IN THE stress and strain of work, most employees will at some point say or do something they regret. An employee will say the wrong thing. A manager may unthinkingly betray a confidence.

The good news is that there are often simple things a manager or co-worker can do to repair the relationship. The first — and often the most effective— is an apology.

Here’s how to apologise and mean it.

* MAKE IT GENUINE

Anyone can spot a backhanded apology and it will do more harm than good. For example, “If I offended you, I apologise” is a fake apology. It’s like stealing someone’s wallet, and saying, “I’m sorry if you felt you were inconvenienced.”

A genuine apology is aimed solely at taking responsibility, not implying that the other person is somehow at fault.

* KNOW WHAT YOU ARE APOLOGISING FOR

“I’m sorry” means absolutely nothing if you don’t know what you are apologising for. If you don’t already know, ask the person. There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’m sorry” and “I’m sorry I made fun of your new haircut. It was insensitive of me, and I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

* DON’T MAKE EXCUSES

Excuses push the blame onto someone or something else, and it weakens the apology. Sure, a brief explanation may help understanding, but if you are busy explaining why you did what you did, it will start to sound like you aren’t apologising at all.

* BACK WHAT YOU SAY WITH WHAT YOU DO

An apology is an admittance of wrongdoing, not a free pass to do it again. In fact, if you cannot commit to changing the action or words you are apologising for, don’t apologise.

“Sorry I kept you waiting so long” will be a hollow and ineffective apology if you keep doing it. You are better off thanking the other person (“Thanks for your patience. I appreciate it.”) and taking it from there.

* APOLOGISE FOR THEM, NOT FOR YOU

The mistake many people make when apologising is that they expect forgiveness. This is not about you; it is about the person you hurt.

Some people will behave indifferently, some will behave coldly, and some will react in a downright hostile way. You cannot get angry or defensive. If the person declines your apology, you have to let it go and realise it is their prerogative. If you apologised sincerely, you have done all you can do.

Build trust

Many managers and employees have the genuine fear that they will say something completely innocuous and, the next thing they know, they will be met at the office with notification of a lawsuit against them.

My response is always the same. If an employee or manager has built a work relationship on accountability, trust and respect, the odds that he or she will cross the line with someone are minimal. And, more importantly, if they do, the other person will believe their explanation because of the positive history they have shared.

Remember, apologies don’t change the past. But, when given with sincerity, they can enlarge the future.