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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Deal With Employee Excuses

As a new manager, you’ll realize pretty quickly that excuses are like clockwork—at the very moment when a big project, report, or assignment is due, they’ll come pouring in: “I didn’t have time,” “I just have too many other things on my plate right now,” “I never learned how to do that,” or—my personal favorite—“What project?”

And while steam practically pours out of your ears at these weak excuses, it’s tricky to know exactly how to react. Between needing to just get the work done as quickly as possible and feeling a twinge of sympathy that maybe your employee really does have too many projects on her plate, you probably respond with some version of, “That’s OK. I’ll just take care of it.”

I’ve been there, too. As much as I’d like to say I’ve always been a firm and respectable boss—I’ll admit it: I’ve been a pushover. And I learned the hard way that when you get in the habit of accepting excuses like this, your employees will be quick to walk all over you and your authority.

Thankfully, I’ve found a few ways to push back against excuses—strategies that not only made my life easier, but helped create an overall culture of accountability among my team. The next time those excuses roll in, try this.

Stop Saying “That’s OK”

When an employee would walk into my office, shoulders hunched and puppy dog eyes in full effect, I couldn’t help but lend a sympathetic ear. So, when she explained “I’ve been so overwhelmed with my other work lately—I just didn’t have time,” I couldn’t muster the gumption to respond with anything except, “Oh, that’s OK.”

The same thing happened when someone didn’t know how to pull the numbers for a certain report, couldn’t get a client to return her call, or just had too crazy of a night to make into the office on time the next morning. I’d fall into the same trap and repeat it again: “That’s OK”—even though these excuses were far from acceptable.

So, learn from my mistake and take the first—and incredibly important—step toward keeping your employees accountable: Stop saying “that’s OK.” It’s an easy phrase to blurt out as a natural sympathetic response, but what you’re really conveying is that it’s completely acceptable to make excuses for bad behavior. Is that really what you want your team to think?

Instead, Express Disappointment

Of course, you also shouldn’t take it to the other extreme and lash out abrasively. Instead, channel your childhood: When you did something wrong, you didn’t necessarily dread your punishment (although being grounded for two weeks was a serious drag)—more than that, you feared that ominous phrase: “I’m so disappointed in you.”

You don’t need to use those exact words, but you should convey a sense of disappointment when an employee produces an unacceptable excuse. Explain exactly how what she did (or didn’t do) impacted you, the team, and the company as a whole: “I was really counting on you to have the monthly budget finished by this morning, Megan. Since we don’t have it, the rest of the team is really going to have to scramble to pull those numbers.”

When your employee realizes that her oversight didn’t only affect her—but her entire team, too—she’s much more likely to pull it together next time.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

After a lot of practice, I’ve learned that I can’t let the conversation stop after I’ve heard and acknowledged an employee’s excuse. Instead, you should use each excuse as a chance to dig in, ask questions, and determine the root cause of the problem.

If an employee insists he didn’t have time to do a project, ask, “When did you start on this project?” “When was this project assigned to you?” and “How did you prioritize your time?” Or, when an employee says, “No one from the finance department would email me back,” say, “Did you try calling?” or “Did you communicate that issue to me or another manager?”

If you ask the right questions, you’ll most often prove—without explicitly saying it—that many excuses aren’t 100% justifiable (i.e., if your employee had started the project when you first assigned it, he would have had plenty of time). But more than that, asking these questions will convey to your employees that you’re not just going to sit back and accept excuses without a word.

It’s OK to Express Concern, Too

Depending on the answers you get from these questions, there’s also a chance you’ll come across some legitimate issues that need to be addressed. It can be tricky to separate an employee who truly doesn’t have the right resources to complete a project from an employee who just won’t put forth the effort to ask for help—but it’s up to you, as a manager, to dig in and find out.

For example, when one of my employees kept making the excuse, “I’m just so overloaded with work,” I was tempted to dismiss it as bad time management—but decided to take a closer look at his workload. I went over his responsibilities and verified the number of projects he had on his plate, and I realized that he did, in fact, have more work than the rest of the team. As a result, I was able to redistribute some of his work and—voilà!—the excuses stopped.

While it’s important to guard yourself against becoming a pushover—if you view every excuse as a lazy employee trying to get out of doing his or her work, you may be ignoring some legitimate issues.

Set Expectations for Next Time

Once you’ve sorted through explanations, motivations, and deeper issues, set clear expectations for the future.

If your employee is having trouble organizing his time, for example, point out a few good time management strategies and follow up in a couple weeks to make sure he’s still on track. If your employee “just didn’t know how” to complete a task, make sure she’s aware of the resources available to her in other departments of the company—and that she understands that she’s expected to take initiative to track down those resources, instead of waiting for the deadline to pass only to pass the blame.

Whenever an employee comes to you with an excuse, don’t just wave it off and hope that it doesn’t happen again. Dig in, ask the tough questions, and show your employees that you’re serious about their work and success. Over time, you’ll convey that you won’t settle for anything less than the best—and your employees will realize that there’s no room for excuses.

Photo of co-workers talking courtesy of Shutterstock.