The Art of the Anti-Apology

Business has had a lot to apologize for. But is anyone actually owning up? We decipher executive remorse codes.

"Never apologize and never explain," John Wayne growled in his 1949 epic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Like most everything Wayne growled, it sounded so good. So American. Do what you know is right, dammit, and don't back down. For generations, reprobates of all persuasions enthusiastically embraced that hairy-chested code.

At some point, though, we embraced the public confessional instead. This past summer, you couldn't flip on the news without suffering a parade of rogues beating their chests and begging forgiveness: Sylvio Berlusconi, Howell Raines, Trent Lott, Cardinal Bernard Law, the Dixie Chicks, Sammy Sosa. Sammy! Say it isn't so!

But in the corporate realm, the Duke is still living large. Business, needless to say, has had a lot to apologize for -- but somehow, it just can't get its hands around the contrition thing. Sure, Sam Waksal gave an emotional mea culpa on his way to the slammer. But have we heard a peep of remorse from the folks at Enron or WorldCom? Has Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski conceded any of his considerable failings?

Even on Wall Street -- well, yeah, especially on Wall Street -- apology is definitely not in fashion this season. New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer had the brokerages nailed, but since the terms of his settlement meant never actually having to say you're sorry, bankers just cut checks and walked. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Merrill Lynch CEO Stanley O'Neal even turned the tables on Spitzer: "To teach investors that they should be insulated from [market] forces . . . does both them and the economy a disservice."

Executives, it seems, have mastered the art of the anti-apology. They twist, they bob, they weave. They blame others, they blame circumstance. They read from carefully crafted press releases. With doleful faces, they admit nothing. Or they lash out at their accusers. Shocked -- shocked! -- they are.

Here's the thing though: Moral acceptability aside, evasion of responsibility doesn't play so well. Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Apology (William Morrow, 2003) -- the guy can do anything in a minute! -- says corporations should realize "the longer you wait to apologize for a wrongdoing, the quicker a weakness is seen as a wickedness." People say, "if they're not going to fess up that they screwed up, I wonder what else they're going to lie about," he says.

Can anyone blame an outraged public for doubting execs' sincerity? Don Carty may well be a decent guy who means what he says. But when the former American Airlines chief admitted his errors after news of hefty executive bonuses broke, it seemed like a desperate face-saving ploy. Did Sandy Weill's semiconfession, leached of emotional resonance by Citigroup's diligent lawyers, sound anything more than halfhearted?

Which isn't to minimize the legal risks of owning up. Had Weill admitted, "Yup, I told Grubman to change that AT&T call, or the twins would matriculate at PS 6," shareholders would have stormed the gates. But stonewalling can backfire too. Says Jonathan Cohen, an assistant professor at the University of Florida: "Not apologizing can force a relational breakdown, put off customers, result in a loss of integrity internally, and trigger a lawsuit."

Toro, the big lawn mower and snowblower manufacturer, has figured out one way to make apologies count. In 1991, it quit litigating suits brought by injured customers. Now, it engages in a mediation process that always begins with an apology from the company, regardless of who's at fault. You lost a finger cleaning grass out of a running mower? Toro is very sorry.

"People are frequently quite surprised," says Drew Byers, Toro's corporate product-integrity manager. The company hasn't been to trial since 1994, and 95% of its cases are settled on the day of mediation or shortly thereafter. "But that's not the aim," says Byers. "Often these people just want to be heard."

That's a model more corporations should take to heart, says Lawrence Kushner, rabbi at Temple Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. When Jews seek atonement, they must meet three covenants. The first, he says, is a verbal confession. Then they must feel genuine regret. Finally, there is renunciation. Explains Kushner: "One commentary says that we never know if atonement is complete until you have the opportunity to do the deed again -- and don't."

And there's the rub. CEOs can apologize all they want -- but if Bankers Trust's analysts start cheating the instant Spitzer turns his back, what have we gained? If true atonement is won through deeds, then corporate America can make good by changing behavior. That's a code of honor even a cowboy could love.

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