An authentic apology: Actor Sean Hayes does it right

Actor and producer Sean Hayes got an award last week. Nothing newsworthy about that; he’s got a mantel full of them from his work on the groundbreaking sitcom Will & Grace. Last week’s award came from the nonprofit Outfest, which runs film festivals and otherwise promotes the work of LGBT artists.

Outfest’s award banquet doubles as a major fund-raiser for the organization; having famous names on the invitation drives ticket sales. Hayes could easily have just walked the red carpet with his husband, accepted his award with a few jokes—he’s a gifted comedian, after all—and gone home. No muss, no fuss. And he’d probably even get a swag bag.

Hayes could have turned this into a pro forma event, in other words. But instead he got real. And that is a beautiful gift to give your audience. So listen up, people.

“Flawed and real”—Sean Hayes and his character

In its press release, Outfest said it had chosen Hayes as the Trailblazer Award-winner

“…in recognition of his exemplary career as a stage, film, television, and recording artist and for his longtime, passionate support of the LGBT community. As one of this generation’s most visible and beloved LGBT performers, he has played a key role in the community’s progress and empowerment.”

Christopher Racster, Outfest’s executive director, said:

“Sean Hayes [sic] portrayal of Jack on NBC’s Will & Grace took the stereotypical gay sissy and made him human, lovable, flawed and real.”

Sean Hayes accepts the Outfest Trailblazer Award
The Advocate‘s online article about Sean Hayes’s Outfest speech

Lovely words. And true. But Hayes recognized that his audience—at least some of them—knew that there was more to it than that. Because while Hayes was busy racking up awards for playing this “stereotypical gay sissy” he was living as what one might call the “stereotypical closeted actor.”

No one would have faulted Sean Hayes for ignoring the closeted elephant in the room. That was a long time ago; he’s been openly gay for years now. And it was a gala, for goodness sake. People were there to have fun and hang out, not to settle nearly two-decade-old scores. (Will & Grace premiered in 1998.)

But Hayes has apparently grown into a man of great integrity. He approached the occasion humbly, saying that when he thinks of a Trailblazer Award winner,

“I…think of someone who has forged ahead of the pack and cleared a path for the rest of us. I feared that I may not be deserving of such an honor.”

Because while his character on Will & Grace may have been “lovable and flawed,” Hayes thinks that any description of himself

“…should have led with ‘flawed’ because at the time I was a young, closeted actor having his first taste of a little success. And unfortunately in my mind, my lucky break was inextricably tied to me thinking I had to stay in the closet to keep moving forward.”

He accepts responsibility for his actions simply and powerfully:

“Looking back at my choice to stay silent, I’m ashamed and embarrassed.”

He continues,

“So when it comes to nights like tonight and honors like this, I’m consumed with what I didn’t do. I know I should have come out sooner and I’m sorry for that. Especially when I think about the possibility that I might have made a difference in someone’s life. I would probably be able to sleep a lot better than I do if I had acted sooner.”

This is a beautiful apology. Heartfelt and simple. And real. Hayes talks about the impact he might have had if he’d spoken out. And he talks about the impact his choice to stay closeted has had on him.

Authentic apology, Sean Hayes-style

That’s the reason I wanted to write about this speech. Not to help my corporate readers write mea culpas about coming out of the closet. Although if you’re in there and feeling claustrophobic, think of coming out as a fabulous opportunity to network with Tim Cook.

No, I wanted to write about this speech because we all need to apologize sometimes. And too many of us–especially public figures like business executives and politicians—just suck at it. Sorry for the technical term there, but it’s true.

Public figures “apologize” by using weasel words, vague constructions, conditional verbs: “Mistakes were made.” A vague apology is no apology. Step up and take responsibility.

Whether you’re apologizing to a colleague for cutting her off in a meeting, or to your employees for a poor business decision, Sean Hayes’s speech offers a great model:

  1. Acknowledge the mistake simply and clearly
  2. Acknowledge how your actions or decisions have impacted the people you’re talking to
  3. Only after you have thoroughly accomplished step #2, talk about the personal impact this event has had on you.

Step #3 there is tricky. This apology is not all about you—it’s about the people you hurt, or the organization you harmed. The organization which, presumably, hires people to work in it—everything points back to the human element.

But you’re human, too. Remind your audience of that and they’re much more likely to sympathize with your situation.

When is the right time to apologize? Sean Hayes showed us that it’s never too late for an authentic apology. As he said in his speech:

“We learn our lessons only when we’re ready. Hopefully life is …as much about what we do after we learn those lessons.”

Thank you, Sean Hayes. You may not have set the perfect example for gay kids 20 years ago, but you offered a stellar example of an authentic apology this week.

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