How to Botch an Apology

All of us blow it from time to time. But some mistakes are worse than others. Some are so grievous that they threaten to undo a career. Such was the case this week when Don Imus insulted the Rutgers women’s basketball team by using a degrading racial slur to describe them.

Man with Blue Tape on His Mouth - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #1719342

Photo courtesy of ©

It’s hard to imagine the situation getting worse, but it did. Imus added insult to injury by completely botching his apology yesterday on Al Sharpton’s radio show. If there’s anything redemptive in this situation—and I admit there’s not much—it’s the fact that this situation can serve as a vivid example of how not to execute an apology.
I won’t repeat what I wrote in Taking Responsibility for Your Mistakes or even Ten Difficult Words. These are basically a primer for how to do an apology right. But, as I pointed out yesterday with regard to what you can learn from a bad boss, sometimes you learn more from negative examples than positive ones.

So here are the five mistakes I believe Imus made in his attempt at an apology.

  1. He apologized to the wrong person. Yes, Al Sharpton was offended, and he was vocal about it. But Imus didn’t insult Sharpton directly (though he did indirectly). He insulted the members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team. He should have gone to them first. He probably would still have had to go to a broader audience, but he should have started where the offense created the most damage.
  2. He tried to explain himself. This is always a bad idea. No one cares. It always—and I mean always—sounds defensive. Whenever you are making an apology and feel tempted to use the word “but” or “however,” stop dead in your tracks. If you feel the need to say more, keep repeating the apology. No reason that Imus could possibly give would have mitigated the hurt he caused.
  3. He tried to put it in context. He provided a litany of all the good things he’s done. He tried to explain that his remarks were an exception. The problem is that doesn’t make it any less hurtful. It only makes people say, “He still doesn’t get it!” As a result, more people piled on and the volume went up.
  4. He tried to say it was all in jest. News flash: If you attempt to make a joke and no one gets it—and if people get offended at it—you’re probably not going to get too far claiming that it was a joke. Honestly. this is the kind of defense you would expect from a kid in junior high school not an adult.
  5. He tried to justify his behavior by citing worse behavior. This was the most amazing thing to me in reading the transcript from his appearance on Sharpton’s radio program. He said that rappers and other people in the black community say worse things about one another than he said. How does this justify his behavior? As Bill O’Reilly is fond of saying, “You can’t justify bad behavior with other bad behavior.”

When you screw up, there’s only one way to handle it. Take the hit full-on. Accept responsibility. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t try to explain your behavior. No body cares.

Just state the offense. Keep it simple. Communicate empathy. Let the other person express their anger. Ask their forgiveness. This is really all you can do. Frankly, the less said the better.

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