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Careers Café

Making amends in the new year


Before moving on from the topic of awkward moments in networking, I want to address one final, painful topic. So far, I’ve looked at situations controlled by the networker. What happens, though, if you run into someone with whom you suspect you have burned a bridge?

That question came up in a workshop, in which a participant noted he had been networking and continued to network in his field. During his networking, he encountered someone — a potential employer — against whom he had previously committed a gaffe. He opted not to mention the elephant in the room but came away questioning his choice.

He’s far from the only job seeker out there to have made a misstep with a potential employer. Looking for work is stressful, time-consuming, and likely to lead to mistakes now and then.

Over the holidays, I asked some friends about mistakes they had made (I know — that’s a gaffe right there). They came up with:

  • Using someone as a reference without telling him or her
  • Asking for a reference letter and not using it
  • Exaggerating your relationship with a mutual connection
  • Talking about a professional contact on social media.

So, what do you do when you realize you’ve made a mistake? Some choose to ignore it and hope it goes away. Others opt to apologize in order to smooth the waters, despite the momentary embarrassment of reliving the error.

The worst option is a combination of the two: the supposed apology that’s actually an excuse.  This version of an apology is tempting because it gives you a chance to say sorry and explain that the offense isn’t actually your fault. If, indeed, the offense isn’t in any way your fault, that’s fine; however, if you bear any responsibility for something you regret, then a pure apology shows that you’re aware of the impact of your actions and that you feel remorse for whatever inconvenience or harm it caused the other person.

Apologizing at all can seem risky — after all, it might revive the other person’s anger, or even draw their attention to something they hadn’t been aware of in the first place.

One of my friends summarized the risk this way: “If someone apologized to me for something I hadn’t known they had done, my initial reaction would probably be irritation, but my trust would return. If I found out about the same mistake through someone else, and hadn’t received an apology, I don’t think my trust would return.”

How we handle difficult situations speaks to others and (perhaps even more loudly and insistently) to ourselves. Painful as making amends may be, it can be good for your relationships, your career and your sense of integrity.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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