My Employee Apologizes For Mistakes She Didn’t Make columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

I’m a new executive director. My assistant is amazing and I couldn’t ask for a better one. She anticipates my expectations and needs very little direction, and I’ve often leaned on her for help.

My only complaint is that she apologizes when things aren’t her fault at all. She immediately follows up with a way she thinks the situation can be remedied, which is great, but she doesn’t need to apologize when it isn’t her fault. 

The things she apologizes for are often out of her control. A major part of our jobs is dealing with a board of directors, and anytime they make a mistake or are late to a meeting, she apologizes for them. It seems as though certain members of the board also expect her to take blame for their mistakes, such as them forgetting paperwork they were required to bring, not showing up on time, or getting the call-in information wrong. One time a board member who told us he wouldn’t be able to make the meeting tried to call her at the last minute, saying he would be able to attend but needed the call-in information. She was setting up the lunch in the board room and away from her desk because the meeting was just two minutes away. I needed her help setting up some presentation material so she didn’t return to her desk until hours later, when she was met with a ton of angry voicemails from the member trying to call in. I saw it more as his fault. There is no way we could have known he suddenly would become available two minutes out. We fixed the problem by giving her a cell phone to carry throughout the meetings (her idea) but she also sent him an email apologizing for not answering his call and that he didn’t have a way to call in. I thought that wasn’t necessary on her part as his lateness is not her problem.

I’m in her age group and the first female executive director in the history of the company. I am not sure if that plays into it at all. I also acknowledge that this might just be how she is as a person.

Is there a way to approach her without her feeling like I am coming down on her? Should I even bother saying anything at all?

Yes, say something! Not in a “you’re doing it wrong” chastising kind of way, but more like: “I’ve noticed that you’ll often apologize for things that aren’t in any way your fault. I don’t know if you’ve noticed you do it, and it’s a pretty common habit, especially for women. But in case you feel like I or others expect you to apologize even when things aren’t your fault, please know that you don’t need to. You do excellent work, and I worry that you’re undermining yourself by apologizing when you don’t need to.”

It could very well be a behavior she learned from working under a previous manager who  threw a lot of blame or had high needs for soothing and appeasement. Or it could just be a habit that she’s picked up in life more generally, like a lot of other people have.

But as a boss who appreciates her work, you’re in a good position to name it for her and let her know she doesn’t need to do it.

For what it’s worth, there are times when a polite apology can smooth over a situation more diplomatically, even when the apologizer isn’t at fault. Your board member example is a good one. It doesn’t sound like your assistant owed anyone an apology, but when an angry board member is frustrated that he wasn’t able to call into a meeting, sometimes “I’m sorry about that” will smooth things over faster than an explanation that the situation was actually his fault. Of course, if that person is regularly sending people angry voicemails, that calls for a bigger-picture conversation with him to address the behavior more broadly. But if it’s a one-off, sometimes a quick apology is just a smart way to smooth ruffled feathers.

The thing is to look at big-picture patterns. An unnecessary apology here and there isn’t a big deal. But a pattern of apologizing for things that aren’t her fault — even if it’s just a verbal tic, which it is for many people — is something that can subtly change the way people interact with her. By all means, nudge her toward seeing that she doesn’t have to do that.

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