffling feathers and calming unreasonable (and sometimes “important” people) down and typically that involves placating people with a conciliatory tone even when you KNOW they’re in the wrong. If you’re good at it, and know how to do it in the right way depending upon who you’re talking to, sometime you can get your point across (stop being a jerk) while still letting everyone maintain their egos.

    9. Yorick*

      In a customer service situation with external clients, you definitely should apologize when it’s not your fault – on behalf of the company. If I’m having an issue that shouldn’t be happening, it’s not this help desk person’s fault. But I do want someone to acknowledge that this is happening and that I deserve an apology for it, and this person’s the only one who can.

    10. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I have been in companies where it fell upon the assistant to take the blame and ownership in these circumstances – when the Board members were difficult or unprepared or when anything at all technical or administrative or attendance-based went wrong with a Board meeting. That is the culture at some corporations. The executives expect everything to go smoothly and expect every Board member to be accommodated – to the point of coddling and kowtowing. I wouldn’t be surprised if this assistant came from that kind of background/culture/prior boss, where a prior boss held her accountable, even for things not under her control. So I think it is good to set expectations and talk about it. You may be dealing with “learned apologetic-ness” that is spawned from a bad boss or bad work environment where the assistant is the fall guy.

  7. Gigi*

    I want the LW to be my boss until the end of time. The validation! The support! The willingness to hold those in power responsible! Swoon! I nominate her for Queen of the Immediate World.

      1. Anonymous Hippo*

        I like the idea of good bosses, but being cynical as I am, I wouldn’t allow nominations where the boss is the letter writer.

      2. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Alison mentioned in the comments to another post a while back that she’s thinking of retiring the “Worst Boss of the Year” competition, and there were several suggestions to replace it with something more positive like “Best Boss” or “Best Resolution.” I guess we’ll see in December 2022 :)

  8. AthenaC*

    Given what you relayed about the Board member’s treatment of your employee, I would bet money that she started over-apologizing as the easiest way to minimize unpleasantness. If you talk to her about the pattern and encourage her to empower herself, she’ll probably need to know that you’ll have her back and stick up for her when being more confident comes back to bite her when someone complains she’s not “deferential enough.”

    Or she might decide it’s not worth the headache and continue her pattern of over-apologizing, and that’s her choice to make.

    1. Cathie from Canada*

      Actually, continually selling ones self short CAN BE a performance issue that needs to be addressed, I think.
      When the assistant apologizes for the missed phone calls, her attitude short circuits her organization’s opportunity to deal with real issues more effectively.
      Maybe, for example, the president could have used this incident to deal with a board member’s abusive behaviour. Or maybe a better organization policy for setting up their meeting links needs to be put into place.
      Instead, based on the belief that it was all the assistant’s fault, her organization ended up spending hundreds of dollars plus a monthly bill to give her a cell phone, which only reinforces the idea that she is supposed to be at the board’s beck and call at all times — and actually, if she is busy at a meeting setting up IT, she can’t be answering random cell phone calls then either.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I see it more as “the assistant knew that no one was going to tell the board member that they were wrong, and so she came up with a solution to not miss a call like that again, because it will keep this person off her back.” Is it kind of ridiculous? Absolutely. But I think it’s unkind and unfair to say that it’s “her attitude.” I think it’s more likely that it’s the business culture she’s learned to deal with as best she can.

      2. Simply the best*

        I don’t understand this comment. It was the same executive director who says this apology was unnecessary who got the assistant the cell phone. If she wanted to fix the issue in a different way, she could have. Nothing about the assistant’s apology made the ED have to choose “cell phone” as the solution.

      3. LittleMarshmallow*

        I think it’s more blame game stuff to say that an admin giving an apology some how makes it impossible for management to make changes regarding other management’s bad behavior. That’s such a cop out and one of the reasons that this kind of stuff won’t be fixed any time soon. If something that simple de-rails a behavioral correction or a needed institutional change then management isn’t very good at managing. It’s not the admins fault for apologizing after being berated by an exec.

  9. canyonlands*

    Having worked as an assistant before, I know that sometimes they’re seen as effective when they’re unnoticeable. Like you are doing your job well if no one ever has to ask for anything, you’ve anticipated the problems and needs. It’s a difficult standard to achieve! I would often beat myself up for not anticipating and preemptively solving problems when I was in that role, though sometimes it is truly impossible.

  10. middle name danger*

    I would like to add: if you’d like her to apologize less, don’t just say not to apologize. You can direct her to start training herself to use “thank you”s instead. Instead of “sorry this was late,” use “thank you for your patience” instead.

    1. Anonnnnnnnn*

      Yes! She’s great, so I would do a strengths based approach.

      “You do a great job. I’ve actually noticed that sometimes you apologize and take the blame for things that are 100% not your fault like X. No need to apologize, but what I like to do is reframe it as a ‘thank you’. Thank you for your patience, thank you for your flexibility, etc.

      1. sorry not sorry*

        I really like this! I work in a customer service role and “I appreciate your patience while we resolve this issue” is pretty much my go-to. I especially like it because you can use it even before someone is upset to hopefully prevent them getting there.

    2. Eden*

      Respectfully disagree. The “thanks for your patience” INSTEAD of “sorry I’m late” etc should be reserved for friends and family. When a colleague makes me wait around because they’re late I want them to apologize, they can get their friends to be part of their exercices in self confidence. It’s one of my pet peeves recently to be “thanked” instead of getting an apology from people who I’m not close with and don’t have a personal relationship with. Time and place. “Sorry I’m late” implies they know lateness is wrong and will try to avoid it in the future. “Thanks for your patience” does not imply that at all.

      1. Yorick*

        I hate that example too, especially when a person is late for a meeting or appointment. But in other situations it can be good general advice. “Thank you for your patience while we work to get this fixed” is an appropriate alternative for “Sorry this is taking so long.”

      2. Tali*

        Agree, if you are late you should apologize!! Even to friends and family! In fact you can say both, “So sorry I’m late, thank you for waiting for me.”

  11. an infinite number of monkeys*

    Of all things, my husband and I playing mixed-doubles pickleball with other couples has provided a surprising way for me to work on this. I’ve been aware for a long time that the female apology is a Thing, but somehow, playing a team sport has really highlighted it for me. I hear myself (and other women) doing it every time, and can consciously reframe/rephrase it right on the fly. Pickleball is apparently great exercise in more than one way!

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Off-topic, but I had to google pickleball, and since I had a map open recently in my target employment area, Google gave me locations where I can play it in that area instead of where I actually am. Just something I found briefly amusing. :)

    2. londonedit*

      Ha – on the rare occasions my sister and I attempt to play tennis together, we’re both so awful that the game basically consists of one or the other of us hitting the ball (or not…) and going ‘Sorry!’ ‘Whoops!’ ‘Sorry!’ ‘Argh, sorry again!’

      1. an infinite number of monkeys*

        Heh, that’s why it’s such great apology-awareness exercise for me. I’m terrible!

  12. Filosofickle*

    “Please know you don’t need to” feels very soft to me. Maybe this is a time for a little more directness? Not a lot, just a little. Seems like the message could get lost in there. I might walk away thinking it’s not great but also not a real problem.

  13. Healthcare*

    I think the best message to send your staff member is that you’ll back them up when they need it aka empower them.

    I worked in a workplace where the culture was apologising unnecessarily and essentially accepting the verbal abuse from others. I made it extremely clear to my staff members they are not here to be abused and I’ll always support them not tolerating it. I taught people the 3 step rule to de-escalating and made sure they knew that if they hung up on people they wouldn’t be told off.

    Empowering your staff you’ve got their back makes the world of difference.

  14. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    As someone who is currently acting as Executive Assistant, Travel & Event Coordinator and several other things to an Exec team… yeah. I *know* that something isn’t my fault. I’m aware that this middle aged or old man’s inability to manage his own schedule or understand basic office technology is not my fault. While I’d love to stick to my feminist guns and never apologize in the office, in the real world, this a**hat isn’t going to let it go and let me get on with my life and the next thing on my list of 3000 things to do if I choose to fight him on it. Your assistant is lucky to have you to back her up. I’d suggest a conversation in which you directly lay out things that are her responsibility. If board members ask for things that are outside those bounds make it clear to her that it is up to *her* judgement, abilities, and time if she can accommodate them. Let her know that it is okay to say “No”, but don’t make it a requirement that she do so.
    Your assistant is doing her job and doing it well by your statement. Let her know that she is NOT required to take abuse and that instances like those volatile voicemails should be reported to you, but don’t force her to make major changes to her personality by telling her not to apologize.
    Also, it sounds like you need to have a broader conversation with the Board of Directors and lay out some ground rules about what is and isn’t expected of the Executive Assistant role. If warranted, see how they interact with other non-exec team employees and bring up their interactions with female employees as a whole.

    1. Delta Delta*

      Just coming here to say the same thing. The ED can certainly have a word with the board about what the EA does and how to ensure she isn’t abused by jerk board members.

    2. Meep*

      I find “OK” is such a powerful tool to just keep repeating when it comes to power-tripping jerks if you do not want to constantly apologize for their stupidity. Any time you yell at me for not reading whatever passing thought you had in that otherwise blank head of yours? “OK.” Doesn’t matter if you are flip-flopping back and forth just to find a reason to be p*ssy and throw around your weight. “OK.” You aren’t going to remember what you said in five minutes. And that’s “OK”.

      Just repeat it until they get tired of not getting a rise out of you. They cannot complain about you not listening. You acknowledged them after all and it isn’t like they are going to remember their complaint in two minutes anyways. They just want the little power trip so they can feel good about themselves. Then you can go back to kicking a**.

  15. Macapito*

    “It seems as though certain members of the board also expect her to take blame for their mistakes,t seems as though certain members of the board also expect her to take blame for their mistakes” —> It sounds like you’re expecting an assistant to go up against your company’s board and lay down the law. If the board members expect her to apologize, that’s an expectation that needs reset at their level, either coming from you or your boss. There is also the issue that you’re new to the role, but it doesn’t sound like she is new to the role, and there may be a history that you’re not aware of that is contributing to her deference to the board.

    Is this the only example of when she apologizes for issues that aren’t her fault?

    1. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I agree – this assistant may be behaving in a way that was expected by her prior boss or prior employment. I have seen this multiple times in corporations – assistants are expected to be the fall guy and take the blame for many things that go wrong of this nature at Board meetings. Board members (often rich and powerful people) were treated like precious jewels that can do no wrong, and assistants were expected to behave in an *obsequious* manner when dealing with Board members. (gross)

  16. learnedthehardway*

    Perhaps this is a situation where the real work is to be managing UP, not down. Ie. If board members are being unfair or rude to the EA, then the conversation needs to be with the board members about acceptable ways to treat staff. Of course, it will be important to do this without making thing worse for the EA – doesn’t do her any good for the manager to tell the board person that his behaviour was unacceptable, if it is just going to result in that person to assume the EA complained about him and then go gunning for her job.

    In this case, it’s often better to address the process issue – “Our office is not able to respond to last-minute requests due the nature of EA’s work, which takes her away from her desk to do set-up for various events. We have noticed that this can create difficulties for board members whose schedules change on a dime. We have provided EA with a cell phone for emergencies, but ask that board members attempt to contact EA about scheduling issues at least X hours in advance of a meeting.”

  17. PB Bunny Watson*

    I feel like the issue is more with the board member and not with the assistant. Of course the assistant apologized! That was the smart thing to do! Was it her fault? Heck, no… but would her correcting the board member have helped? Probably not. Sounds like OP should talk to the people who are using the assistant as a scape goat. That’s not the assistant’s job… that’s the OP’s job.

    As for her other apologies (and as someone who uses sorry in a variety of ways), I would recommend OP ask the assistant directly. Unless the assistant is saying, “I’m so sorry I didn’t print out those packets beforehand,” there is a chance the assistant is just saying “I’m sorry” in a commiserating way at times. Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always about blame. Sometimes it just means, “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day and that jerk made it worse.”

  18. Berlin Berlin*

    I’m reminded of the fact that in Arabic, the expressions “I’m sorry [for what I did]” and I’m sorry [for your loss]” use entirely different words and are not interchangeable (it’s several years since I studied Arabic and I can’t recall the terms offhand). I wonder if there’s less of a tendency to over-apologise in this fashion for first-language Arabic speakers.

  19. RagingADHD*

    One of the difficult aspects of being an admin dealing with high-profile or high-level folks like board members, senior partners, C-Suite, etc is that you have to “herd cats” while not having any actual authority over those cats or ability to give them consequences, and while making shows of deference appropriate to the organization’s culture.

    I found that making unnecessary apologies (which I was fully aware were unnecessary) was the quickest way to make those cats go where I wanted them to go and do what I wanted them to do. I used them liberally, and I was never under any misapprehension about where the fault actually lay. It just didn’t matter. I had a job to do, and salting around some “I’m so sorry’s” cost me nothing, won me a lot of goodwill from influential people, and greased the wheels of the job.

    If the LW is new, I’d advise her to get a feel for the existing culture of the organization and find out whether the admin is using this construct as a deliberate tool, rather than a verbal tic or a self-esteem issue. And if she wants to change the culture of the organization to be less deferential (and in particular less sexist), she needs to start with the big picture rather than with this particular admin’s vocabulary.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      “salting around some “I’m so sorry’s” cost me nothing, won me a lot of goodwill from influential people, and greased the wheels of the job.”

      This is absolutely correct! :)

    2. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      This is SO flipping true! The herding cats metaphor and especially the part about not having authority or consequences struck home with me. “Salting around some I’m sorry’s” made me laugh, but it’s incredibly true. In my experience part of being a good admin IS knowing how to herd those cats, and in some places it’s the Sorry route, and others it’s the tough love, and others it’s bribing them with food. Is it super feminist? Nope, but it lets me do my job and get crap done. I don’t like it and attempt to change it as I can, but sometimes I just want a paycheck.

      1. RagingADHD*

        And I’d like to point out that it isn’t just men who like those deferential apologies.

        I have seen plenty of women in powerful positions metaphorically beat their chests and bellow into the jungle, too. And I’ve seen male subordinates use the apology-as-ritual-submission to keep the wheels turning smoothly.

        Sexism is one form of power dynamic, but it’s not the only one. I expect that as more and more industries become more and more gender diverse at all levels, we will see the dominance behavior separate from gender roles, but not disappear by any means.

    3. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      +1 This! …Deference… I have seen a required standard of obsequiousness that made my skin crawl.

    4. LittleMarshmallow*

      this is so true and in the same vein as women playing dumb to get crap done. Should we do it as women? Probably not… do we because it makes our lives/jobs easier? Yep. For the dudes (and higher up women that have acquired a taste for power and also expect everyone to feed your ego)… if a lady that you know is smart is acting dumb or confused around you (or over-apologizing) you are likely being manipulated because you have shown yourself as someone with a fragile ego that needs to be coddled… not because the person is dumb and not because they think you’re a genius.

      1. RagingADHD*

        We as women should absolutely use any legal means to earn our money, get our shit done, and reduce our stress.

        Don’t manipulate friends, family, or loved ones. But business is business.

  20. EmKay*

    So let me get this straight, OP. You are the Executive Director. You know that board members are unreasonable in their demands of your assistant, and you are upset at HER because she apologises “too much” to them?

    What have you said to the unreasonable board members about their crappy behaviour? If the answer is nothing, then how do you expect this will solve your problem?

    1. Chickaletta*

      Well, to be fair, the flow of power doesn’t flow up that way. Executive Directors in most organizations are held accountable to the Board, not vice versa. The person in this story that LW can do something about is her EA.

    2. Tali*

      Agreed, ultimately if the issue is the board, why is the assistant better positioned to deliver stern feedback/consequences than the executive? As the executive, are YOU going to stop apologizing to the board?

  21. awesome3*

    I love this question and that the LW didn’t assume that everything is her employee’s fault due to the apologizing. Not everyone is going to see it that way. By the LW asking for this advice and implementing it, it should help the employee’s career in the long run

    1. Macapito*

      LW’s assistant got several nasty angry unreasonable voicemails from a board member, and when the assistant said “sorry,” the ED wrote in to ask how to help her assistant stop saying “sorry.” The only example of the assistant saying “sorry” was this one example. Everyone’s mileage certainly varies, but I’d be asking how to approach my board of directors about a behavior issue and how to reset expectations for treating my staff. All in all, I read it as the LW blaming her assistant for apologizing to a powerful person who expected the assistant to apologize. All the different perspectives here are quite interesting.

      1. Loulou*

        Yeah, I fully believe OP has the best of intentions, but I found the choice of example pretty out of touch. This is not to pile on OP at all, I’m glad she wrote in, but if she chooses to raise this she should absolutely pick another example.

      2. Allonge*

        Yes! I worked in places with Boards like this. The problem is the Board behaviour.

        Smart people learn the best ways to deal with it and apply them. And saying sorry, is, all talk to the contrary, is a perfectly ok thing to do. Just as ‘I am sorry’ is not a magic balm for every wrongdoing, it is also not a total abasement of personhood. It’s a tool that can work well to resolve conflicts.

        OP, you can tell this person that she does not need to apologise to you for things out of her control. Let her know you have her back, but also let her deal with issues the best ways she found how, unless that is really unacceptable.

  22. Jane*

    Similarly, could we drop the practice of apologising in our “out of office” messages?

    “I’m sorry I’m on leave” promotes a culture where taking leave is somehow fundamentally wrong. “I will be on leave until xxx and will act on your email when I return. If you need a reply before then please contact yyy” is perfectly sufficient.

    When you reply to the person you could apologise for the delay in replying, but don’t send an automatic default email that apologises for being on leave, or even worse, apologises for being off sick.

    1. PT*

      Have you not had someone have an entire one-sided conversation with your OOO message, where they keep asking you for things and ignore the fact that you have an OOO up saying you’re unreachable that week? It’s to stop those idiots.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I had this happen with voicemail. I left an out of office message saying very specifically that I would be in at noon the day I came back, and came back to several frantic voicemails from a coworker who just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t calling her back. Once I did, I mentioned that my message had said I’d be in at noon, and was something confusing? And she was like “Oh, I guess I didn’t listen…”. ::headdesk:: ::headdesk:: We got the issue resolved without problems, but I was privately eye-rolling at the “I just didn’t listen to that…”

        1. Dragon*

          A personal contact once left a voicemail at my office, despite my greeting saying I was out for a week. When I asked why they didn’t call my home or mobile, they answered that I had designated my office as my primary contact number, and they weren’t allowed to call me at any other number. (sigh)

          I made sure to tell their boss about that one.

  23. Green for Danger*

    Is your assistant Canadian? I apologize – aloud – when I bump my own head in the grocery store bending over to pick up something on a low shelf.

  24. Daisy-dog*

    I worked in customer service. I apologize a lot for things because it seemed to make communications go smoother. Sometimes it’s just an apology for the situation even if no one is at fault or an apology for a misunderstanding. Though sometimes I go for “Thank you for bringing this to my attention” if it’s someone who just complains all the time.

  25. dedicated1776*

    OP should have addressed the Board member directly. “We are sorry you couldn’t call in today but we were already in the room setting up” blah blah blah. “However, we understand that Board members may need to be able to reach us urgently, even during scheduled meetings, so Susie will carry a cell phone going forward. Once we have the number, we will distribute it to the group.”

  26. ED*

    I get not wanting employees to apologize unnecessarily, but in some cases it helps smooth things over. In the case of the obnoxious board member, I would say something along the lines of “I’m sorry I wasn’t available to take your call.” Not really an admission of blame, just regret that they situation happened.

  27. raida7*

    I think there’s a few things here so you should sit down and note them into types.
    For something like angry voicemails – if you know about it before she contacts the board member, you tell her to let you handle it. You tell her that she did nothing wrong, of course you were busy right before the meeting, and you will be talking to the board member about reasonable expectations.
    If you find out later, listen to the calls, make notes, tell her the same thing.

    Then you talk to the board member: I understand that frustration! You were able to make the meeting at the last minute and wasted time in your day trying to attend! You are *never* to take out your frustration on *any* of my staff again. Two minutes before the meeting Assistant was busy. Working. On the meeting. That you were *not* attending. It is not her, nor anyone else’s, job to wait by the phone in case someone “important” needs them while they are needed to physically set up a board meeting with their immediate boss and Director.
    So in the future, if you are frustrated by circumstance and *wish* that Assistant could help you but can’t get ahold of her, you can leave me a sh*tty voicemail to vent and then ask Assistant who you should contact in the future in a similar situation.
    If you leave angry messages blaming Assistant for you not being able to do something which is not her fault we will be speaking again and I will not be so polite.
    Have I been clear here? You did not deserve an apology after your messages. Those messages are not acceptable. My staff will not be talked to like that, especially when they’ve done nothing wrong. Any issues which you think you can’t avoid ranting about you contact me directly until you run out of steam and are calm enough to avoid HR complaints – which I would be making. I am your first point of contact if you’re having a *really* sh*tty day and want to yell at my staff.

    Putting yourself in the middle to clarify with your authority that you do *not* accept an apology from your assistant when they have nothing to apologise for and that you will stand up for their right to a safe work environment will buy you a *lot* of positive will.

    Other things she’s apologised for you need to be clear if you’re hearing an expression of remorse, an expression of sympathy, a statement of responsibility, etc. ‘sorry that the meeting took so long’ could be any and all of these, and if you reckon she’s taking responsibility for the overall running of your day even when it’s other people creating the issues then clarify what she means.
    And be clear that you appreciate the sympathy of something running poorly but that you don’t want her to feel regretful that she didn’t ‘do more’ to avoid it. Other people are responsible sometimes, you need her to be here with solutions, you don’t want her burning out or thinking that you blame her for everything that doesn’t go well.

  28. Meep*

    As a woman, we were trained to apologize for others’ feelings, unfortunately. She is going to have to untrain herself.

    As for the board of directors, next time forward the abusive voicemails to HR. I had a (female) manager who would call 2 minutes before a daily meeting like clockwork so I had to inform her publicly to knock it off as I was logging onto the meeting. She would then send me texts instead and always passive-aggressively ask me if I checked my phone in the middle of the meeting. It was never anything important or something that couldn’t be shared with the class. It took several times of telling her I wasn’t so unprofessional to have my personal cell phone on me during a meeting for her to knock it off (again publicly). Then she started arriving early to the meetings just to “catch me”. Again, nothing actually important or work-related. It was a stupid power move, through and through, like the stunt this guy performed.

  29. Sophia Brooks.*

    I spent years as an assistant ( until I was 45 and I am now 48). I agree with the folks who say that apologizing is expected and that I 100% know it is not my fault. But my goal as assistant is to manipulate these folks into doing their jobs! Which is a silly ridiculous and low paid job, but I was super good at it and an apology is in my tool box, because as an assistant I need people to like me. I am in a more IT role know and I do struggle with this.

  30. MisterForkbeard*

    Culturally, apologizing for something doesn’t always mean taking responsibility for it.

    If she says “I messed up and the board didn’t bring the paperwork that I reminded them to bring” that’s one thing. But if she says “I’m sorry, but the Board didn’t bring their paperwork as required” then she’s just expressing regret.

  31. RAM*

    I don’t think you’d be seen as “coming down” on her if you let her know that she doesn’t need to apologize for everything. You’re telling her this for her own benefit and because you care for her development. I often provide the most feedback (both positive and negative) to my best employees and it’s because I want to see them succeed and grow into higher and better roles. However, I make sure they are well aware of that too when I feel like I’m being a little hard on them.

  32. EBG*

    Why didn’t the “angry board member” just Whatsapp or IM other members of the board and ask for the call-in instructions? Also, the OP should have stood up for her.

  33. Karak*

    Is she really apologizing? I’ll often say “I’m sorry” when whet I really mean is, “oh, this situation sucks. Sucks to be you bro” in a more socially acceptable way.

    When you consider that she immediately follows up with a solution, I think my reading is more correct. But since it can read as “this is my fault”, any coaching would be in the direction of clarifying what she means. “Board Member, it is very unfortunate we weren’t able to conference you in” instead of “I’m sorry”.

  34. Margaret*

    Given that she follows it up with a way things can be improved, I’m guessing the apology is a way of making a suggestion for improvement without making the person she is speaking to feel she is criticising them. “I’m sorry I wasn’t available (when you turned up out of the blue during my lunch hour). It might be easier if you let me know in advance when you are arriving in future so I can be sure I won’t miss you again. Again, I’m really sorry you were inconvenience” sounds a lot better than just “let me know in future when you are arriving so I can be sure I won’t miss you again.”

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