Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The art of the apology

Those who’ve been reading for awhile know that I grew up in Philadelphia. I am a proud survivor of the Philadelphia public school system. When I was in 11th grade at George Washington High School, I awoke one winter morning to find 9 inches of snow and ice covering the roads and sidewalks. Anyone who has any experience with any large metropolitan school district knows that they are as likely to close for weather as France is to win a modern war. So, it was no surprise that schools were open for business that morning.

I was none too happy about having to trudge the mile to school, but my parents both taught in the district, and if they had to go to work, I had to go to school. My dad, though, had what appeared to be a brilliant idea. “Why don’t you call the superintendent and let her know your feelings about school being open?” (In retrospect, maybe he was having me do his dirty work for him.) So, I got the White Pages out of the hall closet (no Internet in 1989) and found the number for the office of the superintendent. It being 6:30 in the morning, all I got was her answering machine. Here’s the message I left:
My name is Jonathan Hyman and I am a junior at George Washington High School. I was not happy to learn that schools were open this morning. Busses aren’t running, and the roads are slippery and dangerous. I do not feel that it is safe to go to school. If I get to school and find that none of my teachers are there, I am going to be very pissed off.
Direct, but innocuous enough, I thought. Which is why I was somewhat surprised when the principal pulled me out of my 4th period health class for me to talk to someone from the superintendent’s office demanding justice for my obscenities. I assured the principal that I had not used any obscenities, but one man’s “pissed off” is another’s f-bomb, I suppose. After a rational conversation (from my end), the superintendent’s representative bottom-lined it for me—I could either apologize or face expulsion. I did not think being expelled from school would bode well for my future, so I apologized. The irony of the whole situation was that when I called to apologize, I again got the superintendent’s answering machine. When I finally met her the following year at the seniors’ honors banquet, I was pretty sure she had no idea who I was or what had happened the prior winter.

What, you may be asking yourselves, does this story from my youth have to do with employment law? It’s as simple as this. Sometimes, all someone wants to resolve a problem is an apology. It's easy to dig your heals in and fight, especially when you are being accused of something as insidious as discrimination. Those fights will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Most times, those fights are necessary. Sometimes, though, a simple apology will suffice to restore the status quo. 21 years ago, the future lawyer in me felt that my 1st amendment rights were being trampled. But, it was not worth vindicating those rights if it put my chances at college admission in jeopardy. The next time you are dealing with a sensitive situation with an employee, before shifting into battle mode stop and ask yourself whether a sincere apology will solve the problem. It may be one of the hardest, and best, decisions you will ever make.