Blog Post

Senior HR leaders – is this one thing killing your progression into the C-Suite?

In people management, difficult conversations happen all the time. The best HR leaders handle those conversations seamlessly. They soothe everyone involved, make their voice heard, earn respect and craft a positive outcome.

But one big thing can undermine you, and hamper your progression into the C-suite while you’re at it. And it’s almost definitely something you do. 

Here’s the story. And what you should do instead.

The bigger picture: HR’s glass ceiling


A Harvey Nash survey found that 70% of HR professionals in the lower-to-mid ranks are women. No surprises there.

What might be more surprising is the survey’s other finding.

Once you look further up the ranks the narrative turns on its head, because 70% of mid-to-senior HR professionals are men.

Of course, that’s only one survey and we should take these things with a pinch of salt. But the trend is there.

Even in a profession that often battles against a women-only perception.

A profession that attracts many thousands more women than men.

A profession where many more women than men study relevant undergraduate degrees and take relevant postgraduate HCM qualifications, People Management report.

Even in that profession, men are still overrepresented in senior roles.

That’s a real problem. And it’s not one with one simple cause or solution, so we’re not going to pretend to have easy answers.

But there’s one thing that could play a part in fighting gender inequality – and it’s something you can easily take control over.


The gender divide in apologizing


Various studies (and popular wisdom) suggest women apologize more readily than men, which has been traced to a difference in perception over what constitutes an apology-worthy offence.

Women are more likely to believe they’ve done something to apologize for, while men have a “higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior”.

Apologizing, in other words, is linked to greater empathy. That ability to understand what might be offensive from someone else’s perspective.

Given that empathy is a major requirement for a successful HR career, it’s little wonder that HR folks are often frequent apologizers.

Which is an all-round Good Thing, right? How can empathy be bad?

Why over-apologizing is bad


Over-apologizing can be counterproductive, on several levels. 


  • It can seem insincere, which can devalue future apologies that are genuinely needed to move things forwards.
  • It can imply you lack confidence in your abilities. And if you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?
  • It can hinder your ability to be assertive. And assertiveness is crucial to getting things done, especially in senior leadership.
  • It can suggest you’re uncomfortable with conflict and would rather keep the peace than handle difficult decisions.
  • It can imply you frequently make mistakes that other colleagues don’t. Even when they do.

If you’re too quick to apologize when an apology isn’t necessary, you risk implying you lack the confidence and competence to be a successful senior leader. 

You create a glass ceiling for yourself.

Especially if your current senior leadership team is largely male, because they’re less likely to be over-apologizers themselves (and so more likely to see your apologizing in a negative light.)

Coming back to our progression problem for senior women in HR, it’s not a huge leap to suggest over-apologizing plays a part.

What to do instead of apologizing


First things first… 

Know when NOT to say you’re sorry


Because let’s be clear – we’re not saying you should never apologize. Sometimes a sincere apology is absolutely necessary to move past something, get colleagues on-side and show you’re humble enough to accept your mistakes.

A genuine apology is often crucial to creating a positive workplace culture.

But you don’t need to apologize for... 

  • Asking for a raise
  • Asking for recognition
  • Getting promoted
  • Having an opinion (even a controversial one)
  • Challenging someone else’s opinion
  • Feeling an emotion (even crying)
  • Being sick or injured
  • Assigning tasks to your team
  • Giving criticism (even firing someone)
  • Saying ‘no’ to work you can’t handle
  • Saying ‘no’ to something you don’t want to do
  • Negative situations that are outside your control

Say ‘thank you’, not sorry


Culling the apologies doesn’t mean becoming an uncaring twit. You can care that someone was inconvenienced without apologizing. 

How? By saying ‘thank you’ instead.

So “I’m sorry, we need to reschedule this meeting again” becomes “We need to reschedule this meeting again. I know that’s frustrating - thank you for your understanding”.

Or “I’m sorry, this project has fallen behind” becomes “This project has fallen behind. You’ll have the next stage on your desk mid-week – thank you for your patience.”

Adding empathy statements – “I know that’s frustrating”; “this must be really hard for you to hear” – shows your emotional intelligence.

So it makes the recipient feel heard and understood. Generally the same outcome you were going for with the apology but without any of the negatives.

When you do apologize, don’t just apologize


An apology isn’t meaningful unless it’s linked to an action.  

Like… “I’m sorry. This delay is my fault because I was looking at an old version of the project timetable. I’ve bookmarked the newest version and I’ll have that report with you by tomorrow afternoon”.

See how that’s better than, “I’m so sorry, I know I should’ve had the report with you yesterday”?

The first accepts responsibility but quickly transitions to offering a solution. While the latter puts all the emphasis on seeking forgiveness. (Which isn’t taking responsibility. It’s putting the responsibility onto the other person, to forgive you).

Link your apologies to an actionable next step that shows how and when you’re fixing the mistake. It’s your commitment to do better next time.

And sticking to this rule will help you spot those unnecessary, “I’m sorry, but have you considered…” type apologies. (Those have no actionable next step because they shouldn’t be apologies in the first place).

Know your triggers – and draft responses


Some triggers can provoke over-apologizing almost every time.

Like… difficult conversations with employees. Fighting for your voice to be heard amongst the leadership team. Telling a job candidate they didn’t quite make the cut. Performance appraisals. Firing someone.

Make a list of your own triggers. Then jot down some phrases you can call on instead of apologizing.

Then practice, practice, practice.

So, say you’ve got to tell your new hire that her skirt’s too short for work (which shouldn’t happen if you’ve got a great cultureboarding program, but hey). Or you’ve had an HR complaint about a colleague. Or you’ve got to deliver bad news.

Instead of “I’m sorry to do this…” try “This isn’t an easy thing to hear, but…”

Or say you’re trying to secure buy-in for your new onboarding initiative, but the C-Suite are only thinking about budget.

Instead of, “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree” try “There’s another angle here”.

Or say you’re getting some difficult feedback thanks to high new hire turnover.

Instead of “I’m sorry, you’re right, we need to make changes” try “This hasn’t gone as we planned. I’ve implemented a new onboarding program to turn next quarter around. Do you have any other feedback that could help?”

Smash the leadership ceiling: cut the pointless sorrys


Most HR folks have empathy by the bucketload. Empathy is a must-have for a successful career managing people. (Amongst plenty of other things.) 

But if that empathy manifests as constant apologizing, it can become counterproductive to your progression. Especially when women tend to over-apologize more than men anyway – and HR is already battling a glass ceiling.

Curbing your over-apologist tendencies mightn’t seem like a huge deal. It’s not the sole answer and it certainly won’t shatter that ceiling overnight. 

But it’s a step in the right direction. And something you can take control over right now, to help clear your path into the C-Suite.

Talmundo is an employee onboarding platform that helps HR leaders build the HR you’ve imagined. Download our free whitepaper to discover the new rules of employee onboarding. 

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