Are the US and Pakistan friends anymore? Nobody is really sure. But one of the sticking points in the current stand-off between the two allies is that the US is unwilling it is sorry. Really sorry, about the 24 soldiers who were killed in a Pakistani border post by a US drone attack. Reports say that the US has ‘expressed regret’ but Pakistan wants them to ‘apologise’.

I suppose in the hierarchy of things, apologising is higher up than expressing regret. I wonder where ‘sorry’ falls along the line. Meanwhile, drone attacks continue, as do collateral deaths. The Japanese have an elaborate tradition of saying sorry. Officials of Tokyo Electric Power Company apologised for the extensive damage and distress caused by the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. They bowed low and admitted their mistakes. They promised corrective action for the future. Still, it was felt that the apology was not good enough. The disaster was too severe for mere bowing and apologies, I suppose.


Americans live in a litigious society. Even as little children, the first response to any perceived slight (such as someone cutting you off in traffic) is to scream, ‘Let’s sue them!’ If you say you are sorry, then that is an admission of guilt.

You can be straightaway sued and taken to the cleaners, as the expression goes. So, whenever there are dispute settlements between individuals or corporations and court proceedings are avoided, there will be a clause explaining that the parties ‘neither accept nor deny guilt’, so all the facts and statements revealed in the settlement will not come back to haunt them in a court.

Bear Stearns, a Wall Street investment bank and securities trading firm, was about to go under about four years ago, in the initial wave of the financial tsunami that was set-off by the financial services industry. Under pressure from the government, JP Morgan Chase & Co. acquired it at a good discount.

Several investors sued the former top executives and the company, Bear Stearns, of misleading them about the financial situation of the company and the status of its various risky assets.

The investors sued to recover their own consequent losses. In a settlement in June this year, the executives denied any wrongdoing but ‘in the interests of eliminating any burden and expense,’ agreed to the settlement of $275 million (about Rs 1,568 crore).

Unfortunately, the executives won’t pay any price for their behaviour, and the amount will come out of a fund set up by JP Morgan for such litigation.

The medical profession is highly susceptible to making decisions that can frequently be challenged in hindsight. The needs of the situation require making cause-and-effect connections under conditions of great uncertainty. Human errors creep in.

All of this makes it a profession highly susceptible to lawsuits from aggrieved patients, aided by a thriving profession in America called ‘ambulance chasers.’

These aggressive lawyers sign on clients who have been affected by a treatment or medication and bring class-action suits against firms or wealthy doctors, with a self-interest of taking about a third of the settlement as their fee.

These are not conducive conditions for saying you are sorry. Thus, in an interesting experiment, some hospitals in Boston, including the Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and their insurers are participating in what is termed as a ‘disclosure, apology, and offer’ approach.


A report that appeared in the Boston Globe, a local newspaper, states that cases are selected where the facts are clear, and malpractice or mistake straightforward and then the approach applied. The objective is to reduce the costs and time involved in lengthy court cases, and to create a culture of trust between patients and their doctors.

The ethics guidelines of many institutions require them to reveal facts when mistakes are made, so the approach here seems to take it a step further as part of a package to combine the apology with a settlement that would avoid litigation and a promise of corrective action.

In one particularly egregious situation, a woman was informed that a recently removed polyp showed uterine cancer. Within a couple of weeks, her uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix and lymph nodes were removed. Soon after, the surgeon called to say sorry, they had made a mistake! Apparently, the pathologist’s hand-written notes which described the diagnosis as ‘adenomyoma’, a non-cancerous polyp, was mistakenly typed by a clerk as ‘adenosarcoma’, a malignant form, and wheels started turning without any cross-checks.

The hospital apologised in writing, explained the error in detail, negotiated and finally paid her a substantial form of money as compensation, and avoided the courts in the process. The hospital further instituted various administrative procedures and checks-and-balances in the decision-making process to prevent recurrence of such an error. It is a difficult process to accept a mistake, to learn from it, and take corrective action so the mistakes are not repeated.

I wonder if we would see a similar transformation among corporate leaders whose wrong strategic decisions often have a significant negative financial impact on the organisation and the careers of several employees. Some former CEOs, after retirement, muse about their past, and do talk about their ‘difficult’ decisions.

Maybe, the day is not far when some, who walk out with fat severance benefits, will say they are sorry for some of their bad decisions, and send their former employer a cheque as a token reparation.

(The author is professor of International Business and Strategic Management at Suffolk University, Boston, US.)

(This article was published on July 1, 2012)
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