Remember our dainty feminine foot-stomping when New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin decided to launch a feature called Apology Watch, with the help of business consultant Dov Seidman? Remember how Sorkin wouldn’t reply to our emails? (Though we did hear from his editor and from Seidman, inviting us to “connect and explore” and “contribute to the dialogue,” in condescending there-there-little-bear tones?)
WE HAVE NEWS.
Publicly, things have been awfully quiet on the Apology Watch front. Sorkin launched it on February 3 with dual columns by him and by Seidman (who runs a consultancy called LRN that “helps companies translate their values into concrete corporate practices and behaviors that create advantage and economic value,” HELL YEAH). On February 4, we began our unseemly requests for public acknowledgment and an apology. On February 19, a second Seidman column appeared. But since then, we’ve heard bupkes from our dynamic duo. Of course, Sorkin’s been busy, selling a drama about hedge-fund billionaires to Showtime. (Always be closing!)
Or perhaps the NYT brass realized there was a problem with analysis of genuine, heartfelt apologies coming from the tag team of a dude who is himself often called a Wall Street apologist and a dude who advises Fortune 500 companies on corporate image-selling. Most folks would agree that apologies are better when they come from the “how to be a good person” place rather than the “how to amortize your negative public perception in the global marketplace” place.
Someone with a financial stake in corporate apologizing writing for the NYT about corporate apologizing is weird (and given the NYT’s sometimes draconian response to even the perception of violation of its ethics policy — Hello, fired Critical Shopper columnist Mike Albo! — a tad baffling). Apology Watch is essentially free advertising for LRN. In those inaugural pieces, Seidman said that corporate apologizing has become too reflexive (SUBTEXT: SO YOU NEED TO HIRE EXPERTS TO HELP YOU), and the value of an apology needs to be measured over time (SUBTEXT: SO KEEP THOSE EXPERTS ON RETAINER). As Sumac pointed out in her patented jovial manner, “Oh ho ho, and where could we find such experts?”
Part of the reason for SorryWatch’s launch two years ago was our dismay at the prevalence of calculating, insincere, strategic, self-serving apologies. SO! That’s why we were entertained to hear from a former employee of LRN about the culture of apology in Seidman’s own backyard. Our correspondent forwarded us several LRN emails. We confirmed that all the humans named do exist and work or have worked at LRN. We’re redacting names, and have made edits only for length. We did not receive the emails from anyone named in the emails. The first rule of LRN is don’t talk about LRN. Unless you say “transparent” a lot and Randomly Capitalize Things As If You Were Winnie the Pooh.
Dearest Team SorryWatch:
For reasons I won’t go into, LRN — an ethical values consultancy — is perhaps the most unethical company I have ever worked for. Mr Seidman and Mr Sorkin have taken the moral ground on the subject of apology. I don’t think it’s inappropriate then to highlight instances of LRN apologizing that they are keen to keep quiet! For LRN acts very creepy.
Dov Seidman’s LRN’s HR department is called the People and Principled Performance Council (!). There are no job titles, since you “report to the mission.” If you leave the mission in the wrong circumstances, then you are in deep trouble.
Here’s the first internal email:
From: People & Principled Performance Council
Sent: [Date redacted]
To: Everyone Global
Dear Colleagues, We would like to formally…notify you that three of our colleagues are departing. [Employee #1] will be leaving LRN as of [date]. [Employee #1] has been part of the LRN family for the last six years and has decided to join one of our partners, [name redacted] .
While we very much appreciate [Employee #1's] contributions to LRN and support her decision to pursue a new opportunity in her career, we are disappointed that by taking this job at [other company], and by not coming forward earlier in her decision making process to inform us of her intentions, [Employee #1] acted outside of our Leadership Framework and did not honor our Partnership Principles. As we have discussed recently, leaving to work in a partner organization is a special and rare situation that should be openly discussed with all parties as early as possible in the decision making process. We want to reiterate our strong belief that living our values and leadership framework should guide us to have a more collaborative and transparent process in these situations.
[Employee #2] has announced his intention to leave LRN on [date]….For very personal reasons, [Employee #2] and his family have now determined that they need to remain in [other city]. This is a sad development for both LRN and for [Employee #2], who expresses regret that he has had to make this difficult decision. Fortunately for [Employee #2], he has been able to find his next opportunity and he will be joining [other company name]. [Employee #2] has been part of the LRN family since [date]…He has inspired many of us throughout the organization by his humor, commitment and tenacity to help get things organized and accomplished. [Employee #2's] presence at LRN, and his many valuable contributions, will be greatly missed. [Employee #2] has been clear that his decision to leave LRN is driven by a strong desire and need to be closer to his family. He has offered to stay in touch and to be available to answer questions in the future.
[Employee #2] states: “Working for LRN has been a truly unique experience for me, for not only have I worked with brilliant colleagues who are like family to me, but because we were all driven to a higher purpose. I am not leaving LRN, but instead, I will take the special mission and purpose of LRN with me as I go back to my roots in [other city], where I can share more time with my [family members].” We would like to extend our best wishes and thanks to [Employee #2] for his many contributions to LRN and we wish him much success in all of his future endeavors.
Yikes! Way to shame Employee #1 for doing a thing normal people do in normal business situations, and way to pour on the treacle for Employee #2, FORCED BY CIRCUMSTANCES OUTSIDE HIS CONTROL to leave the mothership! Also, reread that quote from Employee #2, who sounds a badly written character in a thriller backing away slowly from the psychotic murderer in the room while pretending he has no idea anything’s wrong.
Also, what precisely is the problem with not telling your bosses you’re pondering leaving for a company they work with (note: not a competitor)? Is this junior high? Must we process how our company will FEEEEEEEL when we totes betray them by going to work somewhere else? Again, to quote my esteemed co-blogger: “They’re mad because it’s not transparent enough, but what gives bosses the right to see into people’s heads just because they pay them a salary? Who believes that bosses have only their employees’ best interests at heart? Did Employee #1, really show a lack of ethics, or just GOOD SENSE?”
A few days later, the “People & Principled Performance Council” sent a followup “apology” email:
From: People & Principled Performance Council
Sent: [Date redacted]
To: Everyone Global
Subject: PPP Council Communication Regarding [date] Colleague Announcements
On [date] the People & Principled Performance Council shared the weekly colleague announcements for that week. This included notification of [Employee #1]’s resignation from the company, along with the departures of [others]. Because of the circumstances of [Employee #1]’s departure from LRN to take a position with a Partner, the Council, in alignment with our shared values, felt compelled to be transparent about this fact and to state that we wished her communication and collaboration with us on that issue had been handled differently and in a manner more consistent with our values.
In this same email [other employees] were thanked for their contribution to LRN and we wished them well in their future endeavors. The email did not do the same for [Employee #1]. We recognize that to not thank [Employee #1] for her contribution to LRN and to wish her well in the email could be mis-interpreted and was not representative of our values. This was not the intention and we therefore wish to now formally extend our best wishes and thanks to [Employee #1] for her six years of service to LRN, and her many contributions to our mission, and we wish her much success in all of her future endeavors. We would like to apologize to [Employee #1] and our colleagues for any distress the omission of thanks and best wishes in the original email caused and express our regret that this council did not live up to our values in this communication.
Sincerely, The People & Principled Performance Council
LRN | Inspiring Principled Performance
Need we clarify why this is a terrible apology? “We recognize that to not thank [Employee #1] for her contribution to LRN and to wish her well in the email could be mis-interpreted and was not representative of our values”? First of all, nice jargon, talk like a human. Second of all, the thing you want to say here is, “We’re sorry we humiliated a coworker in front of the entire company. It was a total dick move.” The choice to “not thank her” was only a small part of the problem — multiple sentences about her betrayal and lack of ethics was the greater issue. And saying something is “not representative of our values” is corporate-ese for the Bad Apology Bingo entry “This is not who I am.” It’s an attempt to distance yourself from your own deeds. Which is exactly the opposite of what a good apology needs to do. Furthermore, the weaselly “This was not the intention” (verbatim Bad Apology Bingo expression!) and “we therefore wish to now formally extend our best wishes” = awful too. Since the first email could be “mis-interpreted” [sic] you now want to “formally” say “good wishes”? (Again, sounding a little like Data in Star Trek: Next Generation there.) “Formally” makes the apology sound grudging, part of the overall tone of CYA as opposed to genuine remorse. Informality would have been better. Also, groveling.
In one of his two Apology Watch columns, Seidman laid of “the essential characteristics of authentic apologies” — this apology meets none of them. In Dov’s words:
They must be painful. If an apology doesn’t create vulnerability and isn’t therapeutically painful, it’s not an apology at all.
They must be authentic and not an excuse. An apology can’t have ulterior motives or be a means to an end.
They must probe deep into the personal or organizational values that permitted the offense. Apologizers need to conduct a “moral audit” by looking themselves in the mirror and asking, “How did I get here and how did I drift from the person I aspire to be?”
They must encourage feedback from the aggrieved. This includes truly opening up to input and two-way conversation during and after an apology, and embracing ideas as to how to improve.
They must turn regret into a real change in behavior. The new behaviors they elicit must be continuing, reinforced by a sustained investment in avoiding the same mistakes in the future.
This apology was NOT painful, because it is unsigned. No one is personally owning anything. There is no vulnerability. Who is “The People & Principled Performance Council”? And are they paying royalties to George Orwell? (Incidentally, I think Sumac and I would argue about apologies having to be painful. Sometimes they feel really good, particularly when you’re taking action to make things right after sitting with something you did that you know hurt someone else and made you feel awful. Then when you apologize, you know you’re doing the brave, right thing.)
The apology was NOT authentic. It was filled with jargon, it came off as institutional and begrudging, and again, it was unsigned.
The apology does NOT contain a moral audit. Because yet again, there’s no human ownership. And if there’s a single thread that runs through the comments about LRN on Glassdoor.com, it’s the lack of alignment between the company’s stated values and corporate culture. (However, one commenter does note that the Los Angeles office has air conditioning. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.)
The upshot: What’s deserving of apology in this email set isn’t the PERCEPTION it might give people; it’s the email itself. An ethics company shouldn’t have to be told this.