Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”
Well, Ben must have spent some time in an office.
Yes, we all live full, busy lives, and as a result, it’s inevitable something will come up that causes us to miss a deadline or be late for work once in a while. But while you’ll often need to give an explanation for your blunder, you should never make excuses. The truth is, they don’t actually help you save face at all, and they risk damaging your relationships at work—or worse, convincing your boss you’re not equipped to handle your job.
So, what exactly is the difference between an explanation and an excuse? Your boss and colleagues probably have their own internal B.S. meter, but there are a few universal excuses that will almost always land you in hot water—and will never convince your audience your “explanation” was legit.
Read on for three common excuses you’ll hear in the office, and why you should avoid them at all costs.
1. “Blame it on the Train”
Extra points to all of you who immediately started singing Milli Vanilli—but in any case, as the pop duo learned, use these words and eventually everyone’s going to think you’re pulling a fast one. (Like an employee I once had who was over an hour late to work one day and told me it was because “the train was delayed.”)
OK, sure, sometimes the train, or the bus, or the carpool lane is a disaster, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But nine times out of 10, you should still make it to work on time, because you’ve built that unpredictability into your commute time. That’s what responsible adults do, right? Yes. Blame the train, and your boss will see right through it.
Instead, try being honest. I know it sounds risky, especially if you really just hit the snooze button one too many times, but guess what? Your boss is human, too (I hope) and I’m willing to bet she’s been tardy a time or two in her life. Being honest about the real reason you’re late shows you have the courage to own up to your mistakes, instead of assigning blame whenever something goes wrong. Just remember, you only get a free pass on flubs like this on the rare occasion—make it a habit, and honest or not, your boss won’t be so sympathetic.
2. “I’m Waiting for Bob in Accounting to Call Me Back”
The guys in accounting—or HR, or at the Post Office—really get a bad rap. Somehow, they’re always the ones to blame when a deadline has been missed or a project is taking longer than planned.
If you find yourself in this situation, it’s tempting to just stick it to Bob in accounting and hope your boss will roll her eyes and send you on your way. But trust me, it’ll never work out that smoothly.
First and foremost, the last thing your boss wants to hear when a deadline is near—or missed—is that it’s someone else’s fault. Chances are, if you’re responsible for reporting the status to your boss, you’re probably on the hook for making sure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes as well. That pretty much means it doesn’t matter if Bob (or anyone else, for that matter) is asleep at the wheel, because it’s your responsibility to make sure it gets done.
Secondly, not only will using this excuse make you look pretty lame to your boss, you won’t be making any friends in accounting, either. Blame Bob and you can bet he’s going to hear about it, and believe me when I tell you, you don’t want to be on the accounting team’s bad side.
Instead, make sure you’re fully engaged with everyone that plays a part in your project. A good rule of thumb is to always have enough information about the status—including any potential delays—that you could give an executive summary to your boss if surprised in the elevator. Your boss (and Bob) will thank you for it.
3. “I Don’t Know How”
This may be the granddaddy of all excuses, and should never—I repeat, never—be used when explaining why you whiffed on an assignment. Admitting you don’t know how to do something at the start of a project, immediately followed by “Please show me how,” is obviously OK—in fact, it’s essential to progressing in your career. But simply shrugging off duties or turning in projects incomplete due to ignorance will make you come across as, well, ignorant.
Fortunately, handling this situation is pretty straightforward—but you’ll have to roll up your sleeves. If you’re stuck, do some research. Try to figure out how to address the issue, and if you’re not making progress, start asking questions. Start with a colleague—who just might appreciate the coaching opportunity—and work your way up until you get it right.
And more importantly, next time you’re presented with an assignment that may be a tad out of your wheelhouse, be honest about it. Tell your boss you’d like to take on the responsibility, but also ask for a recommendation for an expert on the team you can use as a resource. Your boss knows you don’t know how to do everything—but she does want to know that you’re willing to figure it out, and that you’ll take some initiative if you're stuck.
The difference between explaining yourself and making excuses is definitely a grey area, but if you keep these tips in mind, you’ll steer clear of most of those murky waters and cement your reputation in your boss’ mind as a star, not a slouch.