45 Bosses Explain How to Be Late

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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
June 22, 2024 at 9:14PM UTC
Your alarm clock never went off. Your bus broke down. Your train got delayed. You were helping an elderly person cross the road and it took longer than you'd anticipated. You got stuck in a parade and there was no street crossing. Your goldfish died two years ago.

Listen, most of us have been late at least once or twice. It happens to the best of us. But there's a way to going about being late, and bombarding your boss with excuses isn't it. When you apologize for being late, insisting that you didn't intend to be late, it doesn't change the fact that you are indeed late. The person waiting for you could cares less about your reasoning and more about the impact of your lateness, so choose your words wisely.
We asked 46 bosses to share with us what they wish their employees would say if they're running late. (Spoiler alert: They all value honesty.) 

1. Tell the truth.

"I came down with something really terrible and I was sick as a dog all morning, but I miraculously feel so much better."

"When an employee is late, I wish they could just tell me the truth," says Jason Perkins, founder and CEO of San Diego SEO Firm. "Honestly, the reason why they are late is not what I am after. I am after the fact that sometimes employees make up the worst stories when they get late. They could just tell the truth and get it over with. I have no problem with being late, as long as it is not all the time. If I give you more than enough chances and even after we have talked it over you are still late, then that is something you will have to face and fix on your own."

2. Admit it in advance.

"Hey, sorry I'm so late coming in today."

"It is a big no-no for me when employees are late — it's because I have strict adherence to schedule, its just so everything is organized in the office and we don't end up fumbling over what to do first," says Brad M. Shaw, president and CEO of Dallas Web Design Inc. "I hope they can just let me know ahead of time, at least a few hours before their expected work schedule. There is nothing wrong to be honest with telling the truth, and it is better, to be honest, than making up a story about why you are late in the first place."

3. Drop the excuses.

"My dog ate my spreadsheets and then I hit every red light ever and couldn't find parking."

"I run an international IT company and, when one employee is late, everything gets disturbed; it's because there is a business structure to our company, which we strongly adhere to," explains Ian McClarty, president of PhoenixNAP Global IT Services. "I wish if an employee turns up late or does not show up to work, the least they can do for us is tell us ahead of time that they have to fix an emergency or tell us the truth about why they are running late. It irritates us more when employees come up with the strangest excuses just to get out of being sanctioned."

4. Give helpful details.

"I'm late because it was a crazy morning. No, I don't have anyone to cover me this morning."

"When an employee is running late, I like it when they give details — why they are late, when they expect to arrive and what they have done to cover off any time-sensitive tasks with other staff members," adds John Kinskey, president and founder of AccessDirect, Inc. "It also helps if they express their regret, especially if there have been other recent times they have been late. I am very understanding; life happens, but I have to be assured that an employee is not taking advantage of my flexible style of management.

5. Accept responsibility.

"I apologize for being late, but..."

"This happened yesterday — I hosted a town hall meeting for the entire company, and a young middle manager was late and the last to arrive," says John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company. "This is what I wish she would have said to me: 'John, thank you for your leadership and for the presentation today. You clearly gave it a great deal of thought and I am grateful to be on the team. I apologize for being late this morning. Totally my fault. I will be working through lunch and rest assured that I am on top of everything.'"

6. Stop disturbing others upon your arrival.

"Good morning. How was your weekend? You'll never believe my morning..."

"Yes, you're late because you were at the light waiting for the train to pass by," says Chantay Bridges, realtor at Real Estate Professionals World Enterprise Marketing. "Once you arrive, say good morning and begin your work day. This is not the time to visit from desk to desk, cubicle to cubicle, interrupting everyone else to make sure your story is heard."

7. Don't kiss up.

"I'm sorry I'm late. I brought you a coffee." 

"I'm not sure what exactly I want a late employee to say, but I'll tell you what I don't want to hear: 'I'm getting a coffee, do you want anything?'" says Mary Apple, CEO of Pretty Pushers, Inc. "As if that's the reason why they are already 30 minutes late and as if a donut will make it all better."

8. Do something about it.

"I'm late because my alarm clock must be broken. I'm sorry for the late notice."

"Two words: be truthful," says Nate Masterson, marketing manager for Maple Holistics. "Mark Twain said that a man who always tells the truth doesn’t need to remember what he said. And this applies here for sure. No need to conjure a story or cook up a tale. Be honest, or at least don’t outright lie. The truth has a way of catching up.
"Second, do whatever you can to let the boss know in advance. It is not okay that he or she should need to ask 'Hey, where’s Jim?' Make sure they know when you are running late. With modern technology, it literally takes seconds, and it makes a big difference.
"Third, if you do it frequently enough, expect something to be done about it. It’s not called 'super happy fun time.' It’s called work. And you need to show up without making excuses or giving reasons, however adequate. First simply admit to the fact that you are late and, if asked, provide the appropriate responses. There are exceptions to every rule."

9. Apologize.

"I'm late, but it's not my fault..."

"I have a few clients and employees that have done this to me," says Melvin Marsh, certified hypnotherapist with After Hours Hypnotherapy. "I'm happy with a quick apology and the truth. If your toddler had a potty accident which threw your day off because you had to change clothing before you dropped him/her off to preschool, that's fine. If something happened with your alarm, that's also fine. I don't even care if you are late because you had a hangover. It's only if you are chronically late that it becomes an issue."

10. Help to plan accordingly.

"Sorry, I'm not sure what to tell you."

"Let me know once you know you are late so I can plan accordingly and tell me why," says Brad Schweig, vice president of operations at Sunnyland Patio Furniture. "Life happens to everyone and, as long as it's not frequent, it's okay to have a lame excuse why you are late."

11. Be honest, even if you're just hungover.

"I'm just really sick with a headache, and I can't stop vomiting. It might be contagious."

"I wish they were just honest!" says Karla Jobling, MD of BeecherMadde. "It does happen sometimes, even to me. There are always things outside our control. But if they are hungover or have overslept, I actually really appreciate that they tell me that, rather than making something up. Obviously there is a limit as to how often that excuse is acceptable, and I realize this wouldn’t work everywhere. I value their honesty so highly that, for a one-off issue, I am willing to let this go."

12. Send over important documents.

"I'm going to be late but I left all my stuff at the office, or I'd get it over to you."

"Email and text everyone, the following: a) apologize, b) let people know when/if they will arrive, c) let people know if the meeting should proceed without them or they need to be involved, d) email any documents that will be useful, helpful for the meeting," Marc Prosser, co-founder of FitSmallBusiness.com.

13. Share what you learned.

"I'm late because the dog got out of his leash."

"Running late happens; that's for sure," admits Steve Hammer, president of RankHammer. "What I want to hear is what you learned. Let's say the dog got away and that's why you're late. I want to hear that you're going to buy a new leash that fits better. I never mind paying for life lessons, but I don't want to have to pay for the same class over and over."

14. Make up for lost time.

"I'm running super late, so I might just take the day off if that's cool."

"When one of my employees is running late I wish they would say, 'I'm sorry, but I'm running late. I should have left sooner to make sure I made it there on time. I'm willing to work late or make up the time whenever you think is best, and I will get there as fast as I can.'" says Daren Dilts, a pastor of a church with a staff. "In that statement, there is an apology, acknowledgement of not planning ahead and a willingness to give the lost time back."

15. Give your boss FOMO.

"I definitely didn't go out last night."

"What I want to hear from my employees is the straight honest truth — something like: 'I am sorry chief. I stayed late in the club. I went out for a couple of drinks, but it was super fun and I lost track of the time. I wish you could be there; you would have enjoyed the party too...' That last part is what wins the argument," jokes Daniel Thompson, head of marketing at Tom's Junk Collectors. "My employees are members of the marketing team; there is nothing stopping us to do our job if one person is late. If the work of the team, however, depended on that person being on point, I would have expected a formal "sorry" to the whole team.
"I don't want excuses; we are just humans; [things] happen; alarms go silent; people get sick and so on... Just tell me what is the issue, smile and go to your workstation."

16. Stop wasting more time.

"Let me tell you the story of what happened to me this morning..."

"Long explanations and apologies just waste more time — all we need to know is when the employee can safely make it into work so that we can make accommodations for our customers," says Terese Kerrigan, director of marketing communications for FreightCenter, Inc.

17. Give an accurate ETA.

"I'm going to be there in a few minutes, I promise."

"We're all late sometimes, but the most important thing is to set an accurate expectation" says CEO at ShipMonk, Jan Bednar. "If you call and tell me that you're running late and you'll be at the office in 20 minutes, that's fine. But if you tell me you'll be here in 20 minutes and you're actually here in an hour, that's a different story. In the latter case, you've failed to meet expectations twice."

18. Communicate for coverage.

"Sorry, I forgot to get someone to cover."

"Unless an excuse is genuine, don't make an excuse," says Emily Clifford, a member of the marketing department at Fueled, who polled her bosses. "Over time, employees who make up excuses tend to do it again and it does't go unnoticed. If running late, make sure to communicate with your team to make sure work and meetings are covered. Be proactive and set a plan on how to catch up on work and meetings missed."

19. Prove that it won't be an ongoing issue.

"It's just that my kids have to get to school and their schedules conflict with my hours..."

"Ideally, what's best is to come in late, apologize and then make up the time on the backend — or show the manager that this isn't an ongoing issue by coming in on time regularly so that, when you are late, it really isn't a big deal," explains Tiffani Murray, HR & career consultant. "I think, for many managers, it's the excuses that get old and annoying, especially when the manager offers advice or flexibility with the schedule and then the employee still can't seem to get it together. Timeliness is not everything. Many managers will overlook this if someone has impeccable work and always gets the job done."

20. Don't lie because you feel ashamed.

"I'm late because of *some crazy lie.*"

"There’s only one thing that I’d like from employees when they’re running late: Honesty," says Matthew Kerr, hiring manager and career expert at ResumeGenius. "Being late is something that happens to everyone, including myself. There is nothing to be ashamed of. A problem only arises when employees feel the need to lie about why they are late. It’s usually always very obvious when they are lying, and it causes a breach of trust, which then infects the entire workplace relationship.
"Regardless of what it may be, I’d rather employees just told me the truth — even if they overslept because they had a bit too much to drink when catching up with their friends. It's fine; it happens. I understand that people have their own lives outside of the workplace and that, every once in awhile, that may cause them to be late."

21. Communicate.

"Sorry I'm so late; what time is it anyway?"

"My employees are usually on a flexible schedule and they can come into work whenever they want — it's just that I do not like it when they cannot tell me in advance that they cannot come to work," says Joanna Douglas, owner of Clean Affinity. "It's hard for a business owner because, when you need staff due to the high volume of customers, it's like you lost your hands. You do not have enough workers to work for you and, at the same time, you also lose money. I do not mind if they have to go on a break for a while or they have to fix a personal emergency, but the least they can do is let me know."

22. Take initiative.

"I overslept."

"It all depends on context — if, for instance, the weather made the roads extremely dangerous, then we're just happy you made it in safely and in one piece," explains Brian Gow, president of Scheel Window & Door. "But if they're late from being disorganized or oversleeping, then there's little one can say. We don't want to hear excuses or apologies. Instead, we want to see you make up for it. Work through lunch or stay late, and take the initiative to do it yourself; don't wait for me to tell you to do it. That shows that it was just a fluke and won't be a regular thing."

23. Quit justifying and just get to work.

"I'm so sorry, let me explain..."

"When you arrive, let me know you're there and get to work," says Laura MacLeod, HR expert and consultant. "Apologies are always appreciated but a long-winded explanation and/or excuse is not. Saying, 'I tried to get out of the house but my son wouldn't eat his breakfast and the babysitter cancelled at the last minute, so I took him to the neighbor...' is unnecessary and feels like you're justifying yourself. Just get to work."

24. Tell a good story.

"I'm just late."

"Etiquette for coming in late: Tell me a good story," says Robert Barrows of R.M. Barrows, Inc. Advertising & Public Relations. "I once worked for a company where, if you came in late, the boss wanted to hear a good story. Don't just tell him you were stuck in traffic. Don't just tell him your alarm clock didn't go off. Tell him a good story about what you did last night and be sure to include all the vivid details."

25. Ask for help.

"It's fine, it totally won't happen again."

"The best thing I can hear when someone is late is to ask for help," says Dayne Shuda of Ghost Blog Writers. "Most bosses want to help employees become better at their jobs. It's the boss' job to help the employee do their best work. If there is an issue with running late, let's fix it."

26. Make a plan for the future.

"No need to worry about a next time."

"If someone is running late, there are three pieces of information they need to relay: 1) when they anticipate arriving, 2) an acknowledgment of their error and 3) their plan to prevent tardiness in the future," says Robby Slaughter, principal at AccelaWork."The first needs to occur in advance. Once you know you are going to be late, update your estimate. After you arrive, apologize and explain what you will do next time — instead of giving your excuse!"

27. Send a quick ping.

"Oh wow, I didn't even realize how late I am, sorry!"

"Honesty is the best policy when an employee is running late — ping your employer with an email that says why you're running late and when you can be expected to arrive to work," says Dana Case, director of operations at MyCorporation.com.

28. Try harder.

"Sorry, things hit the fan."

"In the last 30 years of being a manager, I have heard [all the excuses] and even used some myself — like, 'Oh, sorry, my car won’t start. (Why? Because I’m not in it.),'" says Kirk Herzog, office manager of Expert Plumbing & Rooter, Inc. "The best thing I wish is to get a truthful, 'I’m sorry and I will try to be better.' That would mean the world to me."

29. Don't waste your energy by getting worked up over it.

"I'm soooo sorry. Everything that could ever go bad went bad this morning. I'm so stressed out."

"Running late puts massive stress on your shoulders," says Olga Mykhoparkina, CMO at Chanty. "Luckily, our team’s schedule at work is quite flexible. If you are 20 minutes late, there’s no reason to get upset and waste your energy trying to come up with an excuse. All you do is stay 20 minutes after work. It’s that simple. After all, we are not into air traffic control. It’s much more productive to channel the energy into work rather than making up stories."

29. Don't exploit your employer's trust.

"I didn't mean to be late again."

"All I ask of my employees when they are late is that they be honest," adds Steve Pritchard, founder of Cuuver. "You’ve got to have a certain amount of trust in your employees in these situations. Of course, if it’s something preventable such as sleeping in, then action may need to be taken, particularly if it happens on an important day or if they begin exploiting your trust and it starts happening on a regular basis. However, sometimes your employees are going to get stuck in traffic or have a delay at home and, as long as they’re honest about that, then they should be given a certain amount of flexibility. It also helps if they try and inform me that they are likely to be late in advance, so then I can make allowances for them being late and adjust plans for the day."

30. Recognize the impact of your tardiness.

"Whoops, my bad. The team should be fine though, right?"

"Late to a party, fashionable; late to work, and welcome to your manager’s doghouse," warns Patrick Colvin, strategic HR business partner at USA Today Network. "While it may not be intentional, tardiness can have a domino effect leading to communication breakdowns, missed deadlines or lost clients. As a manager, I would like to see my employees recognize and understand the impact of their lateness. Inquiring about things possibly missed and apologizing verbally or in an email goes a long way. It never hurts to just say sorry. Being late is something that happens to all of us at one point or another so simply owning up to it is a professional move.
"Finally, a manager always hopes that employees would just be honest and make it clear that it isn’t going to become a habit. Honesty and integrity is what every manager wants in an employee. When you lie, you end up breaking that trust and there no putting the toothpaste back in the tube after that."

31. Apologize to your coworkers.

"You guys are good, right?"

Instead of assuming that your coworkers have it all under control, apologize for your tardiness. Let them know that you recognize how you being late may have affected them. It's respectful and the least you can do.

32. Set an earlier alarm.

"I didn't have enough time in the morning."

If you're running late because you didn't wake up in time, take action. Set an earlier alarm. Give yourself more time in the mornings so it doesn't happen again.

33. Prepare your lunch the night before.

"My morning was hectic and I was busy preparing lunches."

If you need more time to prep your lunch or your kids' lunches, do it the night before. There's no excuse for something that you could have done well in advance.

34. Have an easier breakfast.

"My breakfast took forever."

If you're running late, don't make a big breakfast. Grab a to-go meal or pop something in the microwave that won't take as long to cook and eat. Or just give yourself more time in the morning so that you can eat a big breakfast.

35. Check your gas tank before you have to hit the road.

"I ran out of gas."

Always check your gas tank the night before, perhaps when you're coming home from work. This way you won't wake up to be surprised with an empty tank when you have no time to fill it up.

36. Check the weather in the morning.

"I didn't realize it was going to storm and had to go back for my umbrella and coat."

Check the weather the night before. Check it again in the morning. You might even want to keep an umbrella handy at your desk or in your car just in case.

37. Check for traffic.

"I had no idea traffic would be so bad."

Always look out for traffic if you drive to work. Listen for it on the radio. Check you GPS app. Look for the best route possible so that you can do your best to avoid traffic.

38. Get to bed earlier. 

"I was up all night."

If you're going to be late every night and it's making you too tired to get up on time in the morning, get to bed earlier. You have to change up your sleep cycle.

39. Live a healthier lifestyle.

"I'm so sick, so I'm running a little slow this morning."

Are you getting sick all the time because you're going to bed late, eating unhealthy foods, not getting your exercise or something else you might be doing to yourself? As an adult, take control of your health and live a healthier lifestyle. Of course, it's inevitable that you'll still get sick, or be affected by allergies, but you can still do your best.

40. Don't wait to tell your boss you're late until after you're late.

"So sorry I'm here so late today."

Don't walk into the office to tell your boss you're late only after you're late. Always tell them in advance if you can.

41. Don't wait to tell your team you're late until after you're late.

"So sorry I'm running behind today. I got to the office really late."

Likewise, don't wait until you get to your team meeting to tell your team why you're totally unprepared for it. Do what you can to let them know in advance.

42. Don't expect your boss to inform your team for you.

"You'll tell the team for me?"

Don't expect your boss to relay to your team that you're not going to make the morning meeting. It's your obligation to tell everyone who is counting on you.

43. Don't expect your team to inform your boss for you.

"You'll tell the boss for me?"

Likewise, don't expect your team to tell your boss that you're running late for you. It's your obligation as a professional to own up to it yourself.

44. Don't ask someone to lie for you.

"Can you just tell them that I was there but ran out for coffee quick or I'm in the bathroom? I'll be there in a few minutes!"

Never drag another coworker into your mess. If you're running late, don't lie. And especially don't ask someone else to lie for you.

45. Don't give up altogether.

"I guess it's not worth it to come in at this point."

If you're running behind, do your best with the time you have once you make it into the office. Try to make up for the lost time. Whatever you do, don't give up on the day entirely. Show that you're putting in the effort.

46. Don't come running in all frazzled.

"I'm a mess. You'll never believe this story..."

When you get to the office, get straight to work. Don't make a fuss. Don't bug other coworkers who are working about what happened to you. Don't start complaining. Use your time wisely, take a breath and get to work.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist for a gamut of both online and print publications, as well as an adventure aficionado and travel blogger at HerReport.org. She covers all things women's empowerment — from navigating the workplace to navigating the world. She writes about everything from gender issues in the workforce to gender issues all across the globe.

What tips and advice do you have for how to talk about, and explain why you are late? Share your experiences and thoughts to help other Fairygodboss members.

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