Apologizing in Employment Situations — Does Apology Lead to Liability?

When you are running a business, workplace problems are inevitable.  When employees report problems in the workplace and/or file complaints, your response in some cases might be to apologize. As a dedicated employer in Texas, you might assume that telling an employee you are sorry they have experienced a particular issue or that they have dealt with a significant workplace problem might be the compassionate or empathetic thing to do.

Know, however, that in some circumstances, an apology could ultimately expose your business to liability. Indeed, under certain circumstances, apologizing could be construed as an admission of fault or responsibility. At the same time, apologizing might also be a way of resolving workplace disputes before they result in litigation.

Apologies Could Be Construed as Admission of Culpability 

Depending upon the specific circumstances, it is possible that some types of apologies by an employer could be taken as admissions of an employer’s liability for the problem. Yet this is not always the case. When should employers be thinking about apologizing to an employee? In short, it depends upon the situation and how the apology is provided.

As an article in Practical Dispute Resolution explains, there are different kinds of apologies, and the word “apology” is a broad one that includes many different types of sentiments. Indeed, that article cites the Oxford English Dictionary’s two primary definitions of an apology, which include the following:

  • “A justification, explanation or excuse of an incident or course of action”; or
  • “An explanation offered to a person affected by one’s action that no offense was intended, coupled with the expression of regret for any that might have been given.”

Apologies can involve a denial of harm, an acknowledgment of harm, an expression of regret, an acknowledgment of responsibility or moral culpability, or a combination. When might apologies, including these various types of sentiments, result in liability?

In most circumstances, an employer’s apology is only likely to result in liability — if it does at all — if an employer acknowledges responsibility or moral culpability in apologizing. Accordingly, it will be important for an employer to choose their words carefully.

Saying “I am sorry” to an employee could potentially be construed as an acknowledgment of responsibility, especially if it is in response to an employee alleging that the employer failed to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, for example. Otherwise, if an employee says that they are angry and sad to be laid off and an employer responds, “I am sorry, but our finances necessitated a layoff,” then this type of apology is less likely to incur liability.

In short, context will matter significantly. When volatile situations arise in the workplace, choose your words carefully. In high risk situations in particular, such as allegations of discrimination or harassment, consider seeking advice from an employment law attorney before you speak or issue a written apology.

Sometimes Apologies Can Limit an Employer’s Damages

While there are circumstances in which apologizing could potentially result in liability, sometimes apologies can actually lessen employee anger and reduce the likelihood of litigation.

According to an article from SHRM.org, employers who genuinely show compassion for employee circumstances, especially in the aftermath of employment discrimination allegations, may be less likely to face formal claims and lawsuits.  Again, tread carefully and consult your employment lawyer quickly for advice.

Contact a Frisco Employment Lawyer

If you have questions about apologies in the workplace and liability, our Frisco employment lawyers are here to provide counsel and assistance.  Contact Simon Paschal PLLC to learn more.

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