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Julie Blais Comeau

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Sticky Situation: The Perpetually Late Colleague

Posted: 03/26/2013 12:25 pm

Sticky situation:

What can I do about a colleague's perpetual lateness?

Five to 10 minutes after the start of our weekly meetings, coffee in hand, he waltzes in and usually says something like: "What did I miss?"

When we collaborate on reports, he pushes back the deadline for his part, which must be completed before mine. I then have to rush through my portion of the work, which sometimes means working overtime, to respect the project's delay.

This is more than an annoyance. It is disruptive and unproductive. And frankly, I feel that it is very disrespectful of my time and me.



Successful organizations, that have the benefit of punctual employees, strictly enforce the One, Two, Three Strikes and You're Out, policy. It's a pretty simple procedure but it requires documentation discipline and diligence, to dissipate the behaviour before having to dismiss.

Unfortunately, some employees feel that lateness is unrelated to their performance. They do not realize the ripple effect that their tardiness may have on others.

As you have described, lateness can be even more frustrating when the culprit is your level peer and you are on the receiving end of the lateness effects, without the ability to discipline.

You are right; a chronically late colleague displays incivility. The underlying message seems to be that his time is more precious than yours. This behaviour is disrespectful and does have negative, even costly consequences, on the entire team. It interrupts the flow of work and is therefore counterproductive. It creates resentment and time is lost mulling over it.

In North America, being punctual is being there at the exact time. There is no such thing as "fashionably late," especially in business.

When visiting other countries there may be varying grace periods or habitually stretched start times. That is not the case here. An appointment, with internal colleagues or external clients, follows the agreed upon schedule.

  1. If you are the person chairing the meeting try starting the meeting at an off-hour, like 9:07. This unusual time will prompt your tardy colleague to take a double look at the start time. An off-time should make him more aware of his timeline and by doing so prompt him to be punctual. He may even speak to you about it to make sure that it was not a typo. Seize that opportunity to stress the importance of all being present and on time, to maximize productivity.
  2. Another trick is to assign the note-taker role to the last person that comes into the meeting. Give the last person to arrive a notepad, iPad or whatever your team uses to record the gathering. When the late employee comes in and undoubtedly asks: "What did I miss?" pass him the pad; so he may read the transcript. At the same time, assign him the task of continuing the notes. It is now his responsibility to make and distribute the meeting log. Make this a common practice and you will soon see the usual stragglers coming in a few minutes early. Nobody will want to be the last one through the door to be tagged "the note-taker."
  3. If you generally, otherwise get along with this person, try speaking to him in private. Make sure to give details as to how this is affecting you in your work and how it impacts the team's productivity. Do not point fingers at him nor whine about this not being fair. Remember the number one rule of the Bill Gates urban legend, 11 Rules of life from a supposed commencement speech: "Life is not fair, get used to it." I'd like to add: "Deal with it." And that is exactly what you are doing by stopping this behaviour.
  4. Should you not be able to resolve this on your own and need the support of your superior, prepare for your conversation with documented evidence of the dates and times of his late activities and the effects they have on your work.

Lastly, if the tardy one is your boss, take a deep breath and enjoy the extra time to yourself.

Have a Sticky Situation yourself, write to julie@etiquettejulie.com and Julie will reply promptly. You can also ask your questions on her Facebook page. Planning a conference? Julie travels coast to coast to give bilingual interactive conferences.

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