Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy!
Wasting Time on Excuses
Originally published by The Press Enterprise in late fall 2009.
Every weekday morning, hundreds of thousands of people around the country are doing the same thing. As they sit in their cars, running thirty minutes late for work because their five year-old threw up on their shoes five minutes before they left, they start thinking. Not thinking about what they have to do that day or what they hope to accomplish over the next few months at work, but about what excuse they are going to give their boss for being thirty minutes late.
The story about their kid throwing up on their shoes does not seem acceptable. They run down the list of socially acceptable excuses. Flat tire? No, they used that excuse last week. Accident on the freeway? No, the boss drives the same route and is obsessed with traffic reports. Stayed up until three o’clock in the morning working on a great new idea for growing sales by 50%? No, that does not work either. The boss only cares about whether you are on time or not. The fact that you stayed up until three am working is your problem.
What a great way to run a business. Force grown-up employees waste hours of time coming up with “dog ate my homework” type excuses because corporate America can not figure out a better way to measure an individual’s contributions to the company beyond how many hours their butts are in their seats.
The fact that wasting time creating acceptable excuses is okay but being thirty minutes late is not says something about what a company values. Forcing employees to create excuses also does not make any sense as a business practice. It wastes time. All that time spent in the car coming up with the right excuse could have been spent thinking about something important.
Excuse creation also happens to create tremendous stress. First coming up with an excuse, then worrying about whether you are actually going to need it or not, then spending the whole day wondering whether your boss actually bought the excuse, then wondering if when you boss gives you a particularly tough assignment whether it is punishment for your lateness that in the end was ineffectively covered up by a poorly chosen excuse that your boss did not buy. We waste time and energy with all of that (instead of actually getting work done) just because society has decided to collectively pretend that during working hours no one has any family drama, no personal crises, and no kids throwing up on their shoes.
You might be thinking to yourself: “but there are lots of jobs where being on time matters.” You are right. If you are an airline pilot, the passengers would likely get upset if you did not show up until an hour after their flight was supposed to leave. If a worker on an assembly line is running thirty minutes behind, it can cause problems while the manager scrambles to find someone to fill in while they wait. The same issues are not there however for a significant percentage jobs. Most of the time nothing horrible is going to happen if you are late. If the only thing that is expecting you is your cubicle, then what is the rush?
Instead of punishing employees for having their personal lives creep into their work lives, companies should find ways to make it easier for employees to manage life and work in one seamless stream. Even in the cases of the assembly line worker or the airline pilot, what if companies figured out how to help their employees handle life’s challenges, instead making them feel guilty and stressed?
This is not about disrespecting other people’s time by never showing up when you are supposed to. It is about changing the structure of work from a focus on time as the most significant measure of an employee’s contribution, to a focus on what actually matters: whether an employee is contributing to the success of the business through the results they deliver. It is about “my kid threw up on my shoes” no longer being needed as an excuse because no one cares if you are 30 minutes late as long as you are still getting your work done. It is time for a paradigm shift away from employees being forced to waste time on excuses. Don’t they have more important things to do?