my boss is always late for meetings

A reader writes:

My boss’s boss is the director of my department. I usually have to attend one or two meetings per week that include her. In my nearly five years in this department, she’s never been on time to a meeting. Sometimes we have outside vendors in these meetings, and we just sit around until she gets there. Or if we do start the meeting, when she comes in, we have to stop and get her up to speed on what we’ve already talked about. It’s very frustrating and disrespectful. It’s as if she’s saying, “My time is more important that your time.” And to top it off, she’ll sometimes come in (15-20 minutes late) then say “I have to leave early to go to another meeting.”

I’m always in the meetings at the start time, and the fact that they’re wasting my time really annoys me. What’s the best way to deal with this situation?

Well, it might help to change the way you’re looking at this. The reality is that she and the company probably do see her time as more valuable than your time. That doesn’t mean that she’s more valuable as a person – but her role, and the way that time in her role is allocated, is more valuable. That’s the nature of higher-level, higher-paid positions – by definition, she has a broader role with lots of competing demands, and sometimes that leads to what you’re describing. Sometimes simply understanding that can make this type of thing easier to deal with.

Now, if you happen to know that she’s simply sitting around socializing with someone rather than showing up on your time to your meeting, of course that’s frustrating. But if you don’t know that to be the case, then assume that it’s her prerogative to judge whether something else is more important to take care of at that very minute, even if it means that she can’t start your meeting right on time. And assume that the nature of her role probably means that things do come up at the last minute that she needs to handle.

However, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do to minimize the impact on the rest of you. For instance, one option would be for your own manager to talk to her and say, “I’ve noticed that we often end up waiting 20 minutes or so before we can start meetings, because you get caught in other things. I’d like to have us go ahead and start anyway, so that we don’t have five people sitting around not doing anything. Is that okay with you?” Alternately, she could ask if there’s another time that would be easier to hold these meetings – such as first thing in the morning, before other priorities have intervened.

But ultimately, it your manager’s manager’s call as to how she wants to handle this. She might judge that, as inconvenient as it is to the rest of you, it’s important for her to be fully involved in these meetings and that means that they get delayed if she’s sidetracked with something else. And she may decide that it’s more important for her not to cut short a conversation with a major customer or to be able to take care of something else important, even if it means that others need to wait a bit longer for her. And that’s her call to make. Ideally, she’d explain that explicitly so that you’re not left to draw your own conclusions, but she also might assume that the need to make these trade-offs is obvious to you.

You’re going to be best off if you look at it in that light and see it as part of a larger web of decisions and trade-offs that she’s making, instead of taking it personally as a slight against you.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    AAM, you just blew my old, jaded mind with your answer. I can’t believe in all my years fuming at bosses who do this, I never stopped to think about the situation in this way. Kudos!

  2. Ed

    I agree that the manager has to set her priorities and that OP should look at it in that light. I’m more concerned about leaving vendors sitting around. This strikes me as more problematic and would make the employees’ relations with the vendors more difficult if outsiders start to feel that their time is being wasted.

    1. fposte

      Sure, but there’s not really anything the OP can do about this. She can’t tell her boss’s boss to come in on time from now on. From both a personal and an organizational standpoint, finding a way to live with this and to support the organization in the absence of the director are her best bets.

    2. AdAgencyChick

      I agree with Alison’s advice, and would like to add a little perspective from someone who’s in the “outside vendor” capacity.

      OP, do your vendors bill by the hour, or by some other metric (per project completed, for example)? If they bill by the hour, rest assured that although they’re probably annoyed with your boss, in the end they’re still getting paid for the time they wait. (This is how I look at it when I have a client who’s frequently late.) If they bill by some other metric besides time, though, that’s worse — and any vendor that decides to deal with your team repeatedly is probably going to price that into the cost of doing business. Either way, lateness costs the company money — but, as Alison said, it may be that what your boss’s boss is doing is important enough that the financial cost of her lateness is acceptable to the business as a whole.

  3. Jamie

    My boss deals with customers so this comes up a lot – but customers absolutely come first. I usually just find him and ask if he wants me to start without him or reschedule – never been a problem.

    What I don’t like is the slippery slope once people assume meetings will start late then everyone starts showing up a couple minutes late which is a vicious cycle.

    I don’t like people doing this during meetings, but waiting for everyone can be a great time to catch up on emails if you have your phone or laptop. Having something productive to do can lessen the annoyance factor.

    1. KellyK

      What I don’t like is the slippery slope once people assume meetings will start late then everyone starts showing up a couple minutes late which is a vicious cycle.

      Yes, this is a huge pet peeve of mine too. A few years ago, I worked on a project where we never, EVER started a meeting on time. The project manager was on-site with the customer, so he was continually getting pulled into other meetings or stopped with questions. And because he was the manager, he ran the meeting *and* had the “leader” password for the conference call number. So, rather than sit and listen to hold music for 15 or20 minutes, other people started to call in late as well, or would call in, wait 5 minutes, and hang up and try back later. Which meant that when he did show up, half the people who were supposed to be on the call weren’t, and we lost another 10-20 minutes tracking people down and getting them back.

      1. Kelly L.

        This happens in social life too. In my group of friends, we have sometimes called it “the Newspaper Cycle” after one occasion where it went something like this:

        Friends agree to meet for lunch at a food court.

        One friend runs late. Another, while waiting for her, gets out a newspaper and starts reading it.

        Late friend arrives, sees Early friend reading newspaper and figures he’s engrossed in it, starts also reading a newspaper.

        Early friend blows his stack because Late friend is ignoring him.

        Neither of them even really wanted to read the newspaper all that badly! :D

      2. Elizabeth West

        Ugh!
        One time I was in charge of the catering when Exjob had our quarterly meeting, and the caterer was late (driver got lost). The entire company was on time! I was so mad I blew my stack at them but we ended up with a huge discount for their error. I hated it because all the shop guys were blaming me, when it wasn’t my fault. And I felt bad because I knew they were hungry. :(

    2. KayDay

      What I don’t like is the slippery slope once people assume meetings will start late then everyone starts showing up a couple minutes late which is a vicious cycle.

      Yes! This happened with my old manager (during internal team meetings, not with clients or vendors). People don’t want to be seen sitting around doing nothing. Good employees feel very bad about doing nothing. So they started coming in 5 minutes late. Then we got a new manager who got annoyed at the staff for always being 5 minutes late.

      1. KellyK

        It sounds like part of the problem there is that “waiting for a meeting to start” is viewed as “doing nothing” in a way that implies something negative about the people waiting. And it shouldn’t be—they’re the ones who were punctual, after all!

    3. the gold digger

      My church does this! Mass always starts at least five minutes late, so now I know to leave in time for 5:05 Mass, not 5:00 Mass. I asked Fr Bob about it once and he said that he waited to accomodate the people who are late. I told him he was just punishing the people who are on time and encouraging the latecomers.

  4. Stacie

    It’s almost a given that my boss’s boss will run late/miss meetings. Sometimes meetings run late, something urgent came up, whatever. We plan accordingly and every meeting tends to have a 5 minute “waiting for everyone period.” After that, everyone who joins late will be caught up if necessary. It’s not a big deal. I think you have to stop looking at it as a personal attack on you/your time, and think that your boss’s boss is doing the best they can, while dealing with competing priorities and being overscheduled while still trying to get their own work done.

  5. Anonymous

    I think that for once, I disagree with Allison. I agree that there is not a whole lot the OP can do, but to be late to every single meeting is disrespectful to employees and clients alike. I, personally, am embarrassed when I show up late to something – but I know others feel differently.

    1. fposte

      That’s certainly possible, especially with the vendor meetings. But I know people who really are committed to a multitude of places and bring value to all of them that no one wants to forgo, and they can’t commit their presence to an entire meeting. I’m historically a really on-time person, but I’m starting to see that it’s not always advantageous to put the schedule over something else.

      1. twentymilehike

        But if they are vendor or client meetings and she is late for every meeting, then you are sending a clear message to the vendors and clients that their time is not important. Ever.

        She could do what we do with my BIL … we decide to meet at 3, so we tell him 2, that way he only shows up a few minutes late instead of an hour …

      2. K

        That’s true but if it happens every time, it seems like it would be time to figure out what can be done without your presence and instruct your staff to do that, instead of having everyone either waiting around or lengthening the meeting to bring you up to speed (since that’s going to make it so you’re there for the full length of the meeting whenever it starts and just perpetuate the scheduling problems).

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Agreed. She’s not handling this ideally. But the OP needs to focus on what’s in his sphere of control, and understanding that it’s (probably) not a personal slight at him will help.

    2. Anonymous

      I agree. It is disrespectful of everyone else’s time if someone is late all the time. Sure, you’re the boss and all, but schedule the meeting at a time you can make it… like a normal person would.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        The boss might be scheduling the meetings at times she thinks she can make it, but that doesn’t prevent higher-priority things from coming up without notice that she needs to deal with. This used to happen to me all the time. I still generally made it to meetings on time (but not always, believe me) because I’m incredibly neurotic about being punctual, but not everyone has practically-clinical-level anxiety about being punctual like I do.

        1. Jamie

          I agree – as with my boss who deals with customers and we run just in time production – you schedule with the best intentions but there is no block of time which is interruption free.

          If it were someone like me, where I have the luxury of a more stable schedule then it would be more disrespectful – if I could avoid being late but just chose not to. And even then sometimes the unavoidable happens.

          I will say I am really good about being aware of when I’m about to be late and either popping in or sending someone to either start the meeting or apologize and reschedule – because I feel horrible if people have to take the time to track me down.

  6. Nikki

    In the last year at my job my boss was frequently late for meetings or had to reschedule them at the last minute. She just had too much on her plate so I didn’t take it personally. However, it did make it incredibly difficult to be productive and get tasks done when I thought a meeting was coming up shortly so I couldn’t start a task only to have it rescheduled to a later time when I had blocked that time to work on it. After awhile it just because too stressful trying to schedule work between meetings that were so frequent in nature and unpredictable. I could barely fit a lunch in there! I think companies need to stop overloading people to the point that this type of stuff occurs. It’s just not cost effective.

  7. yen

    This used to happen at my office (back when I was working), though the higher-ups weren’t quite as late quite as regularly. Is there something you can settle with the vendor or client that doesn’t need your boss’s boss to be around? That might be a way to make the most of the waiting time.

    1. Kelly O

      This was my thought. Usually there are “housekeeping” things you can deal with before – they don’t necessarily require the higher-up’s input and can make at least a bit of use out of the extra time.

      If nothing else, look at the time as an opportunity to get to know vendors and clients a bit better. Our meetings usually start out with a bit of small talk, and maybe you can get all that done and be down to business by the time the higher-up arrives.

      That approach also helps show the boss’s boss that you are aware her time is valuable – you’ve taken care of the busy-work and more social things so she can come in to be part of what matters to her.

      Again, not that your time is less valuable, but she may be dealing with several fires at once, and its often more likely that she was called in by the CEO or CFO without notice to deal with a completely unrelated issue. I see that happen with our upper management a lot.

  8. KellyK

    It’s 100% understandable that someone with a lot of competing priorities is going to be late to some meetings. However, I think that if someone is *never once* on time, doesn’t let people know they’re running late, and hasn’t given any direction on what to do if they aren’t there, that does cross the line into disrespectful behavior, particularly when outside people are present (though at least it’s vendors and not clients).

    1. Kou

      Several times a week for 5+ years is an insanely long streak to have this problem, I agree. Assuming it’s just her schedule and she’s doing her best (which I wouldn’t inherently assume, but best case scenario let’s say it is) she still needs to have addressed this a long time ago, because she is clearly stretched thinner than is reasonable. It’s probably not just meetings with the OP, either, but at least a few other commitments as well.

      That said, of course there’s nothing the OP can possibly do about it.

      1. Aimee

        My boss is almost always late to meetings (we place bets as to how late we think she will be – she is in a different state, so most meetings are conference calls, so we can at least continue to work while we wait for her). I’ve worked for her off and on in multiple roles over the past few years, and no matter what her job is, she is overloaded with projects/responsibilities. Part of it is her own doing (she is a Person Who Gets Things Done and tends to take on too much rather than delegate it out to her team, but we’ve been working on getting her to be better about that), but the majority is that there just isn’t anyone else to do it. Companies are cutting head count, and even when your workload is getting out of control, there isn’t always someone else to take over some things.

        1. Kou

          That’s exactly how I pictured the OP’s boss, actually– either unable or unwilling to delegate, which I would easily expect to be an institutional problem and not a personal issue with her.

  9. Anonymous

    It is also worth considering if your boss really needs to be at these meetings. Is this an opportunity for you to step up (or someone else) and lead the meetings, figure out what is the ultimate line of what your boss actually needs to know and make decisions about? Can you meet with the vendors and then make the recommendation to your boss about the final decisions?

    Both my boss and my boss’s boss will often stop into meetings just for a few minutes, sometimes throw out information/opinions etc. But often will just listen and then leave because they have other things to do too. When this happens I assume if they felt like they needed to be fully involved they would be. They trust me/whoever to do our jobs and don’t need to know every little detail of what is going on with x project.

  10. Erik

    There are two things at play here.
    1) Competing priorities (something happens, late from another meeting which ran late, higher priority items, etc.)
    2) Boss has time management issues

    I always make sure that I’m on time for meetings, as I respect other people’s time. I really dislike having to be sitting around waiting for someone who can’t manage their schedule or is unable to have someone else take over on his/her behalf.

    I would suggest ask your boss if you can fill in for him/her for these meetings, so this way if your boss is late it doesn’t have a ripple effect. It would also make you more valuable to the team and you can always update your boss later with the details.

    I had a boss years ago who was always late, and pissed off enough vendors and other companies by not showing up or coming 30 minutes late, that they refused to work with us again. My last boss was always setting up meetings and emailing “don’t be late!”, while he was constantly late by 5-10 minutes. Go figure – talk about setting a bad example.

  11. TBOT

    I’m normally so in agreement with everything Alison says, so this one really surprised me! (It’s also why I haven’t really commented, since my comments would normally be, “Yeah! What she said!”)

    I’m faced with this all the time. I’m a director reporting to a VP, and a staff of 10 people report to me (the group has been as large as 30 at some points). The VP has continued to lead a weekly meeting with the whole department, even as his level of responsibility for things outside our department has gotten bigger and bigger. So, every week, all of my direct reports have to stop what they are doing and then wait for him to arrive for the meeting, and we often have to cancel or reschedule at the last minute to accommodate things that have come up on his plate.

    While I see the argument that his time is more valuable than their time from the corporate perspective, and I agree that it’s his prerogative, the reality is that the entire department has to grind to a halt every week and wait. It’s not very effective in terms of their productivity and time management, and often he’s delivering information that he has either delivered before or that I could have delivered on his behalf.

    On top of the productivity issue, it’s also not very effective in terms of my being able to manage my team. They’re having a weekly meeting with my boss that he runs, which leads a lot of people to look to him when their first stop should be with me. That compounds the problem since it means he is spending time on things that I should handle (and could ably handle if people were coming to me, or if he were directing them to me when they came to him). The whole situation muddies the waters on who reports to whom, and people don’t seem to realize that they’re going to their manager’s manager with stuff they ought to go to their manager about, because of the way he approaches the department.

    My attempts at managing upward and encouraging my boss to delegate things to me have, sadly, not made much of a dent, and we’ve been in the cycle of him being way too in the weeds and me feeling undermined as a manager for a couple of years now. It makes it hard for me to manage my team (and really hard for me to feel like my manager trusts me to manage my team).

    TL;DR: I wonder if the OP’s issue with the boss not being on time to meetings is a symptom of a bigger problem.

    1. Anonymous

      To me this sounds very different and like there were a lot of other things going on. While it could certainly be a symptom of a bigger issue, I think that it absolutely doesn’t have to be and it can instead be an opportunity for people to take on more responsibility. (This would of course depend on the boss, sounds like your situation that wouldn’t be the case at all.)

  12. Sam

    Never on time to a single meeting in 5 years? NEVER?! If this is truly the case, I think it goes beyond busy schedules and competing priorities and into the land of piss poor time management and complete disregard for other people’s time.

    1. Mike C.

      I dunno, I’m regularly double or triple booked for meetings that take place on opposite ends of our incredibly huge work site. On top of that I can be shoulder tapped by upper management at any time, so this is really common.

      1. Sam

        I understand all about double booking and last minute emergencies. Good communication can go a long way in either case. If you know you’re double booked in advance, make arrangement to cancel, postpone, or designate responsibility for running the meeting in your absence. If it’s a last minute emergency, let people know after the fact and give them guidelines for dealing with this in the future. The attitude of simply shrugging it with no regard for other’s time just baffles me.

    1. DA

      I don’t understand how people can maintain the respect of their subordinates when they do this all of the time. This type of behavior is completely unacceptable.

  13. Elle

    Are you able to book in a buffer time for this person when meeting with vendors or clients? Like if you’re meeting is for 2pm, book your directors’ time starting at 1:30 or 1:45. You can use it as extra time to strategize etc. if your director shows up on time for once.

  14. DA

    There really isn’t a lot the OP can do about this, but it is extremely rude and inconsiderate of the manager to act like this. If it happened once in a while, that’s one thing. But this is an ongoing and regular thing.

    I suspect that as a result, this meeting doesn’t matter all that much to the manager and perhaps someone with more influence needs to point out to the manager to either reschedule the meeting to a better time if it is that important, or just scrap it all together since so many people are wasting their time with this nonsense.

  15. ChristineH

    At the place I volunteered/temped at 3 years ago, this went on all. the. time. I didn’t have to attend any major staff meetings, but I had regular supervision meetings with my supervisor which almost NEVER happened at the appointed time. I loved the people I worked with, but their time management skills were less than impeccable.

    Anyway….I agree that there isn’t much the OP can do, but it is incredibly frustrating. About the only thing I can suggest is maybe speaking with your direct manager about it, even if it’s just to make her aware that it’s affecting your productivity (assuming that the waiting is truly interfering with that).

    However, I do think when lateness is habitual, it can come across as seeming disrespectful of everyone’s time, especially external meeting attendees. So if the lateness is really unavoidable given the boss’s time commitments, then other measures should be considered, such as appointing a designee to attend or find ways to make the agenda flexible so that items that can be addressed without the boss present can be dealt with first until the boss arrives.

  16. Nancie

    This reminds me of a “rule” students followed at the college I attended.

    – If the instructor is a TA or otherwise doesn’t have a PhD, they can be up to 5 minutes late for class before students start leaving.
    – If the instructor is an adjunct professor, they have 10 minutes.
    – If the instructor is a full professor, they get 15 minutes.

    Translating that to an org chart I can easily see a director getting 15 minutes leeway.

    1. Kou

      I always heard a flat 15 minute rule no matter who was teaching, but the one time I had a chronically late professor get to 15 minutes we started discussing it in the class and all decided we were too afraid of repercussions to leave that soon. We figured we’d give it to 20, and right at 20 we started gathering our things and standing up– then he appeared and started like nothing was unusual. Then we were all mad and wished we’d left.

      1. Jess

        We had the same story… except at 20 minutes he didn’t show up. We all bolted from the room, and split into small groups going in different directions so he couldn’t just corral us all back together (this class was part of a living learning community at my university, and so we all lived together/would normally have been heading in the same direction). We got an email 10 minutes later apologizing for his tardiness.

  17. Lily in NYC

    Hm, I’m sure in many cases, Alison’s answer is apt, but it’s really assuming the manager is competent and not just a lazy person or someone who can’t manage her time. The head of my division doens’t even bother to show up for half of her meetings – she just missed one yesterday with someone that wants to invest over a million dollars in one of our initiatives, so I can’t imagine what could have been a higher priority than that. She actually asked this person to come in and then didn’t bother to show up. He is a huge angel fund investor here in NY and was furious. Oh, and the reason she missed the meeting? She was at lunch with a friend for 3 hours. I cannot believe the cr@p this woman gets away with. She had the nerve to try to get the guy to believe that the meeting fell off her calendar. He knew she was lying because her assistant already said it was on the calendar and that she was probably just running late. I’ve stopped making excuses for her when she misses meetings and simply tell people I have no idea where she is. Her staff has lost all respect for her.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, there are definitely cases where this is happening because the manager just sucks. But the OP can’t do anything about it if that’s the case, so the best bet is still to proceed the same way.

      1. Lily in NYC

        Or just do what I do: elaborate revenge fantasies in which she finally gets her karmic comeuppance.

      2. Some European

        I wonder if it would be a good idea for OP to suggest his direct manager ask his boss about those waiting vendors?

    2. JLL

      For the record, on the one hand i agree with Allison, that the manager’s time is “more” valuable, and some leeway can be given, but as others have pointed out, when the entire department is forced to stop working and wait for someone to show up, it just doesn’t add up.

      Sounds like my old boss. He’d always schedule meetings for 9 or 9:30. I knew he wasn’t going to show up before 10, our department knew he wasn’t going to show up before 10, my fellow senior admins, who had to put his stupid meetings on their bosses (president, COO) calendars knew he wasn’t going to show up before 10…but we were all forced to sit there in a boardroom for a half hour waiting until 10…when he’d show up.

  18. Jess

    When I worked in an office with people who were perpetually late to meetings, I used to send out an email just before the meeting (or stop by if their office was on the way) and say “hey I’m heading over to x meeting in a few minutes, is there anything in particular you’ld like me to get done before you can be there.” Sometimes it was ignored, sometimes it prompted people to get their ass to the meeting, and sometimes people would reply with “I’m going to be 10 minutes late, please start out with x”.

  19. Revanche

    As the person who was once in that position, I would like to say that it could be more indicative of an underlying problem than any particular attitude. I hated meetings starting late, running late or being late to meetings but I very rapidly hit the point where no matter how early I started my day or late I stayed, I was running late to every meeting scheduled.

    I certainly didn’t feel my time was more valuable than my reports or the meeting attendees from any other department or vendors. My time was, however, promised to ten projects (read: minimum 8 hours of meetings back to back, don’t even think about eating or a bathroom break) a day on top of line managing about 20 reports who, though mostly autonomous, did need my input on various things and could not for the life of them get a minute with me except running with me from one meeting to the next. And I had remote colleagues who needed my attention to their projects as well. Utter overload, plain and simple. As much as I tried to delegate where possible, there were too many areas that had to be covered personally as they were decision-making or information sharing meetings.

    It was hugely frustrating that the organization refused to try and address the fact that many people in any equivalent role needed some kind of relief for pure sanity’s sake, not to mention we all hated that we were always on the run and late. Even simple proposals to change meeting scheduling policy to book slightly shorter meetings instead of the standard hour-long meetings, which always led to 8-10 hr blocks of meetings for key players, were rejected. The only thing we could do was try and run our own meetings to end short of an hour to help each other out, but without a mandate from above, the solution lacked momentum.

    I will say I never expected anyone to hold a meeting for me and I’d usually catch up to where we were on my own. No one stopped meetings to catch anyone up, generally.

    Long answer to say: Not all of the perpetually tardy are time mgmt incompetent punks. :) Some of us are trying and any solutions you might want to propose to make better use of time would likely be welcomed in those cases.

  20. Russ

    Sitting here right now waiting for a meeting that my boss called, and he’s not in the building. I completely understand that things come up, and people get delayed. Granted this is chronic for him. But you know what is helpful? Call me. Text me. Tell me you’re going to be late and when you expect to arrive. That’s courtesy.

    1. Another Kate

      I had a chronically late manager. (Severe time management issues, among a number of other problems, including being in a technical specialist’s role despite lacking the necessary expertise, and being a complete wimp who was terrified of making a decision or getting into any kind of conflict!) It became very embarrassing when we had off-site meetings with partner organisations (not clients or vendors) and she would routinely show up 20 or 30 minutes late through sheer disorganisation, not due to urgent or competing priorities. (For example, she’d regularly lose the copies of the meeting papers I’d given her the day before, and would insist on photocopying mind at the time we were meant to be leaving. Or would want to *start* reading the relevant report we were meant to be discussing!)

      I reached the point where I became a lot more assertive in handling this. My standard response at the time we were due to leave to arrive on time was, “not to worry, I’ll go on ahead and get the meeting started. I’ll send your apologies and you can join us when you’re able to.”

      This worked because there was such a capability difference between us in terms of technical expertise, and all of our meetings were to discuss technical matters. She was a complete third wheel at them but always insisted on participating when I tried asking whether she needed to be there at all. But being terrified of conflict, she never pushed back when I told her I was going on ahead. Thankfully she resigned before too much longer.

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