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Advice / Job Search / Networking

How to Cancel Plans at the Last Minute Professionally—and Without Burning Any Bridges

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It’s a popular and growing phenomenon: We say yes, yes, yes to event after event and invitation upon invitation, but then when it comes down to actually attending, we often bail, sometimes at the last minute. It’s as though the prospect of plans—a party, dinner gathering, networking event— is far more exciting than actually attending the event. The result, of course, is that we end up overcommitting and then going back on our promises.

When you arrive to work on Monday morning and open up your calendar to see that every night of the week is booked and that you’ve even got things scheduled throughout the workday—coffee with your former co-worker, breakfast with your mentor, and a happy hour drink with a current colleague—you may feel overwhelmed and anxious.

There’s just no way you can do it all, but how do you get out of going somewhere you said you’d go or doing something you said you’d do? And how do you do it without looking like a jerk—or burning a bridge?

In fact, you absolutely can back out of an outing and politely, too.

1. When You Genuinely Want to Reschedule

It happens to the best of us. You make plans with your former boss, and you’re actually excited about meeting up. You’re looking forward to catching up and getting the scoop on how everything’s going at your old company. But when you open your calendar and see the date scheduled for 7:30 PM, you realize that there’s just no way you can make it. Not after the fitful night of sleep you had, and definitely not after you put in a nine-hour workday with a looming deadline attached to it.

Here’s what to do: Look at your calendar and find a time that you are 100% positive will work. Maybe you choose a night later in the week so if you’re tired, so you can remind yourself you’ll just have to get through one more day until the weekend. Maybe you suggest lunch instead of drinks. Choose a week where you have little else planned—so you have incentive for keeping this plan.

Write an email, apologizing and attempting a hard re-schedule, minding the fact that you must be as flexible as possible now:

Hi [name],

I’m so sorry for the absurdly late notice, but I’m not going to be able to make it tonight. I feel awful for not letting you know before today, but the fact is I’m a bit stressed with an upcoming deadline and I didn’t sleep well last night, so I’d be terrible company. I hope you won’t hold it against me and that we can reschedule (drinks on me!). Let me know if either [date] or [date] works. If neither of those are good for you, please suggest a time, and I’ll do my best to make it happen.

Again, I apologize for the late notice. I was really looking forward to meeting and definitely want to get a new date on the calendar as soon as possible.

[Your name]

2. When You Never Should’ve Committed in the First Place (and Don’t Want to Reschedule)

This, too, happens to the most well intentioned among us. You say yes to a networking contact or a friend of a friend who wants to pick your brain about your job and industry. You attempted to carry on a conversation via email, but the person persisted and now you have an 8:30 AM coffee date lined up during one of the busiest months you’ve had in a long time. You’re honestly happy to answer his questions and chat frankly with him about the changing landscape of the marketing industry, but you are so over-extended that even squeezing in an early-morning coffee feels like it’ll put you over the edge.

You’ve got to be up front and direct. Apologize for breaking plans, but be adamant about continuing the conversation online. Here’s what to say:

Hi [name],

I was just looking over my calendar, and I’m stretched way too thin this month; in fact, I don’t think next month is going to be much better. At this point, it’s just not feasible to reschedule our coffee meeting. I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it on Friday, but I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you have about marketing in general or even about what my day-to-day involves. As someone who made the career transition not too long ago, I know you must have a lot to ask about, so really, feel free to shoot me an email.

Again, my apologies for canceling on you. I’m getting better at not overcommitting myself, but clearly I’ve still got work to do!

[Your name]

3. When You’re Bailing on an Event and Not a Specific Person

This one may seem like the easiest one to back out of, and, in a way, it is. If it’s not a one-on-one meeting, you may not feel the need to even inform anyone that you’re bailing, but take it from me as someone who has organized events in the past: There’s a real, live person behind every event, and if you have a contact email in your inbox, you should reach out and apologize in advance for your absence. While it might seem like the event’s so big that no one will even notice if you miss it, the truth is, industry circles are often small and if you care about your professional reputation, simply not showing up isn’t the right way to handle yourself.

Instead, figure out who you can reach out to. If there’s an online RSVP and you can change your response to “decline,” please do so. Include a note about how you’re sorry to back out last minute, but something’s come up. You hope to be kept in the loop about future events. If you’re reaching out to a person you’ve been in touch with about the event, even if that individual is a PR rep and an otherwise total stranger, try sending the following:

Hi [name],

Thanks for the invite for [name of event]. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to make it. I wanted to let you know as soon as I could so that you could open the list up to someone else. I’m definitely interested in these types of networking gatherings though, so I hope you’ll keep me on your list.

[Your name]

All this said, you know what’s easier than canceling on someone or telling a little white lie (“something’s come up”) when you can’t make an event or meeting you agreed to attend? Not saying yes if you aren’t positive you’ll be able to make good on the plan.

I realize that sometimes things do come up and you are busy, so much so that a lunch away from your desk just feels like too much. I get it, and the person you’re cancelling on will probably get it, too. Still, make backing out of a date a rarity. Do your best to only allow yourself to commit to the things that you’re truly excited about and are very certain you’ll make good on. The professional world can be small, and while flaking isn’t the same thing as burning a bridge, it’s close enough for comfort, especially if the person or people on the other end are really counting on your presence.