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If All Else Fails, Say You're Sorry

March 30, 2001
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A law recently was passed in Californiathat "legalized" the act of apologizing. It sounds like a crazy LeftCoast idea, but it makes a lot of sense.

    Before the law waspassed, apologizing could be costly; kind words could be turned into anadmission of guilt and responsibility in a court of law. Only time will tell,but I'm betting that this new legislation will turn out to be a reduction oflitigation act, one that will work just as well for drivers involved inaccidents as it will for employers who have gotten into tangles with employees,but it will work only if people can bring themselves to apologize in the firstplace.

    A couple of yearsago, my friend Judy applied for a job as a live-in nanny for a wealthy couple.At that stage in her life, the work seemed beneath her in terms of experienceand job skills, but she could live rent-free, rent out her house at a profit,and still keep an evening job that paid well. She figured she could put aside atleast $20,000 a year, which she planned to put toward an early retirement.

At this point, she's notwilling to settle for an apology - an apology the couple could have given herfor free.

    The couple was sopleased by her maturity and credentials that they offered her a 30 percent raiseover the advertised salary before she even started, and when she balked at thedismal living quarters they offered, they said they'd make the in-law apartmentbigger and lighter.

    At Judy's request,they put their agreement, including the dimensions and design of the apartment,into writing. She was ecstatic. It seemed like the kind of deal that alwayshappened to other people - like getting a rent-controlled apartment in New YorkCity or an unbelievably good deal on a low-mileage car.

    She was to startafter school started; they were planning to travel a lot that summer, and theapartment was going to need work. My friend started frantically packing herbelongings, selling and giving things away so her life would fit into thesmaller space, and paying workers to fix up her house for rental. She spent mostof her free time that summer getting ready.

    A couple of weeksbefore her start date, the couple asked her over for a meeting. It was then thatthe wife said that she'd had a "new idea" about the apartment, andthat my friend discovered that construction had barely started. The wife's newidea involved reducing Judy's promised living area by about a third, and she haddecided she didn't want to move any walls or add any windows. The wife expectedJudy to accept a 50 percent cut in pay without a whimper.

    Judy said she'dthink it over. She went home to her completely disrupted house, filled withpacked boxes and painters' tarps. She knew she couldn't reduce her belongingsmuch further - she also recognized that she wouldn't want to work for people whowould treat her so poorly.

    Judy called toexpress her regret and decline the job. (They seemed surprised and a littleoffended that she wouldn't take what they were offering; they must have thoughtshe was too far along in the moving process to stop.)

    A day later, she satdown and wrote a letter to them outlining, without figures, how much this failedjob opportunity had cost her in terms of time and expense. Basically, it was aplea for an apology.

    A few days later,the envelope she had been waiting for arrived. It was thick, 100 percent cottonbond; she knew immediately who had sent it. Inside was an elegantly letterednote from the wife, saying that she was sad that there had been amiscommunication. That brief note, which not so subtly put the blame back onJudy, sent her into a rage. She fired off a letter asking for compensation forher time and trouble, but they refused. Within a couple of weeks, the coupleheard from Judy's lawyer.

    Judy had told me atthe time that all she really wanted was an apology. She estimates that thecouple has spent at least five thousand dollars on lawyers, so far. The longerthe case goes on, the angrier she is. At this point, she's not willing to settlefor an apology - an apology the couple could have given her for free.

    Every business dealswith people, and amongst people there are always going to be misunderstandingsand wrongdoing, whether it is amongst employees, between employees and clients,or even between management and stockholders. Training your employees andyourself to recognize wrongdoing, own up to it, and apologize for it - if donesincerely - could save you a bundle.

    And there's a sidebenefit. You just might feel richer, as a person, for it.

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