Hulk Smash! When People Late for Meeting!

Hulk Smash! When People Late for Meeting!

One of my favourite project management bloggers, Derek Huether, wrote a piece last week about dealing with people who are consistently late for meetings. This is one of my personal major peeves and it has the same effect on me as if I were exposed to gamma radiation in a freak laboratory accident. I can’t tell you how many shirts and shoes I’ve gone through over the years as a result.

I already commented there, but I felt the need to go into more detail, as this is a point that just makes me crazy. A few years ago, I was running a project that periodically required town hall meetings for efficiency. There was too much to do and too short a time to do it. But it meant that more than a handful of people needed to show up.

I remember one person in particular, who was likely busier than anyone else on the team. She was the project administrator and how she managed to keep everything in order was a miracle in itself. She was never late for a meeting. When we held these large meetings, this lady had to come in from an office across town, and usually had to get back immediately after the meeting ended so that she could either go to her next meeting, or get back to work.

When I saw her consistently show up on time, I knew well the sacrifices she had to make to her day to be there.

When I saw other people consistently trickle in as and when was convenient for them, laughing and joking with one another, disrupting any discussions that were already started, I saw red. On one occasion in particular, I waited until everyone was seated comfortably, and then lit into the whole room. Hulk Smash Over Rude BehaviourI didn’t single anyone out: neither the people who were on time, nor the people who were late. But boy did I smash the table with my fist. I deliberately wasted even more time by going on a five minute rant about punctuality (or lack thereof), and the message it sends. By the time I was done, everyone in the room knew how I felt.

When someone is consistently late for meetings, they send the message, “whatever I had that made me late was more important than any sacrifices you people made who were on time.”

It’s incredibly rude.

The following, from my perspective, are not acceptable reasons to routinely show up late for meetings, without letting the meeting chair know ahead of time:

  • “I have back-to-back meetings all the time”
  • “I only just saw the meeting in my calendar”
  • “I had to finish some work before I came”
  • “I had to drop my kids off at daycare”
  • “I had to wash my hair”

Some of you will become enraged at my lack of sympathy for some of the items in the list. Don’t do it because then we’ll have two Hulks running around, and that’ll just make a mess.

My concern here is “consistently” (note I’ve bolded that word repeatedly above). Sometimes things happen that can’t be avoided, and I understand that. But look, if someone’s got to drop the kids off at daycare every morning and that will make them late, they need to say something so the meeting can be moved to a better time. Few people are so heartless as not to understand that kids come first. But there’s a big difference between one-offs and repetitively rude behaviour.

Back to back meetings is another perennial favourite. I’m sorry. The person with the conflict can leave early from the previous meeting, and let both chairs know about the conflict. Even better, he or she can let both chairs know about the meetings when they appear in their calendar, and suggest the newer one be moved to a better time. People are generally pretty accommodating about their schedules…at least as much as they can be. But when people leave it until the time of the meeting, they hold those people who were on time hostage. It’s not fair.

Am I over reacting? What do you think?

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • Leonardo

    Geoff, It's even worst when the person CONSISTENTLY late is your customer or even the Sponsor for you project. I have been through this situation some times and It is really though. In my case I had to directly address the issue with that person. It was not easy but definitively worth it.

    Great post !

  • You're absolutely right, Leonardo and thanks for commenting! It's true when the person who's late all the time is your customer or sponsor you're at a bit of a disadvantage. But if you say nothing you're effectively sanctioning the behaviour and nothing will ever change.

    Kudos to you for taking the tough road and dealing with the issue head on!!!

  • Perry

    Not over reacting. Consistently late people are disrespectful of your and other's time. I worked in one place where a person wouldn't respond to meeting invitations. Even when they were the key person in the room you never quite knew if they were coming.
    The five minute rant is probably not the best way to react, but I get it.
    I think I responded to a posting like this before, but I would start meetings on time and not stop to bring latecomers up to date until it was convenient for the team in the meeting.
    On the assumption that your meetings are a) needed, and b) run well, you might find people start to show up on time if you do that and if you try to end the meeting 5 minutes early.
    Back to back meetings are a reality of life these days.

  • Yah the five minute rant is probably not best, but I do feel pretty strongly about it and it's never something I'm prepared to let go.

    I'm a big hater of meetings myself and when I run them I try to have only as few people needed as possible and try to make them lightning fast and efficient. I took my lead from a woman I worked with once who could burn through material like she was cutting through butter with an electric wire. She didn't stand for chronic lateness either and was totally my hero! 🙂

  • You're not overreacting at all! Especially because being late for meetings eventually turns into a company culture! When scheduling meetings where I have visibility of participant's availability, I'll try to build in cushions of 5-15 minutes between other meetings they have wherever possible – in hopes that this'll prevent tardiness. Baby steps, but still steps.

  • Jhendri868

    I share your frustration. However, there are as always tow kinds of people: those who will be late for their own funeral, and those who are victims of an unyielding culture that starts and ends meetings when the big hand points exactly up or down. Establishing a culture that ends meetings five minutes earlier or starts five minutes later shouldn't be too difficult – we called it “passing time” in high school.

  • Argh it's so true, Garad, that being late for meetings becomes “expected” or hard-wired into company culture. Planning meetings that starts or ends on the 15 sounds like a smart idea as it removes the excuse “I couldn't get there in time” where back-to-backs are concerned. However it still falls to the individual to make the most of it.

    Thanks so much for a great comment!

  • As I replied to Garad, I think this is a great idea. Especially in this day and age where people have direct access to each others' calendars, booking meetings that start and / or end on the 15 eliminates the “back-to-back” excuse. And hopefully it sends the message “I'm doing my part to make you on time…will you return the favour?”

    Cheers Jhendri868! Thanks for the comment!

  • Jhendri868

    I didn't mention that creating “passing time” only works for the “culture victims”. The always-late-no-matter-what folks are smart. If you move the time later, they'll generally be exactly the same amount later than the new meeting start. My solution, assuming there is something they are really passionate about, is to put that first on the agenda, then promise review it “if there's time at the end”. If they are a presenter and they are late, ask if they can still present it in the remaing time for their slot and if not, schedule it for the next meeting. Without some consequence, they have no reason to change.

  • Oooo bang on that is an AWESOME solution to the problem!!! Thanks for the contribution, that's seriously fantastic!!

  • Arvind Samtpur

    In the minutes sent after the meeting, the first lines could capture information such as
    Joined Late:
    Invited but not attending: (those who accepted the invite but did not turn up without even dropping you a note about not being able to make it)

    It would be clear to the group that who come on time are appreciated for respecting others time in a subtle way.

  • derekhuether

    Hulk want to talk about time suck called meeting. Meeting bad but meeting sometime necessary…

    OK, I can't write like Hulk talks for any more than a few sentences. I loathe meetings. They are such a time suck. Perhaps that's why it bothers me so much when people arrive late. It's so disrespectful to the host and others who did arrive on time and prepared. People need to get into the habit of not accepting meeting invitations versus arriving late or being unprepared. You wouldn't be late for your own job interview, would you? Perhaps not, because you give it more value than someone's meeting. It's no different with anything in life. If it's important to you, you'll be there on time.

    Since we can't eliminate meetings, I propose the 22 minute meeting. Check out the video at my blog… and enjoy the 6 minutes. I’m not going to take credit for finding this video. I was commenting on Mark Suster’s blog (Entrepreneur turned VC) and discovered it. It offers some very good ideas on ways to prevent an inefficient meeting for yourself and others.

    Geoff, great post!

    Best Regards,

  • Tamara Dunbar

    ha Yeah i know about the i had something more important than arriving to this meeting ontime excuse……….. i started scheduling meetings to start 15 mins after the hour and sending reminders an hour before the meeting……… in this day and age of blackbery and iphone there is just no excuse or reason that you cant inform the chair that you are gonna be late ……

  • if it was legal to take people outside and horse-whip them for being late to meetings, i would do it.

  • PatrickRichard


    You're not over reacting and isn't being Green good anyway? The main thing to avoid is shaming an individual; this creates an enemy and destroys morale. Blowing up in front of everybody, for a specific reason, is fine by me; it drives the message home.

    I know that this is tougher now with teleconferences but an approach I like is to close and, if possible lock, the door at the beginning of the meeting. It worked great for one of my clients.

  • I must say whenever I Hulk out I'm able to get books off the top shelf a lot easier, so it does have its advantages.

    Yah I don't like to single people out in a group. In addition to creating an enemy and destroying morale, really, it's just not cool.

    Closing / locking the door is totally a good idea, Patrick. I've used it in the past as well and found it helpful.

  • HAHA thanks for not beating around the bush, Sas!! LOL

  • Rick Valerga

    Great post, Geoff! I believe that this issue is inextricably linked to ownership. As leaders we need to own conducting meetings that are relevant and efficient. And the attendees need to own being respectful of everyone else’s time.