What is it that makes CEO apologies so compelling? Maybe it's the schadenfreude of watching people in power squirm. Maybe it's just reassuring to see someone who makes that much money goof up. Or perhaps it's the way that, all too often, executives get the whole act of atonement wrong.
Whatever the reason, many such apologies were among the most viral moments of the year. And we're not even talking about remorseful statements over big business fiascos, such as Mary Barra's apologies for General Motors' ignition switch crisis or former Target executive Gregg Steinhafel's plea following the retailer's massive data breach late last year.
Rather, it's the mea culpas for onetime gaffes, off-hand remarks and personal blunders that seem to most grab our attention. Below, we look back at some of the year's memorable moments when the powerful turned into the penitent.
WHO: AOL CEO Tim Armstrong
FOR: Comments in which he blamed changes to AOL's 401(k) plan on the cost, in part, of "distressed babies"
WHEN: February 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: After a report in the Washington Post detailed how the company planned to change its 401(k) match to an end-of-year contribution rather than a match per paycheck, Armstrong tried to explain the move to AOL staffers. He first blamed the new federal health-care law. Then on an employee conference call, he added that the “distressed babies” of two AOL workers had each cost the company $1 million. The remarks brought on a surge of bad publicity, and AOL ended up reversing course. The company went back to giving employees their 401(k) contribution in each pay period, and Armstrong apologized for his remarks. "On a personal note, I made a mistake and I apologize for my comments last week at the town hall."
WHO: Snapchat CEO and founder Evan Spiegel
FOR: Obscene emails from his fraternity days
WHEN: May 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: In May, graphic emails from Spiegel's party days as a Stanford undergrad were published online by the blog Valleywag. In them, Spiegel wrote about getting sorority girls drunk and peeing on his date, among other offensive stories. In response, he issued a statement saying, "I’m obviously mortified and embarrassed that my idiotic emails during my fraternity days were made public. I have no excuse. I’m sorry I wrote them at the time and I was jerk to have written them. They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women." While the messages weren't sent while he was CEO, they fell amid other news about Silicon Valley's "bro" culture, doing nothing to help the industry's already battered image as a place unfriendly to women.
WHO: T-Mobile CEO John Legere
FOR: Offensive comments about competitors
WHEN: June 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: Legere, who's known for his trash-talking language and radical approach to running the mobile carrier, went too far for many when he made a remark about competitors at a company event. “These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have … the f---ers hate you," he said. The provocative language drew criticism from some when it went public, and Legere tweeted an apology the next day. "I know I have an Rated R vocabulary, but even I can go too far. Sincere apologies to anyone offended last night."
WHO: Boeing CEO Jim McNerney
FOR: Describing his employees as "cowering"
WHEN: July 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: When asked during a quarterly call with Wall Street analysts whether he intended to retire when he turned 65, Boeing's Jim McNerney responded no. "The heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering," he quipped. After the comment angered workers, McNerney apologized. The Machinists union president called it "unfunny and unnecessary" and said it was a "reminder that the Jack Welch style of anti-personnel management is still alive and well." The Seattle Times reported that McNerney sent a companywide message calling the remark "a joke gone bad," and said "I should have used different words, and I apologize for them. I will definitely be more careful going forward."
WHO: Centerplate CEO Des Hague
FOR: Kicking a dog in an elevator
WHEN: August 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: After being caught on video kicking a dog in a hotel elevator, Des Hague, chief executive of a $6 billion company that supplies concessions to major sports arenas and event facilities, issued a statement saying he was "ashamed and deeply embarrassed" that "a minor frustration with a friend's pet caused me to lose control of my emotional response." Hague added that he "would like to extend my apology to my family, company and clients, as I understand that this has also reflected negatively on them." But that apology didn't make the outcry go away: According to Fortune, the company first responded to the online furor by calling it a "personal matter" for Hague; then progressed to saying he was undergoing anger management counseling and would be put on probation; then a few days later, issued Hague's resignation from the company over the incident.
WHO: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
FOR: Seeming to suggest women shouldn’t ask for a raise
WHEN: October 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: While onstage being interviewed by a Microsoft board member — at an event celebrating women in computing, no less — Nadella was asked to share advice for women who are uncomfortable asking for a raise. He replied that some of the best advice he's gotten is to have "faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along," and seemed to indicate that not asking for a raise was "good karma." Many howled in protest, and, soon after, Nadella tweeted that he was "inarticulate" in his response and said the industry needed to close the gender pay gap. In a memo to employees, he said he "answered that question completely wrong." While the disclosure of his own $84 million pay package kept the gaffe in the news a bit longer, his swift response and further clarification that it was a mistake to take his "own personal experience and project it on half of humanity" seemed to limit the fallout.
WHO: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
FOR: An executive of his suggested digging up dirt on critics in the press
WHEN: November 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: After one of Travis Kalanick's lieutenants suggested hiring a team of opposition researchers to go after critics in the press, the CEO of the already controversial company had to step in with a remorseful reply. In a 14-part "tweetstorm," Kalanick said the comments, made by an Uber senior vice president, were "terrible" and that they "showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals." But even the attempt at contrition drew fire, with critics questioning how much it was really an apology.
WHO: Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal
FOR: Sending racially charged e-mails about President Obama’s taste in movies
WHEN: December 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: After the unprecedented cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, a move U.S. officials are attributing to North Korea, scores of embarrassing personnel files, corporate secrets and e-mails were dumped into public view. Among them was a racially charged exchange between Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin, in which the two speculated about President Obama's taste in movies, bantering back and forth about films that starred African Americans. To try to make amends, Pascal held a meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton and National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, promising to work to improve diversity in Hollywood, and issued the following statement: "the contents of my emails to Scott were insensitive and inappropriate but are not an accurate reflection of who I am. Although this was a private communication that was stolen, I accept full responsibility for what I wrote and apologize to everyone who was offended."
WHO: Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho and executive Cho Hyun-ah
FOR: Nut rage
WHEN: December 2014
WHAT WAS SAID: This one had to be included for the extraordinary nature of both the offense and the mea culpa that followed. Cho Hyun-ah, the daughter of Korean Air's chairman and herself an executive at the airline who was in charge of inflight services, apologized after she delayed a flight from New York to Seoul over the way a flight attendant served her macadamia nuts onboard. Her father's apology, meanwhile, is even more unusual, at least for observers outside of Asia. In a news conference, the chairman bowed to journalists, said he regretted that he didn't raise his daughter better and begged forgiveness. "It's my fault," he said. "As chairman and father, I ask for the public's generous forgiveness."