Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Apologize

The latest regrettable spasm of sexism in the programming world played out this afternoon, as a company called Sqoot's announcement of a hackathon caused said event to implode before it ever began by including the infuriating and insensitive line under "perks" [Update: just to be clear, in the context of the original page, it was clear that the presence of women serving beer was one of the perks for attendees]:
Women: Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.
Gag. Sqoot fairly quickly realized they had walked into a buzzsaw, as lots of people called them on it, and their sponsors started pulling their support. It's rather nice to see that kind of quick, public reaction. Cloudmine's blog post about it particularly impressed me. Squoot issued an apology fairly swiftly, which I quote below:
Sqoot is hosting an API Jam in Boston at the end of March. One of the perks we (not our sponsors) listed on the event page was:

“Women: Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.”

While we thought this was a fun, harmless comment poking fun at the fact that hack-a-thons are typically male-dominated, others were offended. That was not our intention and thus we changed it.

We’re really sorry,

Avand & Mo
This didn't do much for a lot of people, but it got me thinking about apologies in tech in general, since they are actually crucial moments in the interaction between you and your customers/audience. When I worked at Lulu, Bob Young used to say that whenever you screw up, it's actually a tremendous opportunity to win a customer's loyalty by making it right. This applies both to small screwups (a customer's order never made it) and large ones (you did something that made lots of people mad). It strikes me that in this day and age, when the "non-apology" has become so frequent, people may actually not realize when it isn't appropriate to use conditional or evasive language in apologies. It's one thing if you're worried about being sued and can't admit culpability, or if you're someone like Rush Limbaugh, who's presumably concerned about appearing to back down in front of his audience. But if you're actually intent on repairing the damage done to your relationship with your customer or your audience, you need to be able to apologize properly.

So what are the elements of a good apology?

  1. I hear you.
  2. I am truly sorry.
  3. (semi-optional, depending on what happened) This is what went wrong.
  4. I am doing x to make sure this doesn't happen again and y to make it right with you.
  5. Thank you. I appreciate the feedback.
#1 is crucial. The person or group you're addressing has to know that you've heard their complaint and understand it. Apologies that lack this element sound cold and disconnected. And this is the main problem with Sqoot's "others were offended."  They aren't speaking to the people they offended. This is just guaranteed to further piss people off.

#2 should be unconditional. Not "I'm sorry if you were offended." Indeed, if you find yourself pushing the focus onto the people whom you pissed off at all, you may be sliding into non-apology territory. This isn't about them—they're mad because you made them mad. Note that a good apology is not defensive, and does not attempt to shift the blame, even if that blame belongs to an employee whom you've just fired.  If you did that, it's part of #4, the "how I'm fixing it" part, not the "I'm sorry" part. Don't try to save face in a genuine apology. Indicating that you meant no harm is fine, but if you're apologizing, it means you caused harm regardless of your intent.

#3 is a bit more tricky. People want to know how this could have happened, but it doesn't do to dwell on it too much, and this is another mistake Sqoot makes. They probably shouldn't quote the line that made everyone mad (it will make the readers mad all over again). It would have been enough to say they put something stupid and sexist into an event page which they now regret. On the other hand, you do have to acknowledge what happened and not look like you're trying to dodge it. So don't go into excruciating detail about what went wrong with a customer's order, for example. "I'm afraid you found a bug in our shopping cart" is probably enough detail. Sqoot's apology does this really badly: they explain exactly what they did, how it happened (we thought it was funny, because we're aware that these things are mostly male), and then contrast the "others" (who lack their sense of humor) who were offended. Explaining how you messed up does not mean defending yourself, and defending yourself in an apology must be handled delicately, or you look like an ass.

#4 Fix it, if you can. "We're refunding your order immediately and giving you a coupon", "I shall be entering rehab tomorrow morning", "We're donating $$ to x charity".

#5 Reconnect. When you screw up, people are paying very close attention to you, and it's an opportunity to show that you're a stand-up company/organization/person. You stand to win greater loyalty and affection by handling the problem effectively. The people who are complaining (assuming they are correct, of course) are helping you by showing you where you're wrong, or at least showing you a different perspective. Squoot "signing" their apology is actually good, in this case, because it indicates the founders (I presume that's who they are) are taking responsibility. It's too bad they flubbed the middle bit.


Joe Komenda said...

Quite pertinent is the post from the sponsor Cloudmine: http://blog.cloudmine.me/post/19639692371/sexism-in-tech

THAT is how you apologize!

Christian said...

I have mixed feelings regarding #2; always admitting guilt in an unconditional manner might be the wisest way to handle such situations from a business standpoint, but always backing down and refusing to show any semblance of a spine seem to me cowardly when you could actually stand up for your actions if you believe in them.

What response do you think is correct when people are seemingly upset and angry with you, but you think they are wrong to react in that way? Isn't the most honest thing to do then to say "Well, we didn't and still don't think that what we did was inappropriate, but some people disagree. Out of respect for those who were offended we apologize and will refrain from doing it again."?

jon said...

Well said. Portly Dyke's classic post makes some similar points.

Unknown said...


I agree, and what I wrote is really for the case where you *do* want to apologize. There are obviously lots of cases that are more nuanced. I do think that when you're dealing with a customer, you're better off erring on the side of apology though.

The classic example of what you're asking about may be the site redesign that lots of people hate. If you're not actually going to roll back the changes, you have to engage your critics positively without backing down. Letting them know you hear what they're saying and appreciate them still goes a long way.

Gabriel Bodard said...

I think if anything you may be being too generous to "Avand & Mo". That line wasn't there to "poke fun at the fact that hack-a-thons are typically male-dominated" at all, who the hell are they kidding? That line was either a cynical or a uncritical-wholehearted-swallowing (take your pick) of the assumption that the audience for this ad were male (and heterosexual and happy to objectify women). "Others" need not apply.

@Christian: my only reservation about your point is that, if people complaining about your behavior are saying that it is sexist (or racist/homophobic/etc.) and you think they're wrong, they're probably right. We don't get to decide what's offensive to other people, either based on our own intentions or our own understanding of language origin/evolution/etc. (I assume you were talking more broadly than this, just wanted to say.)

Unknown said...


I wasn't really meaning to deal directly with the goons from Sqoot at all. I took it as an opportunity to comment on the rhetoric of apology, taking them as an example.

It's nice to see that sort of foolishness resulting in an immediate smackdown rather than (just) a flurry of commenting. A bunch of companies had the opportunity to demonstrate that they get it, and they stepped up. This is an improvement.

waltc said...

Funny you should mention Lulu. We had a problem with covers curling--which, in the end, turned out to be normal for laminated covers (esp. 8.5x11"), even from trade publishers--and Lulu went out of its way to (a) say that it might be Lulu's fault, (b) run more than one test--at their expense--to see what was happening, (c) stay in contact. And they have a loyal customer for life.

Anonymous said...

go backwards from the goal.
1. i (we) would like to ask the forgiveness of those we may have inadvertantly offended with our actions ( words ).
2. Although offending anyone was unintended & regretful, we apologize and take responsibility for the result. we will be more thoughtful in the future.
3. thank you

"i'm sorry" has become like a comma in CRM speak.

own your mistakes, be the first to admit them

Unknown said...

When I saw this the other day I actually thought it was really good that the quoted the original mistake. To me it showed that they were acknowledging and owning their mistake by not trying to hide it. They removed it from the original offending location but there it stands as their own self inflicted punishment, owning and acknowledging their error. Also it does help to understand what the problem is for others who didn't see the original text. I can look at that, for example, and learn what not to say with more certainty.

Anonymous said...

I would get stuck at #2. I wouldn't be truly sorry. It was clearly a joke. It was funny. People being upset about this are pathetic. I would've had a hard time not giving the finger to that kind of houmourless insecure whiners.

Unknown said...

@Anonymous: two things, first, in a business environment, it's best not to get your ego tangled up in things like this. I suspect that was the basic reason why they blew their apology. Second, it wasn't particularly funny and people are (rightly) very sensitized to women in tech being marginalized. I'm sure Sqoot didn't see it coming, but they touched a raw nerve whether they meant to or not.

They learned very quickly that their audience contained people who care deeply about the gender imbalance in technology and who thought they were jerks for making that kind of statement. At that point, they had the choice to try to justify themselves (argue that they aren't jerks) or make a good apology. Your instinct when attacked is always to defend yourself—I'm sure they don't think they're jerks. But it's the wrong response in this context, because it just makes them look clueless.