Why Saying “I’m Sorry” Isn’t Good Enough

In her research, Daryl Koehn, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Ethics and Business Law, on the nature of good and evil in business and professional arenas and has published extensively on the subject of trustworthiness and integrity, and on corporate governance. Currently, she’s researching the ethics of CEO apologies and the aesthetic dimension of ethical goodness. We asked her some questions about this, based on her paper, “Why saying ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t good enough: The ethics of corporate apologies,” published in Business Ethics Quarterly.

In your research, you define three types of apologies: private or interpersonal, corporate/CEO and nation-state or collective. What is a corporate or CEO apology and what makes it unique?

A corporate apology involves a corporate leader, often a CEO, speaking in a way that seeks reconciliation – a restoration of trust – between that company and those they’ve offended or harmed. The CEO might be apologizing for personally causing harm or apologizing as a representative of a firm that is perceived to be a wrongdoer.

Some scholars think corporate apologies are identical to private apologies – that a CEO making an apology is essentially required to have the same feelings of regret or remorse as an individual would, so these scholars are looking for emotional depth in a CEO apology that often isn’t there.  As a result, they say the speech does not qualify as a true apology.  But I would argue that a CEO making an apology on behalf of a company doesn’t need to show personal remorse if he or she is acting as a representative of the firm and didn’t directly cause the wrong in question. After all, a corporation is a “legal person” that has no body, and remorse is a physical feeling.

A corporate apology is often about more than image restoration. It needs to address public perception – to show that the firm deserves trust and is taking specific measures to restore that trust. In other words, it needs to do more than just express regret. I wanted to examine what makes a corporate apology sincere and ethical versus merely ritualistic.

You define eight ideal elements of an ethically good or authentic corporate apology and at the top of the list is to name the wrongdoing. Can you describe what you mean by that?

It’s very important for CEOs to name the exact injury or offense – they need to show that they’re on the same page regarding the breach of trust and that they’re taking steps to rectify it. The worst strategy is to issue a sort of “non-apology” where the speaker takes no responsibility for rectifying a specific harm or does not acknowledge the suffering of victims.  When it comes to apologies, the particulars are very important. People want to hear the specific errors addressed - omitting them can lead the audience to conclude that the firm in question doesn’t share their values.

You also discuss how important it is for a corporation and its CEO to take responsibility for wrongdoing – to “own” it – when making an apology. This is something we tend to look for in personal apologies but what does it mean in the corporate realm?

In a corporate apology, what the public is looking for is often first the “who.” Who did wrong, who will be held accountable? And then they want the details – how will this be rectified? Without this, reconciliation isn’t possible because the bridge of trust is not re-established. If a CEO personally made the mistake or harmed people, it’s important to use the word “I” when making his or her apology. If the CEO wasn’t personally responsible, it is still important for that person to own the problem going forward and commit to taking corrective measures in the future. Simply saying “I am sorry,” is not sufficient.

Could you give some examples of corporate or CEO apologies gone wrong and also someone who got it right?

There are many examples of failed CEO apologies. Successful corporate apologies are harder to find.

After a ruptured Ashland Oil tank resulted in a large spill that affected Pittsburgh’s drinking water supply, the firm’s CEO John Hall flew to the city to apologize, met with citizens, answered questions for hours and discussed plans for clean-up efforts. There are several ethically sound elements to his apology    – he made his apology promptly, did so in-person and took ownership for solving the problem.

In your paper you state that the number of corporate apologies has increased dramatically during the past decade. Why do you think that is?  Are more mistakes being made or are we, the public, more likely to demand apologies?

There are at least two causes.  First, social media makes it easier for individuals to organize people who feel they’ve been harmed. Second, with social media, stories can stay alive for a long time. In the past, a firm could hope that some other big news story—a terrorist attack, a plane crash—would bump the firm off of the front page of the papers and out of the public’s consciousness. Now, though, individuals can retweet their demands and outrage and keep the pressure on corporations.