Sorry is not a bad word

Malaysian companies need to appreciate the art of the apology

ARE apologies taboo in corporate Malaysia? Or are CEOs and boards incapable of publicly owning up to mistakes or failure to do their jobs well? It’s fair to say that sorry seems to be the hardest word for the men and women at the helm of our biggest businesses.

The annual reports of listed companies and other large corporations typically have messages from the chairmen as well as sections featuring the management’s discussion and analysis of the companies’ business operations and financial performance, but rarely do these contain anything that remotely resembles an expression of regret.

It’s surely not because there’s nothing to apologise for.

When Bursa Malaysia or the Securities Commission publicly reprimands a listed company and its directors, and fines the latter, we usually hear nothing from the company and the board. No explanation is offered, let alone a clear acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and an assurance that it won’t happen again.

In addition, listed companies are sometimes guilty of breaking the law in other areas such as public health, employment, taxation and immigration. More often than not, the companies choose to stay silent on these matters.

There have been many cases of companies disclosing the discovery of financial irregularities. Sometimes, these lead to prosecution and civil suits, but hardly ever do we hear anybody say sorry.

And once in a while, a local listed company is at fault when there’s a mishap or a controversy. For example, there have been worksite accidents, including fatal ones, in which listed construction companies are held responsible. And yet these companies act as if there’s no need to volunteer anything about their involvement in something this consequential and damaging.

Also, shouldn’t directors and top executives be apologetic about business blunders, inept management and oversight, and poor governance?

We regularly see a listed company drumming up enthusiasm for a merger or an acquisition, hailing the deal as one of the best things that can happen. A few years down the road, it’s not unusual for the company to quietly crawl back to square one after abandoning that big bet. And nobody will stand up to declare, “We’re sorry we made a bad decision.”

There’s plenty of material out there on the pros and cons of apologies in the business world.

Sure, the reluctance to say sorry at times is based on legal concerns; an apology can be construed as an admission of guilt. But that doesn’t mean the only alternative is to stay silent. There are other ways to deal sensitively and transparently with situations in which others have suffered losses and inconvenience.

Apart from the fear of incriminating oneself, is there anything else that’s sturdy enough a reason for refusing to take ownership of a mistake or an unwanted outcome?

For some people, an apology is a sign of weakness. Is that really so? It takes true strength and courage to openly admit fault. That’s the logical first step towards regaining trust. It is actually a sign of weakness is to reject culpability and ignore the fact that your company’s actions or lack of action has had a negative impact on others.

It’s not every day that corporations and businessmen elsewhere in the world make public apologies but there have been numerous notable examples.

A severe ice storm in February 2007 disrupted JetBlue Airways’s operations so extensively that founder and CEO David Neeleman issued a letter to customers that opened with these lines: “We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.”

When your company was primarily responsible for the horrific Gulf of Mexico oil spill in April 2010, an apology would be inevitable. And so BP CEO Tony Hayward had to say sorry many times.

Japan’s Olympus Corp has done the same over “past financial accounting misconduct” that came to light in November 2011.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was battered by the phone-hacking scandal that forced the closure of one of its most successful newspapers. In July 2011, the media giant took out a full-page ad in UK national newspapers. Signed by Murdoch, the ad was a note with this headline: “We are sorry.”

In January 2014, Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and CEO of US retailer Target, wrote a letter of apology after the theft of customer data.

The same year, General Motors CEO Mary Barra apologised on several occasions over the auto company’s handling of a defective ignition switch that caused at least 13 deaths.

After millions of savings and credit card accounts had been created in the names of Well Fargo customers without their knowledge, the company’s chairman and CEO John Stumpf had to testify before a US Senate committee in September 2016. “I am deeply sorry that we failed to fulfil our responsibility to our customers, to our team members, and to the American public,” he said.

There’s no guarantee that an apology will heal all wounds. Contrite or not, a business leader may have to go after a massive problem has occurred on his watch. Also, the fallout may be so disastrous that the company may never recover.

Nevertheless, a heartfelt apology is frequently necessary, and it matters how and when the apology is delivered. It has to be backed up by a concrete plan on how things will change so that the error or wrongdoing won’t be repeated.

The experts have much to say about the dos and don’ts of apologising; it’s not difficult to get some pointers on the Internet. Ultimately, it’s about recognising that your company has done some harm and showing people that your company has learnt a lesson from this unpleasant experience.

We can’t control how people respond to an apology, but we can be certain that they won’t feel any better in the absence of one. Those who can’t say sorry are likely to have trouble doing the right things consistently.

Executive editor Errol Oh is astonished to see how some people can never blame themselves for anything.

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