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June 19, 2007

Late Because...

Being a journalist, I know a lot about slackers. With the bohemian/"intellectual" element of my profession, punctuality isn't one of our known traits. We'll do it if there's a big interview we're after, but on a daily basis, I'm afraid you're out of luck.

So, I've been exposed to a glutton's buffet of late excuses. One former co-worker said she was terribly sorry, but the reason she showed up at the office at (her usual) 11 a.m. instead of 9 was fire trucks.  It was just an awful time. Turns out, coming home from an early morning jog, there were fire trucks blocking her driveway. What could she do?  On another occasion, her (suspiciously) frequent misfortune led to a fall on the steps leading into her apartment, twisting her ankle. She called to update us at 9:30 that she was heading to a walk-in clinic. Nobody mentioned the irony of going to a "walk-in" clinic if she couldn't walk.

Then, of course, there are the excuses to get out of work altogether. Let me tell you this: If you're going to fake an illness, it's so much better to fake a stomach ailment than a bad cold. A stomach problem comes with no noticeable symptoms; whereas a faux cold would require a faux cough and hoarse voice to go with it.

You also have to learn to make the most of life events and milestones when angling for office outages. If you're getting married for instance (and especially if you're the bride), don't hesitate to milk it for all it's worth. Even an unsympathetic boss will nod knowingly as you explain why you need to leave work early for the fifteenth time in a month due to a problem with your dress fitting, or a catering company that's botched your order. That overdue report?  Maybe the minister needs to see you again.

The training question to ask yourself is whether there's any way to prepare managers for the inevitable array of tardy/ out "sick" excuses?  Do any of you include tutorials on setting boundaries with workers as part of a leadership development course?  In today's workforce, managers and executives are tacitly encouraged to form casual bonds with subordinates in which those they supervise become more like campers, and the boss becomes more like a big brother/big sister camp counselor. That's a relationship I'm more comfortable with myself, but it may be a problem when it comes to setting limits. How do you tell your friend you don't believe her?

Since the phony excuse (ate bad sushi last night anyone?) is unavoidable, how about making a game out of it?  Give workers 10 to 15 days which they can use for either personal or sick days. Then ask them to come up with the most creative story they can think of when they call in. Legally you probably can't require them to do this, but give them an incentive by making into a contest in which awards are given quarterly for the best tardy/need-to-be-absent lie.

Childish nonsense in the workplace is always a noble aspiration, but turning the excuse game into a real game ties into learning and development. It's a creativity stimulation exercise that could be classified as innovation training. When the mind becomes facile enough to dream up outlandish excuses about meteorites on the front lawn with NASA inspectors on the way to explain a noon arrival, think about what that could do for your business. The cutting-edge product, or avant-garde marketing campaign becomes that much easier to generate.

Acknowledging and laughing at a human foible like the need to push work out of the way on a lazy/hung-over morning, or an overly pretty August afternoon, fosters a more honest office environment. It may encourage employees to be more realistic when discussing deadlines with bosses, or admitting with a self-deprecating laugh that an assignment is beyond their capabilities, and much better suited to the talents of a co-worker.

However you approach it, reconcile yourself and your managers to the likelihood of the early morning/not-so-late afternoon lie. There are only so many downtown frog parades you can hear about before getting at least a little suspicious.

Okay, let's hear it:  The best excuses you've given for hitting the snooze button one too many times, and the best your employees have aimed your way?


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Matt Mendolera

Ha--this one made me laugh out loud. Before I joined the PR industry, I was a customer service manager in a grocery store and heard some of the most ridiculous excuses from my cashiers. I always had more respect for the ones that just said "I don't feel like working today...can you try and let me out early if it's slow?"

Of course, there's the opposite effect--when an excuse is real and everyone thinks it's pure crap. A few weeks ago I woke up feeling nauseous and went back to bed for a few hours. When I came in, everyone had assumed I was hung-over, since I had just gotten a promotion the day before. (In hindsight, I can't blame them for thinking that, though!)

Tom Tiernan

Hi Margery

Great piece. Turning a commonplace occurrence such as making up excuses for being late or not showing up to work into a contest is genius.

I think that giving people the permission to "lie" is a great way to unleash creativity. I do an exercise I call "The Lying Game" which is a lot of fun. I purposely encourage people to be as outrageous as possible. Lying is a creative process as opposed to simply recalling the facts. It can be stimulating and put to positive use as in your example. It's a great icebreaker or group energizer exercise.

Why not take something viewed as wrong and turn it into something beneficial?

Thanks for posting.

Tom Tiernan
VisualsSpeak LLC

Steve Evans

A colleague of mine turned up at work very late one morning claiming it had taken him two hours to get to the end of the road due snipers on the building opposite his house.
Excuses like this, if delivered by the right person, can elicit admiration for their creativity.

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