It often strikes me as perverse the lengths some people will go to extract an apology when they consider they have been wronged.

In the employment context, this often becomes an issue in negotiated settlement agreements.  It is not uncommon for an employee to make it a condition of settlement that the employer (or occasionally another employee), apologises to them.  Such terms can be hotly contested with one party refusing to apologise until the screws are turned so tight, they basically have no choice.

Then the wording of the “apology” becomes an issue.  If a party is not inclined to offer a genuine apology, wording such as “I am sorry that you feel that way” or “I regret that you have suffered from emotional distress as a result of your perception of what has occurred”, can be used.

A forced apology is surely worse than no apology at all.  And yet many people still seem to think it is important that an apology is given, genuine or otherwise.

It is not uncommon for claimants before the Employment Relations Authority to include an apology as one of the remedies they are seeking.  In one such case Chris Mahon entered into a settlement agreement with his employer, Advocates for New Zealand Limited.  The employer failed to pay the agreed compensation by the date it fell due, but in the meantime, Mahon had allegedly breached the confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions of the agreement. 

The parties agreed to resolve the further disputed matters with an apology, but the matter did not end there.  The company then claimed that the apology offered was not genuine and asked the Employment Relations Authority to intervene.  In response the authority said that it had no power to order an apology, let alone the power to “require the redrafting” of one.

In another case involving Vaughan Rossiter and Jerome Skelton, Rossiter was dismissed after a short period of working for Skelton, and then assaulted by Skelton while he was working out his notice.  In the authority Rossiter said that Skelton had done him a favour because there were several unsatisfactory features of the employment, but wanted compensation and a public apology or retraction for what he claimed were defamatory statements made by Skelton about him to other employers in the industry. 

The authority awarded Rossiter compensation but said it had no jurisdiction to order the apology and retraction.  However the Police were also involved in that case given the alleged assault and amongst other things, Skelton was required to apologise in writing to Rossiter as part of the resolution of the criminal matter.  It seems slightly odd that having received an apology already, Rossiter pursued another one in the employment case. Perhaps he thought that two apologies were more meaningful than one.

In the resolution of any employment dispute, there is always a tension between principle and pragmatism.   This manifests in a number of ways, for example an employee may feel, as a matter of principle, that they should take their employer to the authority to prove that they have been wronged.  However the pragmatic perspective may be different given the costs and potential reputational risks associated with litigation.  So somehow the claimant needs to weigh up what is most important to them and then make decisions accordingly.

Likewise in respect of an apology, this may be viewed by an employee as important in making them whole again, but if this is effectively forced out of the employer, the question is whether it is worth anything? I would say it is not, because if a person is genuine about apologising they will do so without being required to.  If they are not genuine, then it is not worth the paper it is written on. 

But perhaps the other way to look at it is that even a forced apology requires the apologiser to submit and rebalances the power in the relationship.

Ultimately this is a complex and sensitive issue and what is important to one person will be different to another. That is why it is impossible to fully understand the critical drivers for why a person may fight tooth and nail to get an apology, or what the value of it is to them.