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When & How to Apologize

Apologies can be difficult. It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong or when we’ve made a mistake, and even harder to eat some humble pie. In our lives, we’ve encountered people in both extremes. We all know the person who apologizes for everything, even the things which clearly, they didn’t cause or have even impact slightly. We also all know a person who refuses to apologize, regardless of how blatantly obvious it is that it’s necessary.

Where’s the right middle ground for apologies?

As a recruiter, let’s start with when not to apologize:

  • You placed a candidate. They resigned.
  • You placed a candidate. They were fired.
  • You extended an offer. It was rejected.
  • Your best candidate decided not to continue the process.
  • You presented candidates and none were sufficient.
  • You dedicated appropriate time and couldn’t engage a candidate.

These are not reasons to apologize. Not one of them is in your control. You can empathize, be supportive and encouraging, and listen to client complaints. But don’t apologize. You didn’t make the hiring decision, perform on the job, manage the candidate, determine the offer, or even define the job criteria.

In these situations, it’s helpful to have a mantra or two in your back pocket. Some of my favorites for the first four listed above include:

  • These are unfortunate circumstances. What steps can we take to minimize the risk of this happening in the future? Is there anything we could have done differently?
  • This is hard and causes additional problems. Before we address them, can we pause for a moment and find the learning? What could we have done differently?

In the last two options, you worked hard and couldn’t find someone the client wanted. This doesn’t mean you half-assed it, posted a job, and planned on calling passive candidates. You really went out, did your job, did it well, and for some reason you weren’t able to identify the right person. Here’s how we go back to the client:

  • Mr. Hiring Manager, we need to make a modification to the search. Despite my best efforts, I’ve reached a point where we’ll either need to make the opportunity more compelling or decrease the minimum expectations. Which would be more comfortable to explore?

What happens if you mess up and it warrants an apology?

It happens to all of us. We’re human, and we make mistakes. I could list so many situations where an apology is necessary. Maybe we’re telling ourselves a story and it’s not true. Then we make decisions or say something based on false assumptions. Maybe we overcommitted our time and didn’t give the search our best effort. Maybe we made a bad choice in our personal life, and it caused us to mess up a deal. There are many situations which warrant an apology.

First, act quickly. The longer you go knowing you need to apologize, and you don’t, the worse it’s going to be for you and the person you’ve wronged. The anticipation is more difficult than the apology. As soon as you realize you’re wrong or made a mistake, own it.

When you apologize, sincerity is paramount. A short, I’m sorry, and then the conversation ends isn’t sufficient. For the receiving party, you need to be specific about what you did wrong to demonstrate you understand the issue and take responsibility for your specific actions.

Offer a solution for how you’ll avoid or minimize the risk of this situation in the future, and then ask to be forgiven. This is an important step. When an apology is warranted, you must give the other party an opportunity to express their feelings. Without providing them with this opportunity, we eliminate their need for closure and to be heard, and the problem continues.

Here’s an example of a situation, and how you might apologize.

You spoke to a candidate, they seemed like a good fit for a contingency role, you presented the opportunity to the candidate, presented the candidate to the company, and then crickets. You got busy, never followed up with the candidate, and now the candidate is upset with you for disappearing.


I’m writing to you to sincerely apologize for the delay in my communication. I understand waiting for a response without any updates can be frustrating and disheartening, and I’m truly sorry for any inconvenience or anxiety this delay maybe have caused you.

It’s taken significantly longer than it should have for me to provide you with an update on this role. First, to rectify this situation, here’s what happened and their feedback: (specific to the situation)

Please be assured moving forward I’ll update you promptly at each stage of the process. Once again, I apologize for the oversight and appreciate your understanding in this matter. I’m sorry for falling short in this instance. I humbly ask for your forgiveness and assure you this situation is an anomaly and not our norm.

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Tricia Tamkin, headhunter, advisor, coach, and gladiator. Tricia has spoken at over 50 recruiting events, been quoted in multiple national publications, and her name is often dropped in groups as the solution to any recruiters’ challenges. She brings over 30 years of deep recruiting experience and offers counsel in a way which is perspective changing and entertaining.

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