Luck is not on your side today, and you’re running late to the office. Maybe you don’t have a meeting scheduled for 8 AM sharp—or maybe you do and you’re already stressed!—but regardless, you know your boss isn’t going to be happy to see you waltzing in behind schedule.
Whether your tardiness is completely out of your control or due to a fault of your own, here’s exactly what you should do.
Catch Yourself as Early as Possible
You never want to get to the point where you’re walking into the office at 11 AM and your boss has no idea where you’ve been and why you missed half the day. Chances are if you’re running late, not only do you have the means to warn your manager ahead of time (hello, that’s what a cell phone is for), but you also know pretty early on how late you’re actually going to be.
If the conductor hops on the mic to tell you your commuter train’s going to be held at the station for 20 minutes, you should try to find a signal and contact your boss right then and there. If you get a notification the night before traveling home saying that your flight may be delayed, it’s worth sending your supervisor a note before heading to bed. If your child starts coughing up a storm and you know that means you’ll need to pop into the doctor’s office, whip out your phone.
Matthew Brochstein, The Muse’s own CTO, notes that he always wants folks on his team to notify him “in a way and timeframe that allows me to react. Sending me an email two minutes before a meeting effectively ensures that I will have no idea that you’re going to be late.”
Use your best judgement—you may decide that even with your delayed transportation or detour to the nearest health clinic you’ll still be able to make it in at your normal time (or at least you’ll only be a tad late). But know that there’s absolutely no harm in preparing your boss for your potential tardiness. Worst case, you actually show up on time and all’s forgotten.
As tempting as it is to say, “But this crazy thing happened! There was a 50-car pileup right in front of me and I literally got out of my car and climbed over the heap to get here!” you’re better off going with the truth or giving no reason at all (unless the pileup thing actually happened to you). The risk of getting caught in a lie is too great, and when something actually happens to you where you need their trust they’ll be less inclined to give it to you if you’ve fibbed before.
So opt for honesty, even if it’s terrifying to say you slept through your alarm or forgot to put gas in your car. It may not resonate well with them now, but when you arrive on time every other day after that, they’ll more often than not let a mishap or two slide.
“If you’re going to miss something, you need to be apologetic and acknowledge that you’re impacting others,” says Brochstein. “Oops, I’m late!” won’t cut it, and certainly won’t make your manager forgive you sooner. Even if you have zero regrets about getting an extra hour of sleep, still say you’re sorry—after all, your lateness affects your boss and co-workers, too.
Emphasize You’re Committed to Making It Right
You’re going to be late—you can’t control that at this point. What you can control is how you react to it. Besides sending your boss a proactive note (see below for what that looks like), you’ll want to make it clear you’re ready to compensate for this small mistake.
Maybe that’s as simple as doing your work, and doing it well—starting with answering emails on the train while you wait for it to get moving. Or maybe you stay a bit later that day to make up for lost time. Or maybe you immediately offer up solutions to fix the fact that you missed an important meeting that morning. Whatever you think will impress your boss enough to convince them to overlook this minor inconvenience, do it.
Also, when you contact your manager, “you should address any tasks that are expected and set expectations for timelines and delivery. Make it very clear that you’ve got the day under control” despite this hiccup, says Muse career coach Steven Davis.
It might be wise at the end of the workday to give your boss a quick thanks for being understanding of your lateness. You certainly don’t want to keep bringing it up if your manager has moved on, but if they were especially receptive or accommodating it’s worth acknowledging that.
Be Cognizant of How Often You’re Late
Showing up late to work happens. Everyone does it, and usually when it occurs once or twice it’s no big deal.
But make that three, five, seven times, and you’re bound to become someone everyone expects to be tardy. More importantly, you’ll begin to lose the respect of your boss.
Remember that being a full-grown adult means, among other things, being on time to stuff as much as possible. So set your alarm to full volume, leave your house 10 minutes earlier, or if you really need to, talk to your boss about adjusting your schedule—just do whatever it takes.
What a “Late for Work” Email Looks Like
How you choose to contact your manager to let them know what’s going on—phone call, email, text, Slack—depends a lot on your relationship and their communication preferences. If email seems appropriate for your situation, here’s what you could write:
If You Have a Valid Excuse for Being Tardy
Hi [Boss’ Name],
Due to [reason], I’m running [minutes] late this morning. I hope to get into the office by [time].
I apologize for the inconvenience. Just so you’re aware, I have [what’s on your schedule] and still plan to get [projects that are due today] to you by [deadline for today].
Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do in the meantime—I’ll be available via [phone/email] until I get in.
If It’s Purely Your Fault You’re Running Late
Hi [Boss’ Name],
I’m really sorry, but I’m going to be [minutes] late this morning. I realize this is a big inconvenience for you and promise not to make this a common occurrence.
In the meantime, I’m still shooting to get [projects that are due today] to you by [deadline for today] and make the [meetings you have for today]. I’ll be available by [phone/email] if you need anything from me before I get to the office.
So sorry again,
If You’re Missing Something Important
Hi [Boss’ Name],
I’m so sorry, but I’m running [minutes] late this morning because of [reason]. I hope to arrive to the office around [time].
I know we have [meeting] scheduled for [time]. If I can’t make it in person, would it be possible to move it to [alternative time]/call in via phone/get the notes from someone/revisit the discussion in our one-on-one meeting? I also still have on the docket to get you [projects that are due today] by [deadline for today] and have no doubt those will be ready in time.
Again, my sincerest apologies—I’m very much planning for this not to be a frequent occurrence!
If You Need to Call or Send Them a Text Instead
In certain cases it might make more sense to contact your boss more informally—whether because that’s how they tend to communicate their tardiness, because that’s what they asked you to do, or because you’re not going to be so late that you want to make a big deal out of it. It also might be a better strategy if you want to be sure your boss gets your message before it’s too late (like if they’re about to have back-to-back meetings).
So you could say in your message:
Hi [Name], just wanted to let you know that I’m running [minutes] late due to [reason]. So sorry for the inconvenience, and I promise to keep you posted on my whereabouts.
I’m really sorry, but I’m running late this morning because of [reason]. I expect to be in by [time] but will let you know if that changes. In the meantime I’ll be available by [form of communication] for anything urgent. I hope to make it by [meeting] but if not [how you’ll make up for missing it]. Again, my sincerest apologies!
Or, if you also emailed them, you could say:
I sent you an email, but wanted to again apologize that I’m running late this morning—I should be in by [time]. Thanks so much for understanding!
Photo of person running late to work courtesy of Jose Luis Pelaez Inc./Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author