What To Do When Business Meetings Start Late

Does this happen to you?

Our meetings never start on time because people are always late. The rest of us sit and wait, checking email and thinking about what could be getting done if we were back at our desks.  Or we start the meeting without the latecomers. Eventually they show up and want us to catch them up on the discussion. Help!

It is frustrating when fellow employees – colleagues, supervisors or subordinates — are late for meetings. Does it disrupt the meeting when someone walks in after the appointed time? You bet. For those of us who wait for the latecomers to arrive, or who start without them, we may wonder what’s going on in people’s heads when they are consistently tardy. No question about it – it is inconsiderate. We feel as if they are stealing our time and our colleagues’ time, too.

From their perspective:

  • An on-time arrival may not be a priority. They may think that being 15 minutes late is really on-time.
  • Their time is more important than ours. They would rather waste your time, not theirs.
  • They choose to take a last-minute phone call or email which can easily delay them. The adrenaline rush is on. Maybe they prefer this to a boring meeting.
  • They may not be aware of what others are thinking. Or maybe they are and do not care.

Being chronically late for meetings is more common than you think (although is still not acceptable). I’m not talking about coming in late once in a while because that can (and does) happen to everyone. With an average of 11 million meetings a day in America*(yikes!), someone will be late. Often it is the CEO. CEOs were tardy 60% of the time according to a survey of chief executives by management consulting firm Proudfoot. What kind of message does that send to company employees? Being punctual for a meeting, from the CEO on down, sets the right tone. Meetings starting on time (or not) can be attributed to the leadership of the company. Sometimes it starts with one person, probably the one with the most seniority at the table, being consistently late for a meeting. Before you know it, it becomes the norm and now everyone is 5-10 minutes later. Since most professionals attend a total of 62 meetings monthly**, wasted time adds up quickly.

CEOs may be late for their own company meetings but, interestingly, are punctual when they meet customers or clients. In the Proudfoot survey which covered nine countries, only French executives were late to more meetings than U.S. executives (late 65% of the time vs. 60%). Japanese CEOs had the highest on-time rate (late 34% of the time).

Waiting 10-15 minutes for a meeting to begin can be very costly to a company. When you multiply salaries by the time wasted, it can be a very expensive proposition.  And how about the cost to morale? Employees who make it their business to be on time end up spending precious minutes waiting for others so the meeting can finally begin.

At a large company based in Atlanta, meetings are the culture of the company. The day is driven by meetings – starting early in the morning and steadily continuing throughout the day. All day long people move from one meeting to the next. If a meeting starts late, everyone’s schedule is thrown out of whack for the rest of the day. In other companies, you may not be heading for another meeting, but a late start will affect how well you are able to manage your day.

Here are a few tips to help round up everyone in the same room at the same time:

Before the meeting:

  • Include in the meeting invitation the start and end times of the meeting and, of course, the location.
  • Create an agenda listing the topics, the persons responsible, and the time people will be presenting.
  • Call or email invited attendees reminding them of their role and the time they will be presenting.
  • Put late offenders first on agenda.
  • Establish tardiness fines. For every minute a person is late, they owe $1 or even $5. Donate the money to a charity or use it to buy lunch for the next meeting. (A good incentive for people to come!)

At the meeting:

  • Start the meeting on time no matter what; no need to penalize those who made the effort to be on time. Everyone is on a tight schedule and cannot afford extra waiting time.
  • Continue the meeting even as latecomers arrive. Acknowledge them and keep going. Do not review what has been discussed in their absence.
  • Lock the door two minutes after the start time. This is what employees at a high-tech company in California’s Silicon Valley do. They open the door but the boss needs to knock first. Caution: try this only if your boss has a sense-of-humor.
  • Laugh uproariously at a pretend joke when someone walks in late. The latecomer will be sorry that he/she missed out on something funny.
  • Note: After the latecomer is locked out of the meeting room and the group is laughing hysterically at a non-real joke the latecomer does not know, constantly late people may start to become embarrassed. It may begin to occur to them that walking in after the meeting has started is not acceptable behavior.
  • Or, wait five minutes for the most senior person to show up. If he/she does not, reschedule the meeting. Choose a time that’s convenient for the group that is present.
  • Follow the agenda and end the meeting on time. This sends a clear message that you respect everyone’s time.

After the meeting:

If your boss is always late:

  • Speak to him at another time and ask if it is acceptable to start the meeting without him so that the entire department does not lose valuable work time. Calculate the cost savings and mention that as well.
  • Ask if there is a better time to hold these meetings. Would earlier in the day ensure that he could arrive on time?

If a subordinate is always late:

  • Speak privately to the offender and find out the reason the person is late.
  • Ask how you can help or what resources you can provide. Maybe a time management class or maybe, ahemmm, one of us can help
  • Last resort: Include it in the person’s performance appraisal.

*A network MCI Conferencing White Paper. Meetings in America: A study of trends, costs and attitudes toward business travel, teleconferencing, and their impact on productivity.

**Same source as above

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