An Apology; or, Thoughts About Work

At work on Friday, I found myself in a situation where a co-worker who I don’t know very well sent me an email telling me, in effect, that I’m a stupid idiot and had made a mistake on a job.  And he cc’d two of my other coworkers to let them know, too.

Since I am new at my job and have had the tiniest bit of real training compared to what I need, I do tend to make mistakes more than I’d like to. On the other hand, knowing this also makes me work  more cautiously and methodically, the thought being that if I can be more careful, I will make fewer mistakes and make fewer stupid assumptions about what needs to be done. This is generally a painful but tolerable way to deal with the job, since the alternative would be to sit at my desk and cry all day, paralyzed by indecision and lack of training.

So, when my coworker sent me the nastygram, I looked back at my work carefully, and couldn’t discern where my mistake was, but trusted him. I sent an email back apologizing and said, in effect, I can’t seem to figure out what mistake I made, but whatever it is, please help me learn so I don’t do it again. I also offered to call the client and make nice if I’d screwed up their pricing. Then, I apologized again.

About 5 minutes later, my phone rang. It was the guy who sent me the nastygram. (His office is waaaay on the other side of our company.) As much as I wanted to avoid him, I answered the phone. Cheerfully. The first thing he said was:

“Mary! Here you are apologizing all over the place, and I’m the one who owes you the apology!”

It turns out he was the one who made the mistake, not me. And, he had just gotten a call from one of the other people on the email chain (a woman) who had called him and pointed out that not only was his email incorrect, he was “rough on me” in his email.

And he agreed, and he immediately called and said he was sorry.

This entire thing is amazing to me on several levels:

1) I assumed he was correct that I was the moron who made the mistake;

2) I apologized twice even though I had no idea what I’d done wrong;

3) Another woman at the job defended me and suggested he ease up on me;

4) I have no trouble believing his apology was sincere; and

5) He even said he empathized with me that I’ve had little training for all the work I’m supposed to learn, and said I was doing great.

My new job is not perfect. The company is extremely conservative and cheap. Wealth is clearly for the three owners. (You do get a dozen roses if you’ve worked there 25 years–generous, huh.) The place runs on The Rules, and upper management seems genuinely interested in controlling us unruly, out-of-control pieces of trash such as salespeople and accountants.

However, at my last sales job, where I proved myself year after year to be effective and reliable, where I had the most impeccable manners, where I had to work hard for years to get people to trust me because they hated salespeople, I had to grow broad shoulders and thick skin. Everything could always easily be blamed on the salespeople (who bring in money to the company, which pays everyone’s salaries). During those years, despite my hard work and great results, I never had anyone  jump up to defend me or ap0logize to me in all those years. At my new job, both these things happened on the same day.

Also shocking was that one of these people declaring herself my ally was a woman. Women don’t generally defend women at work.

I’m also a real skeptic when it comes to apologies. I don’t think people generally apologize because they want to acknowledge they were wrong; most apologies are just put forth to make peace or to begrudgingly accept some role (usually a minor one)  in an error, miscommunication, or altercation. But I believed this guy’s apology immediately. He worked hard to let me know he knew he was in the wrong, and that he realized he had not been helpful to write a nastygram, and most importantly, that he felt terrible that his written words had perhaps made me feel bad. This was a real apology, perhaps one of the few I have ever received.

(I don’t know about you, but I think there are all kinds of people who owe me an apology, but I don’t expect to get any. Is it just me, or do we all feel we’ve been wronged too many times?)

I hung up the phone after having had a really good conversation with this guy. Not only did I feel relieved that I hadn’t made the mistake, I felt touched by the sincerity of his apology. I cried a few tears of relief at my desk.

Unfortunately, then a woman in the sales department who I can’t stand walked into my office at that moment to deliver a purchase order I’d been after. She had my sales territory a couple of years back and gave it up voluntarily to work another territory. For some reason, she still feels compelled to “help” me with my job even though I don’t want her “help” because she is just a condescending bitch who also happens to know it all. I tolerate her with a big smile and my thick skin.

On this day, CB (condescending bitch) delivered my PO, saw my tears, and said, “Hey, what’s wrong?” I explained, mostly lying, that I was on my way to 2 weeks of vacation and had way too much work to do than I was going to get done before I left, and I guessed I was just stressed out. (It seemed to make more sense than saying, “Oh, these are just tears of happiness.” Who cries tears of happiness? Especially at work?)

And she leaned against my office wall and said thoughtfully, “Don’t worry. I’ll enter this order for you to save you some time. And just do what you can today, and hand the rest off to your team! That’s what we do when we take vacation around here. We won’t mind. Just have a great vacation!”

And for some reason, even CB seemed sincere on this day. I didn’t let her enter my order, but she really did seem to want to help rather than “help.” Maybe I have just been misreading her up until now. I decided right then to be more open to working with her when I get back from vacation.

Anyway, when I left work that day, I thought about my work situation as I drove to meet a friend for a volunteer function. I found myself crying again. Really crying. My friend Elizabeth asked me what was the matter–I had tears (and probably makeup) all over my face.

I just told her I thought I’d been crying because I was glad to work with nice people.

So, screw the cheap owners and the HR people who have no people skills and who don’t even know much HR stuff (do Human Resources people even like human beings?) and the VP of Sales whose only method to motivate his sales force is emailing daily quotes by Bear Bryant (whoever that is) and Vince Lombardi. Screw the roses after 25 years (if I’m lucky, I’ll be retired before then) and screw the fact that I don’t get paid enough. Screw the fact that we are so distrusted by our company that Hotmail and Gmail are blocked from our servers so we can’t check our personal email during the workday. Screw the $2500 healthcare deductible and the too-stuffy office and the bathrooms that are way too small to serve the number of people who use them.

I work with mostly nice people. I don’t have to walk around with my guard up at all moments. My boss is supportive and even a little corny in his praise (“wow, that was a great email! Good job Mary!”). I get to work with teachers. I don’t have to travel much, so I see my kitties at home almost every night.  I make a living wage and I don’t work many extra hours. I don’t wake up dreading going to work in the morning. I guess I’m lucky.

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2 Responses to An Apology; or, Thoughts About Work

  1. Earl says:

    First off, you sound like you handled your “error” in the correct manner.

    (In other words, that’s how I would have handled it!)

    In my time in the labor camp, I’ve been accused of a great many errors.

    I’ve made about 5% of the errors I’ve been accused of.

    I’m probably vain enough to believe I’m following some sort of Socratic Method, but when my accuser realizes their idiocy, I readily accept their (usually subdued) apology.

    Because I’ve heard “You’re right, Earl” a great deal more than I’ve had to apologize for an error.

    Granted, a lot of those errors came when I was handicapping my brain, but that’s another story.

    Finally, Yes. Screw all the people that don’t have a clue, but thank the gods you have a good boss and don’t dread going to work.

    The cheap bastards shall remain cheap bastards until they realize that there’s a natural flow to everybody’s work habits and the trick is to maximize that flow – even if it means providing more training or buying quality staplers.

    Here endeth the lesson…

  2. Alyssa says:

    Wow, what a story! I am sitting here somewhat amazed that this man apologized so readily. I’m not sure what my surprise says about my own work situation, but that’s beside the point.

    I’m glad you work with nice people.

    I’m also sitting here laughing about the dozen roses, by the way. That’s too funny!

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