Why they make managers crazy, and what to do about employee excuses
One-time or infrequent incidents might be understood or overlooked, but managers really cannot afford to accept excuses for ongoing performance problems. In any organization, employees quickly notice when excuses are allowed and by tolerating them, you create a culture of avoidance rather than responsibility.
We hate when someone comes to us with an excuse. We hate having to deal with tardiness, or too many sick calls. We hate when people don’t make deadlines. We hate when people make too many mistakes and don’t seem accountable for their jobs. We hate when people refuse to take responsibility.
While giving an explanation may often be necessary and accepted, making excuses is never acceptable and may only convince your boss you’re not able to handle your job responsibilities. Or possibly even worse, that you don’t really care about your job or the company’s mission.
As leaders and managers, we sometimes see that it’s easier for an employee to come up with an excuse than it is to actually get something done. We need to address excuses and challenge our employees to be better.
Excuses that set our hair on fire
Traffic was bad (or the parking lot was full and I couldn’t find a spot, or……whatever) for the fifth time this month. Really? You know your route to work, you know what times parking is the worst. Plan ahead. The occasional traffic accident is inevitable and no one is going to hold it against you if this happens once in a great while, but you’re an adult, plan for the delays you have a reasonable expectation will occur frequently. If you mmake something like this a habit, honest or not, your boss won’t be too sympathetic.
It’s Mary’s fault, she didn’t give me what I needed. Ok, so this might be both an explanation and an excuse. Don’t wait until the deadline has passed. If you’re waiting for a co-worker to do her part and it’s not forthcoming, alert your boss to the issue, do what you can to encourage that person to get the work done. Blaming someone else will not make you any friends or help you in the future. Managers should also not accept such a situation, either. If Mary, or Joe in another department, has not produced what is needed, check into it. Don’t allow your employees to fail because they didn’t have what they needed to get the job done.
I don’t know how to do this. Admitting you don’t know how to do a task, after the fact, is a surefire way to lose the confidence of your boss. On the other hand, asking for help at the beginning, asking to be shown how something should be done is quite OK and actually desirable. Also, taking the initiative to do some research on your own to figure it out can be a great way to show that you’re willing to admit you don’t know everything (none of us do) and that you’re willing to make the effort to get it right. The other side of the coin is that managers need to make sure their staff has the knowledge, resources and appropriate authority to get the job done. Not doing so is setting people up for failure.
I didn’t know; no one told me. Of course not. We didn’t tell you about the new policy or the old policy or…..whatever. We really thought you were psychic. Seriously, we disseminated this information in twelve different ways (in memos, emails, on the company intranet, in the newsletter, in meetings, one to one conversations, ad nauseum. Please, just read what we give you; listen to what we communicate in whatever form we communicate it. Don’t ever assume whatever it is doesn’t apply to you.
Everybody makes that mistake….. Some people think that mistakes are okay because they might be common. If you’re a good employee, you’re not "common". Double check your work, use available resources to ensure your work is accurate and follows protocol. Even "common" mistakes made frequently will still lower your stature in your boss’s eyes.
Jack is so unreasonable, I can never meet his standards…Difficult people will always be around; you need to get used to dealing with them, whether they be customers or co-workers. You make yourself valuable when you find ways to deal with difficult people. However, if there is someone who is consistently difficult to work with, managers need to address that to ensure work flows smoothly and the team is not stymied in its goals.
What can leaders and managers do to limit excuses and promote accountability and responsibility?
Lead by example. Do not make excuses either for yourself or others and do not allow employees' excuses to distract you from the issues at hand. Take action promptly to address problem behavior. Allowing poor performance because of excuses will simply serve to show staff this approach works and they will do the same thing.
Take no responsibility for and avoid giving advice on employees’ personal problems. You are not responsible for your employees’ personal problems, and in fact, may run afoul of any number of employment laws if done badly. Focus on work-related and performance issues. Refer the employee to the employee-assistance program and/or to HR to deal with personal issues and stay away from the temptation to fall into the counselor or parental role.
Focus on solutions. Recognize that the behavior has already happened, and no amount of excuses will change what has already occurred. Inform the employee that you are less interested in the reasons why the problem occurred than you are on fixing the problem and preventing it from occurring again. Emphasize that the employee is responsible for ensuring that the problem behavior does not continue.
Ask questions. Determine the root cause of the problem. If an employee indicates he didn’t have time to complete a project, ask, "When did you start working on it?" or "How did you prioritize your time?" Or, if an employee says, "No one from the xyz department returned my email" you can ask, "Did you try calling them?" or "Did you let me or another manager know this?"
By asking the right questions, you’ll be able to demonstrate—without having to actually say it—that many excuses aren’t really reasonable. But beyond that, asking these types of questions will communicate to your employees that you’re not just going to accept excuses, but that you’ll work to resolve the issue with substance.
Take action quickly to deal with the problem behavior (I know, I’m repeating myself, but this is important). This makes it clear to the employee and others within the organization that consequences exist, regardless of excuses.
While it’s important to focus on responsibility and accountability for getting the job done, don’t ignore legitimate issues. Managers can use these instances to provide development opportunities and advice. Offer time management strategies that have worked for you; make resources available for learning new tasks, technologies or procedures (while making the employee responsible for utilizing them). In other words, ensure your staff has the knowledge, resources and appropriate authority to do the job.
Ultimately, as a leader or manager, we have to answer to someone as well. Don’t let excuses force you to have to make excuses to someone else later.