It doesn’t seem that hard, but apologizing can get complicated when you’re trying to do it as professionally as possible in a written medium—especially if you’ve really embarrassed yourself. But don’t worry. We’ve all made mistakes, including some egregious ones, and apologizing over email isn’t nearly as complicated as most people make it out to be.
In this guide, we’ll cover the right times to apologize over email, how an apology becomes effective, and how to apologize professionally in an email.
When is Email the Best Way to Apologize?
Apologies are often best issued face-to-face. In-person apologies are a sign of respect, and you’ll have the advantage of tone and body language to not only verbalize your regret, but express it.
However, there are some situations where email is a better medium for your apology:
- Time is short. If you need to break the tension or resolve a problem, but you don’t have time to schedule a meeting or make a phone call, an email will guarantee near-instant communication. Only texting is potentially faster, but I wouldn’t recommend sending a formal apology over text.
- You owe an apology to a group. Email is also useful when you want multiple parties to read the same apology. Be careful here; even if you’re apologizing for the same thing, it may be in your best interest to send individualized messages, so you can address the perspectives of each member of the group. In other cases, a group message is ideal.
- You have much to say, and want to get your words correct. Not everyone is a skilled improviser in active conversation. If you want to make sure you choose the perfect words, only email will provide you with enough time and flexibility to say exactly what you want.
- You don’t expect a response. Sometimes, an apology doesn’t warrant a conversation; instead, it’s a one-way assertion. If you don’t expect or want a response, email could be the perfect medium.
The 7 Ingredients of a Perfect Apology
Let’s talk about apologies in general, for a moment. An apology has many goals. You’ll want to relieve tension or get forgiveness to “clear the air” with someone. You’ll want to make up for a mistake or error you made to preserve your reputation. You’ll also want to be taken seriously, or else people may believe your apology is insincere. So if you want to learn how to apologize professionally in an email, you first need to understand the seven core elements of a perfect apology:
1. An explanation of the situation.
There are some instances where no explanation is necessary, but most of the time, you’ll want to provide a bit of context. For example, you can start with a couple of sentences about the events that led up to your mistake.
If your recipients aren’t familiar with what happened, something like, “As you know, I’ve been overseeing a new client project for the past few weeks,” followed with more details, can work. Otherwise, an introduction like, “I’m writing to apologize for my behavior last week,” is ideal.
2. Acknowledgment of a mistake/error/instance of wrongdoing.
This is key. A good apology requires you to acknowledge that you made a mistake, and that your mistake had consequences. There are subtleties of language that can make an apology immediately ineffective, if your phrasing is constructed in an attempt to prevent you from admitting error.
For example, the phrase, “I’m sorry you were angry at my joke,” is phrased like an apology, but it has no admission of error. By contrast, “I’m sorry I made an inappropriate joke,” acknowledges that the joke shouldn’t have been made; the focus is on you, and what you did, rather than simply acknowledging an unpleasant situation. This can be hard to face, but it’s crucial if you want forgiveness.
3. An expression of regret.
You also need to express regret. “Sorry” and “I apologize” have regret baked into their inherent meaning, but an extra sentence or two can really make people believe you feel bad about the situation.
For example, “I’m sorry I made an inappropriate joke” can be followed with “I know I offended multiple people in the room, and if I could take it back, I would,” to showcase that you understand why what you did was wrong—and that you wish you would have made a different decision.
4. An acceptance of accountability.
Next, you’ll need to accept accountability. Rather than using an apology as a way to escape consequences, you need to express that you’re willing to face the consequences.
While you might not like the disciplinary actions you face as a result of admitting your mistake, you’ll earn the respect of everyone in the thread because you have the integrity to own up to it. A simple statement, like “I fully accept the consequences of my actions” is usually enough here.
5. An offer of restoration.
Punishment and disciplinary action are often a necessity, but it won’t actually undo or make up for whatever damage you caused. It’s a good idea to make an offer of your own to start improving the situation. It shows that you genuinely care about making up for the mistake, and can start you on the path of setting things right.
For example, if you damaged the company’s relationship with a client, you can say something like, “I’m more than happy to assist in transitioning the account to a new account manager,” or “I’d like to apologize to the client in person.”
6. A commitment to improvement.
Making up for a mistake is good, but it’s even better to pledge to never make the mistake again (or at least improve). Express what you’ve learned from this situation, and how you’re going to use those lessons to improve.
For example, something like, “I feel terrible we missed your deadline, but it exposed a flaw in our order management system. We’ve incorporated new protocols to ensure that this mistake doesn’t happen in the future.”
7. A request for forgiveness.
Finally, you’ll need to ask for forgiveness. Keep it simple here; you aren’t selling someone on giving you forgiveness. Instead, you’re shifting the attention to them. For example, something like, “we hope you’ll give us another chance in the future” works fine.
In most situations, you’ll want your email apology to have all of these elements at once.
Example: How to Apologize Professionally in an Email
Here’s an example of how you can chain these elements together:
I’m writing to you in regards to our last meeting. (an explanation). Our team was not adequately prepared, and we presented egregiously incorrect data. (acknowledgment of the mistake). We wasted both our time and yours, and compromised your trust in us—for that, we are truly sorry. (expression of regret). We accept the consequences of this mistake, and have since prepared an accurate report. We’re also prepared to offer you a discount on your next round of billing (accountability and restoration).
Additionally, we’ve changed our internal process for meeting preparation, and can assure you we will not make this mistake again. (improvement). We apologize. We hope we re-earn your trust, and continue collaborating for our mutual success. (forgiveness).”
Bonus Tips: Writing an Apology Email
Ready for some bonus tips on how to apologize professionally in an email? Here are some extra tactics that can improve the reception of your message:
1. Be yourself. Whether you’re writing an apology in customer service, sales, or any other department, it’s important to be yourself. Don’t try to don a super-formal personality, or speak in a way that’s unnatural to you. It has a chance of coming across as insincere, and will almost certainly invite a colder, less sincere response. If you’re truly regretful, your words will demonstrate it.
2. Forget templates. We’ve got a lot of great template guides on this site, helping you write out-of-office messages and networking emails, but we actively discourage you from using templates to write an apology. If your apology email seems like it was slightly modified from some generic sample on the internet, it’s going to be rebuffed. Even if your message ends up being a bit formulaic, it’s better to start from scratch.
3. Express humility. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. And in a professional environment, we usually try to cover that up—making it seem like we know more than we actually do, or that we’re more capable than we actually are. An apology email isn’t the time or place for this excess confidence; instead, try to express humility, and acknowledge your own weaknesses. It’s going to make your message much easier to digest.
4. Don’t grovel or be dramatic. That said, it’s also important to avoid groveling. Don’t let your email become dramatic. Phrasing like, “I’m so, so sorry for this. Please accept my apology, from the bottom of my heart. I beg for your forgiveness, even though I don’t deserve it” just isn’t necessary. It creates an awkward atmosphere, and detracts from the main point of the conversation. You’re better off describing your mistake and explaining how you’re going to prevent it in the future than simply adding more flamboyant or emotional wording.
5. When in doubt, keep it simple. If you’re agonizing how to phrase or organize the email, or if you’re confused about how much detail to include, follow the general rule of keeping things simple. Concise, forward sentences are going to be much more effective—and much better received—when writing an apology email. Occasionally, scenarios will demand more of an explanation (like if you’re citing the procedural flaws that led to a mistake), but you should still strive to only include the information that’s necessary. If your recipient needs clarification, they can ask for it.
Mastering how to apologize professionally in an email isn’t easy. Apologizing in generally usually isn’t. However, if you follow these best practices and keep things simple and sincere, you should be in a great position.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.