Noble Prize Winner Sir Tim Hunt has apologised for sexist remarks made about women scientists at a conference in South Korea. He said he preferred single-sex laboratories because mixed-sex environments resulted in amorous liaisons and women bursting into tears.
Unfortunately for Sir Tim there were a number of journalists in attendance and the subsequent furore has been widely reported…resulting in an apology.

It was apparently intended as a light-hearted remark but he caused offence so he’s done the honourable thing and apologised, leaving behind him a fair amount of anger and perhaps some food for thought about attitudes in the male-dominated science world.

Weasel words?

The art of the public apology has been honed carefully over time but we would all do well to look at the words chosen and then decide for ourselves if the apology is genuine or if it’s a case of weasel words ; don’t just read the headlines and move on – “That’s ok he/she has apologised, let’s forget it now.”

What Sir Tim said to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning – “I am really, really,sorry that I caused offence..I just meant to be honest actually’ – is actually a pretty good example of a simple apology clearly stated with no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.

He used the word ‘that’ instead of the conditional ‘if’ so he is admitting that offence was caused, but there are so many other examples where there is distance put between the person apologising and the remarks that they manage to escape full culpability. Or at least they try to.

However,Sir Tim admits it was a stupid thing to say “in the presence of all those journalists”. From the tone and some of the content of his apology would it be churlish perhaps to suggest that he would have been happy to say the same thing if NO journalists were present? My view is that he would have been better leaving out that bit.

This is an example of a situation where the words caused offence so stick to that theme.

Clearly every situation is different but there are some ground rules for apologising publicly and some politicians and corporations are notoriously adept at seeming to apologise but then inserting that bit of distance to avoid what they see as complete public humiliation, which,incidentally, is rarely ever the outcome.

But we can all see through that as most people apply their personal moral code to the public arena.

 Three Sorry Rules

So, Rule One: if you or your organisation has clearly screwed up then get your apology in early. Yes of course it’s right to speak to your lawyers first but don’t leave your apology too late and seriously consider what the public – and your customers- will think if your words don’t appear to be penitent. They will come back to haunt you.

I surely don’t need to go into detail about some of the tragic cases in the news over the past few years where this hasn’t happened for this to hit home.

Rule Two: choose your words carefully – but not too carefully. So many politicians screw up apologies with a series of conditional phrases such as …’I deeply regret’ is not the same as ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologise’.

What do I mean by ‘too carefully’? In tv or radio interviews talk like a human being and don’t try to fill it with legalise or you run the risk of of seeming less than sincere.

And if you honestly don’t feel like you should apologise because you’re not to blame,then don’t. But don’t pretend to be sorry so you can crawl out of all responsibility. If it’s too early to apologise because the facts of the case are not fully known then all you can be expected to do is relay that to the media ; anything else is dishonest.

Rule Three: Sorry is only the hardest word if you never say it. I’ve often found that people who find it hard to say sorry in their personal or social lives have a similar problem at work.

On the other hand if you say it too often it becomes meaningless.

I used to manage a team of news reporters, and one was always apologising for errors, losing his temper and then adopt a hangdog expression for all of an hour. He usually then did the same thing again not long after.

His profuse apologies meant nothing as his behaviour didn’t change so I confronted him and told him that he was devaluing his own currency and that the apologies were superficial. Then he tried to apologise again! I stopped him in his tracks and said ‘Just don’t do it again – the apologies make it worse’.

Sir Tim hardly falls into that category but his remarks may have re-opened a debate which is applicable throughout society and exposed some longer-term problems within the science world that can now be tackled in a more open manner, now we’ve had a glimpse into this world.

And if we all apologised with a bit more sincerity then there’d be more progress in the workplace surely, wherever we work.