9 Oct 2022

Better late...?

Lateness is perhaps the single issue that causes the most complaints, resentment and animosity within offices. Punctuality matters enormously in the world of business, as in everyday life. To be late for an interview, a meeting, a conference, a business lunch or just work, without having a good reason that has been communicated to the relevant parties, is a grave fault and universally considered to be bad manners, because it devalues the importance of other people’s time. Being late is not a sign of importance or great industry. It is a sign of poor organisation, or thoughtlessness, or rudeness.

Late for Work

Run-of-the-mill lateness for work should be accompanied by apologies to colleagues as well as your immediate manager. They may have had to cover for you and have had extra work thrust upon them. The apology should be accompanied by a very brief explanation of why you were late – transport, childcare, domestic emergency etc. Accompany the apology with some demonstration of concern for any impact your lateness may have had on your colleagues.

Late for Appointments

If you are late for an appointment then it is an urgent priority to get a message through to the person you are meeting (or the lead person, if you are meeting a group) to let them know that you are going to be late. If possible, you should speak to the person to whom this most matters and you should try and give a reasonable estimate of just how late you are going to be. If they are not picking up, then leave a text message, which should be clearly written and fully explanatory. If you are going to be very late, then you must consider whether to cancel or postpone the appointment.

Knowing that you are not going to be at the office in time to greet a visitor is more complicated. You should still alert the visitor as quickly as possible, but you also must brief someone to act on your behalf. Once you find someone at the office to help you out (for example by greeting the visitor and offering tea or other refreshments), then you should contact your visitor and apologise and explain who will be greeting them. You should also give an accurate forecast of when you will arrive. Depending on how late you are running, you should also offer them the opportunity to postpone or cancel the appointment if they so wish.

It is not good manners to ask someone to lie on your behalf, or pass on an inadequate excuse, or force them to invent some wild and unlikely story.

Anticipating the Problem

There are some days when you know in advance that you are going to be late. You may have to visit a child’s school, take the car to the garage or attend a dental appointment, for example. Because you know in advance, it’s only polite to ask permission of a manager, and check first with colleagues to ensure that your lateness will not create difficulties for them. Try and give as much notice as possible; telling everyone as you leave the office that you’re going to be late the following morning may lead to bad feelings.

If a change in your personal circumstances – for example a new baby or house move – means that you need to make radical changes to your working hours, you should consult with your employers at the earliest possible opportunity, giving details of what changes are requested, why, and for how long. Unless it’s commercially impossible for the employers to agree, they should do all they can to accommodate these requests.

Dealing with Latecomers

The persistent latecomer in an office can be a source of much bitterness. If you are the manager, you should address the problem in the first instance by finding out why the offender is repeatedly late – this may need both patience and perseverance. If there is a good reason, you should do your best to help iron out any problems. If the offender doesn’t have a good reason, you should firmly but politely outline why the lateness is unacceptable. Only if the offender shows no signs of changing his or her ways should disciplinary action be contemplated.

The role of colleagues in this sorry saga is a little different. Having no powers of discipline and control, all colleagues can do is exhort latecomers to mend their ways and explain how everyone in the office is adversely affected. This, again, should be done politely. Whether the occasion calls for a quiet word with a diplomatic colleague, or whether it’s a case of everyone pitching in with their own contribution, will depend on the nature and attitude of the offender and all concerned.

Excuses and How to Handle Them

One of the few things that all of us learn at a young age is that there is a right way and a wrong way to make an excuse or to tender an apology. To be successful, the excuse must have some basis in truth (the more, the better). It should be used with discretion (not too often) and should sound plausible. It should never be accompanied by misplaced attempts at humour.

Everybody has to make an excuse at some time or another, not least when they are unpunctual, and the best thing they can do is make the excuse with as good grace as possible.

All discussions about transgressions such as unpunctuality should take place in private.

A reasonable excuse should be accepted without rancour or resentment. If the excuse is made repeatedly then there may well come a time when, although the excuse is accepted, a dialogue has to be opened up as to how much longer these difficulties will continue. Discussions may centre around the possibility of establishing alternative hours, of passing responsibility for some work to another person, of granting paid or unpaid leave for a fixed period, or seeing if there are any other ways in which the problem can be solved or ameliorated.

If the excuse is not a reasonable one, then it must be rejected. The manner of this rejection will probably depend on just how unreasonable the excuse is, and the attitude and track record of the offender. It should be remembered, however, that some people make unreasonable or lame excuses simply because they are afraid to reveal the real reason why they are late or have been absent. This can be especially true when private or family life is going awry. If someone who is in all other ways a valued member of the company starts to behave with unaccustomed irresponsibility and offers unlikely excuses, the company needs to reject only the excuses, not the person making them. No company ever gains prestige through rudeness or insensitivity towards clients, customers or employees.

For more information on professional behaviour and impact in the workplace, take a look at our Guide to Business Etiquette.

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