Dawn Robertson: Apologise – it’s so much better than a court case

SORRY seems to be the hardest word. When co-writing the music for this famous hit, Elton John was referring specifically to close personal relationships, but it would also appear that “sorry” is the hardest word in many other areas of life too.

Now an MSP, the Conservative Margaret Mitchell, has begun preparing the background for an “apology bill”. The intention is to make it easier for public bodies like the NHS or a local authority to say “sorry” to an individual or family that has been treated unethically or unfairly but without the apologiser opening itself up to litigation. The intended result is to bring closure sooner for the victims and to save the public purse from additional bureaucracy.

While the thinking behind the proposed bill has much to commend it, a greater and more defined use of a formal apology in the workplace could possibly bring about benefits for business, employees and society in general.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The reason so many employers fail to apologise for any perceived wrongdoing is, primarily, their belief that this will be used to found a subsequent claim against them, either in court or in an employment tribunal. While such concerns may be well founded, we do also come across unhappy employees (or former employees) who genuinely just want their boss or manager to say “sorry” in a contrite and meaningful manner.

Still, as the economy continues to struggle, the humble apology may – and, arguably, should – become more relevant to settling workplace disputes.

Going to a tribunal is costly for the individual and offers no guarantee of success. And with job opportunities elsewhere limited, workers with a grievance might be more prepared than usual to settle for keeping their present jobs – if a genuine apology is forthcoming.

Conversely, few employers relish the stress or cost of going through the tribunal process, so a willingness to offer an apology – and do so in a proper manner – might save a whole lot of unproductive time and money on either side of the workplace divide.

• Dawn Robertson is head of Murray Beith Employment and an accredited specialist in employment law.