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Saying You’re Sorry Doesn’t Always Cut It, Unless You Mean It


I’m sorry.

They’re simple words. But just ask any couple going through counseling, and they’ll tell you they’re also the toughest words.

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It takes a lot to say, “I’m sorry.” It takes a lot more to mean it when you do.

Enter John Koskinen. The IRS Commissioner refused to apologize for all those missing emails. In fact, he doubled down on it.

“I don’t think an apology is owed,” Koskinen told the House Ways and Means Committee last week. He claimed the latest disappearing emails were more the fault of “technical glitches” than deliberate deceit. No apology needed.

That might not have played well with Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, who said he thinks the IRS chief should be sorry, but it was pretty clear Koskinen wasn’t about to utter the words. That left his questioners utterly incredulous.

They couldn’t believe the man heading up the IRS wasn’t remotely apologetic for one of the agency’s most controversial crises in history. An apology, they figured, would show at least some remorse. It wouldn’t change the fact conservative groups were targeted, and perhaps more widely than thought. But at least it would give the appearance of true regret on the part of the agency’s chief.

Really? Just how far does an apology go if it’s left at just an apology? The words might be soothing, but what if they’re not followed by concrete actions? Take for example, Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF) CEO Mike Jeffries who was caught years after the fact belittling larger-size customers, who maybe shouldn’t be shopping at his stores. His apology was too little. Too late. For many customers, still, too much.

That’s the thing about apologies. You can’t just say you’re sorry. You have to address the underlying sorry behavior that generated the mea culpa in the first place. Again, easier said than done.

Just ask General Motors (NYSE:GM) CEO Mary Barra. She’s apologized for the ignition-switch debacle that has resulted in all those deaths and injuries. But she has, at least initially, tried to go one step further – setting up a compensation fund to cover the family of victims directly affected by the tragedy.

Barra’s also fired a number of subordinates that an internal company investigation fingered for missing the enormity of the crisis. Still, top company brass were left largely in place, and Barra herself – a top executive back at the time of these ignition problems – admitted no wrongdoing on her part.

But she apologized, and did so repeatedly.

It’s hard to say how much she meant those apologies. Her actions will ultimately decide that. But apologies do buy you time.  Just not that much time.

Consider Target’s (NYSE:TGT) delayed apology over that huge credit card breach nightmare last year. It did little to console millions of the retailer’s customers whose financial details were exposed, or ultimately save the CEO’s job. But at least it set the right tone. Unfortunately, it has yet to set Target’s sales back on track.

Some question the need to even bother with an apology in the first place. Comedian Joan Rivers says she was just joking when she compared her daughter’s guest room with the captivity three women experienced at the home of Ariel Castro for nearly a decade.

“Those women in the basement in Cleveland had more space,” Rivers said, in reference to the room at her daughter’s house.

She has refused to apologize.

Ditto NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw who refused to do the same after making a tasteless joke about Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

The late Howard Cosell was famous for making controversial remarks, and equally famous for refusing to say, “I’m sorry” for a single one of them.

Sometimes apologies take time. It took Manny Ramirez more than six years to apologize for an incident in Houston, in which he physically tossed Red Sox Traveling Secretary Jack McCormick to the clubhouse floor over a dispute involving tickets for that night’s game.

While Ramirez publicly apologized for the incident at the time, he had never done so personally to McCormick himself until just last month. McCormick forgave him.

Sometimes those offended aren’t so inclined. Los Angeles Clippers’ Donald Sterling repeatedly apologized for offending anyone who might have been offended by his infamous racial slurs caught on tape,  but not a single Clippers player has accepted their outgoing owner’s remorse, nor has a one of them run to his defense.

The problem with saying “I’m sorry,” is they’re just words. Powerful words, very hard to say words. But again, just words. So no matter how many times a CEO might “regret” or apologize a lousy quarter or an unusual corporate debacle, unless that CEO quickly addresses what went wrong and corrects it, words won’t suffice.

All of this might explain why the president has refused to say he’s sorry about the health-care law’s rollout. He regrets it. He wishes it might have debuted more smoothly. But he’s never said much more, and certainly never said, “I goofed,” which is even more powerful.

Critics blithely dismiss the president if he even were to try. For one thing, they say it’s way too late, and he’d have to acknowledge way too many screw-ups. Better at this stage the president fix what happened under his watch than state the obvious, that he botched a lot under his watch; not just say he’s outraged, but prove how much he’s outraged.

Different people have different impressions of what constitutes a sincere apology. For fighting couples, it means each correcting the behavior the other found offensive. Again, easier said than done. But it’s pretty clear just “saying” something doesn’t mean you’re “done.”

What do you think?

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