my coworkers make me look like the office slacker

A reader writes:

I work in a small office of just two coworkers, our boss, and me. We all report to Boss, and I am also the unofficial office manager so I answer the phones, receive visitors, etc. This means if I’m going to be even five minutes late, I have to let Boss know so that someone else can cover the phones and door. We have a fairly casual office and don’t get a huge volume of visitors or calls so it’s not a big deal if I’m running late as long as I let Boss know.

Boss is frequently late in the morning without letting anyone know, so often when I email her to let her know I’m going to be five minutes late, I’m turning myself in for something it was unlikely she would have otherwise caught me for. Sometimes I’ll hit bad traffic and email that I “might be late” just to make sure everything is covered, but then I have good luck with parking and arrive on time anyway, but Boss comes in 45 minutes late, and doesn’t know that I was actually there on time.  I send an email that I might be late perhaps once every two weeks, and I’m actually late maybe once a month, and by no more than 5-10 minutes.

My two coworkers email only me when they’re running late. If Boss is in the office and asks me if I know where they are, I’ll let her know about the email. Basically, they’re covering themselves by telling me they’ll be late so that in case Boss asks, they don’t get in trouble for being MIA. But when Boss is also late, she never knows that the others were late as long as they get in before she does — and she’s often late, so as far as she knows they almost never are.

Sometimes my boss will make comments about how one of my coworkers is “such a hard worker, first one in the office every morning!” when actually that’s me! I’m the first one in the office 98% of the time and most mornings I’m 10-15 minutes early!

I don’t believe in tattling. Their lateness doesn’t affect my ability to do my job. I have good relationships with my coworkers. On the other hand, I worry that it impacts me when Boss is evaluating my performance and determining whether to give me raises, as I look like the office “slacker” compared to my “hard-working” coworkers. Is there any way I can handle this situation without being a tattletale? One option is to just try even harder to never ever be late, but traffic is so unpredictable that I’d be waking up super early and getting to my office 30-45 minutes early most days to ensure never being late, and the “it’s OK to be a few minutes late as long as you let me know” casual culture is supposed to be a perk of working in this office. It just looks like I’m disproportionately abusing it when in reality I’m taking advantage of it much less than others.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 72 comments… read them below }

  1. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

    Am I the only one not seeing the other 3 questions? Is there something I need to click on?

      1. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

        Oh OK. I thought I’d maybe finally gotten old and forgotten how to use the internet. Glad to hear that’s not the case. Not today at least!

  2. The Cosmic Avenger*

    I would just correct the false assumption and say “Actually, that was me today” every time the boss says someone else was in earlier. (I’d ignore the “hard working” part, as that’s subjective.) But I’m very literal, and my bosses all know that and have (mostly) learned to appreciate it. Or at least use it to their advantage. :)

    1. BRR*

      I probably would as well but would go with a lighthearted attempt. Something like I won the contest today or I think I’m winning the contest because traffic often lets up after I text you.

          1. Ultraviolet*

            And those who can’t will have to take that into account. It’s hard not to read this comment as criticizing the suggestion above it on the grounds that the advice wouldn’t be helpful to everyone. But that hardly makes it bad advice, and this would be a very very small website if only universally applicable advice were allowed.

    2. jlv*

      Whenever someone takes credit for something I have done, or the boss assumes so, I always make a point to look them in the eye and say “Actually, that was me.”. And leave it at that.

  3. mai*

    in my opinion being “maybe late” once every two weeks is a bit much … I live in a city with very bad traffic the solution ? I ALWAYS leave extra early
    anyway the way we do it at work we have a work what’s app group … I suggest this so if your coworkers are late they can write it in the group

      1. Mando Diao*

        I don’t see how that’s relevant though. If you know that once in a while traffic will be bad, you still leave early every day and read in your car for the extra 15 minutes. IMO there’s no excuse for a grown adult to be blaming lateness on normal, predictable traffic, especially when the overall question is along the lines of, “How can I get my boss to respect me as a competent, mature, responsible employee?” Be an adult and leave early.

        1. Koko*

          It’s a bit rude to imply I was acting childish. I’d prefer if you could offer advice without insulting me.

          I was already leaving early and sitting around for 20 minutes most days. And most of the time that was enough. Every once in a while – maybe once a month, sometimes twice – there would be an accident on my route (it had a lot of curves and the wide lanes make everyone try to go about 15mph over the speed limit) and I’d be stuck sitting for a while.

          I could have backed up my time even more and gotten there a half hour early most mornings, but I wasn’t being paid for that time and I was being paid poorly in general (not enough to rent a place without roommates). It would have crossed the line from resentment into hatred if I was spending a full 9 hours there every day (had to stay til 5:30 so that I could take a lunch break midday), plus commute time, especially when having a casual office was supposed to be a perk of the job according to my own boss.

          1. Mando Diao*

            Well I was responding to Mike, who sometimes takes hard-and-fast positions that are lovely in the abstract but just don’t play out well in the real world.

            As for your comment here, I’d argue that you should just deal with being 30 minutes early sometimes. The fact that you weren’t paid for that time is irrelevant, and I would argue that it’s actually a bit of an immature (as in inexperienced) and unprofessional viewpoint. No one is paid for time spent commuting or the extra early minutes before punching in. You were worried about seeming unprofessional for being late, and the solution is to never be late.

            1. Lou*

              I’d have to agree with Mando Diao here. I have the longest commute out of all my of coworkers in a metro area that’s infamous for its unpredictable traffic. I manage to be the first person to arrive at work 99.9% of the time. Most of the time, I arrive half an hour early. Every now and then it’s 45 minutes before start time. As much as I would rather not spend such a disproportionate part of my day in “work mode,” I do it because I value punctuality. And guess what? Even in the most relaxed of offices, that sort of thing does not go unnoticed.

              1. TootsNYC*

                I would be finding something else to do w/ those 30 minutes, though. I’d bring knitting, or letters to write, or a book, or something, and look for a public space I could hang out in. In order to recapture that time for me.

              2. Nada*

                Yes! I can’t control my co-workers’ habits, or my boss’ reaction to these habits. However, I can manage my own actions.
                I certainly do sympathize with unpredictable traffic, though. It can be maddening.

            2. Koko*

              I don’t think the fact that I was underpaid is irrelevant. I would have been more willing to go the extra mile if I had been better paid. The fact that so much was expected of me, especially so many hours, for so little pay, was what drove me to leave that job.

              1. Koko*

                Although nobody monitors anyone’s comings and goings at my new job, I am paid well enough that I’ll get up at whatever hour they want me and stay as late as they want when necessary. I’ve been on-site for 7 am meetings and stayed til 11 pm. I don’t mind at all because they compensate me fairly for that. The salary was a very relevant factor in whether I thought it was reasonable to extend my workday by an extra half hour every day.

                1. Lou*

                  Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were aware of what kind of pay to expect for the previous job prior to accepting it, were you not? If it’s a matter of having your job responsibilities expand without a proportional expansion in your compensation, then I’m so with you. In any case, you did the right thing by finding a new job!

                2. Koko*

                  Yep, that exactly. The job I applied for wasn’t an office manager position and didn’t originally have this requirement. They laid off the office manager and decided not to rehire and give all of that person’s work to me. That’s why I used the phrasing “unofficial” office manager – I technically had a completely different job, I just had to do all this admin work on top of it.

                1. Koko*

                  That varies from office to office. I was told in my interview that it was a casual culture that did not mind a few minutes here or there, in large part because of the unpredictable traffic and transit in this region. It *really* doesn’t matter in my new job, where people come in anywhere between 8 and 10 and leave anywhere between 3 and 6.

                  To back up a minute, I wasn’t ever getting in trouble for being a few minutes late. It wasn’t causing any problems for the operation of the business. I was just worried that it was inadvertently creating a less-stellar impression with my boss than I wanted, because she seemed to think at least one of my coworkers was working longer hours than me when that was very much not the case. So I wrote to Alison asking if there was anything I could do about this, other than the one thing I had decided it was not worth it to do, which was give any more of my time for the crummy pay I was getting.

                  Other answers besides “do the one thing you decided it wasn’t worth it to do” could be:
                  – Accept that your job sucks now and isn’t going to change and find a new one (what I ended up do)
                  – Send my boss an email from the office when I get in to document that I was actually there early or on time 99% of the time
                  – Bring it up casually in conversation the next time she says something

                  But you seemed to suggest that the only adult option was just sucking it up and giving the extra time to the job without considering whether that was a reasonable thing for me to do given my circumstances.

                2. Ultraviolet*

                  It sounds like that wasn’t the case at the office in question though.

                  @Koko – I really sympathize with the situation in your letter! I’d definitely have felt similarly.

                3. Marcela*

                  No, not at all in my office. Because we are hired to solve problems, not to keep the chair warm or the clock happy. Leaving our places half an hour later, just in case there is another accident entering the San Mateo bridge in the SF bay area, it’s not going to help my brain to be in its sharpest and more brilliant mode. Therefore, “being on time” is not even a minimum part of our jobs.

              2. mathilde*

                I second those who say that you should leave your pay out of the discussion. You simply should not accept a job when the pay is so low that you don’t think you have to do it as well as you can. Do it well or don’t do it at all.
                If you did not have to choice to take a different you should nevertheless do your current job as well as you can until you have a better offer. Isn’t it a question of self-respect?

                To your initial question: why do you have to let your boss know when you think you might be late? Wouldn’t it be enough to just call your co-workers if that happens? So your boss won’t get a wrong impression.

            3. Vicki*

              “The fact that you weren’t paid for that time is irrelevant, ”

              Well, actually, no it’s not irrelevant. If she’s non-exempt (and she’s most lie;y non-exempt), this is very relevant.

            4. Vicki*

              “the solution is to never be late.”

              If you commute, this “solution” is impossible.
              One day, there will be an overturned tanker truck n the freeway. The bridge will wash out. The car will break down. There will be an accident. It will rain.

              The only way to “never be late” is to sleep at the office.

          2. Stranger than fiction*

            As the office manager, could you suggest or just implement a time clock system? It blows me away there’s still any company, even tiny ones, that wouldn’t do this. It covers you as a company on so many things. (Keep in mind, where I work, even salary exempt folks clock in)

            1. Koko*

              Oh, I wrote this letter 4 years ago. I’m in a much better job now where nobody cares what time anyone arrives.

            2. Lou*

              Our HR director recently brought this up, because we have a pretty relaxed atmosphere and a lot of people show up ten to 20 minutes late on a regular basis. Including the HR director. She immediately nipped the idea in the bud – right after vocalizing it herself – because she didn’t want to be held accountable. The reason it occurred to her in the first place is because one of our hourly employees has trouble showing up on time (five to ten minutes late) and doesn’t report her time accurately on timesheets – this is largely because our policies are unclear, due to “relaxed culture.”

    1. Megs*

      Eh, if you’ve got a loosie goosie office culture in terms of being a couple of minutes late I don’t think it is much at all. Most places I’ve worked “be in at 9” has a few minutes wiggle room so long as you make it up at the end of the day. I don’t think it’s worth making a big thing out of it if it’s not a big thing for the boss/business.

      1. Sadsack*

        I wonder why the boss even has to be notified if chances are she won’t be there yet either, so what purpose does that serve? I think I’d start notifing them just a few minutes before I know I am definitely going to be late.

        1. Koko*

          Looking back the only reason I can come up with is micromanagement.

          I was so conditioned to do it and had never questioned it that I started doing it at my new job until my new boss told me to knock it off because she didn’t care.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I wonder if what happened is that in the beginning the boss expected to be there in order to arrange coverage. But then the boss isn’t getting there on time, and no practical purpose is being served.

          It would be more sensible, in a situation like this one, if the person in the OP’s position emailed everyone to say, “I’m going to be late; whoever’s there, please open the door and watch over the phone.”
          And then she could also say: “Please let me know whether you’re in a position to do so.”

          and of course, I think it’s nearly a no-brainer to follow up any “I might be late” email with an “I’m here on time, sorry for the false alarm” or “I’m here now” email w/ a time stamp.

          (also, he letter is not really about Koko, the OP, anymore at all; it’s about a hypothetical person in a situation very much like hers)

  4. Bruce H.*

    I only saw this one question at the Inc. link, not the four others. Am I overlooking something?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes. All my posts at Inc. are things that were originally published here a few years ago (see that note in the post itself, explaining that).

      1. Lexi*

        I have to say I detest the INC posts. I view on mobile and after reading an interesting post, I have to click, wait for it to load again and then come back here to read the interesting comments. Can we get these labeled at the top instead of the bottom so I can tell to skip them?

  5. INFJ*

    The thing I’d be most concerned about in OP’s situation is that Boss’s comments may indicate that she equates butt-in-seat time with “hard worker.” I think it’s reasonable for OP to be concerned that Boss isn’t properly evaluating productivity, especially since the nature of OP’s job makes the lateness and *almost lateness* more visible. I would highly recommend having a discussion with Boss using Alison’s wording and watching Boss’s reaction from there.

  6. Just Say No*

    So I’m curious what the purpose is of notifying the boss to indicate the LW might be a few minutes (5-10 minutes) late if the majority of the time no one else is in the office either. My experience has been that notifying others you’re going to be late is a courtesy so that they can either cover your necessary tasks during that time or just be aware when you will arrive in case anyone is looking for you.

    I completely agree with Alison’s advice. But I wonder if another additional component to a conversation with the boss is to inquire if notifications about potentially being late only need to occur when the tardiness might be 10-15 minutes or longer. If the majority of the time no one else is in the office during those first 5-10 minutes, what’s the point in the LW notifying anyone?

    1. Persephone Mulberry*

      I don’t think it’s the case that “the majority of the time, no one else is in the office either” since the OP opens the letter by saying that if she’s going to be late, someone else needs to cover the phones and door (which I read as meaning that they all have roughly the same arrival time).

      1. Koko*

        So as I was reading this letter I kept thinking, “I could have written this letter at my old job!”

        …and then I searched my Gmail, and it turns out that I did write this letter!

        The purpose of me emailing the boss wasn’t necessarily to get coverage for the phones, because it’s true that nobody was there to cover. Looking back I’m not really sure why, but my boss was adamant that she needed to know how many minutes the phones were unattended in the morning. The main line range everyone’s own phone so it wasn’t like someone was going to ignore the phone anyway if they arrived before me and their phone started ringing.

        The boss was very Type A/perfectionist and I struggled to meet her expectations the entire time I worked there and dreaded every performance review which usually barely got me a COL raise (and I was not making very much at all). I moved on to my current job, where I’m a perfect fit for the culture and management style, actually later the same year that I wrote this letter. Since then I’ve received substantial merit raises each year and been promoted twice. (I also no longer have to be an office manager, which I was frankly terrible at.)

        1. Mephyle*

          As I read this, I was thinking, what if every time you’d sent an email warning Boss that you might be late but you later arrived on time, you’d sent a follow-up email saying “Never mind, I got here on time after all. No one else here yet.” (The second sentence only if true.) Or if you only arrived a couple minutes late, “All is well, I got here only 3 minutes late, didn’t miss anything.”

          1. Pollyanna*

            This is exactly what I was thinking. Reply to every “I might be late email” with “Actually, got here early. Traffic wasn’t so bad after all!”

          2. Karowen*

            This is probably how I would’ve dealt with it – and would’ve emailed from my work computer so it was clear I wasn’t just trying to cover my bum.

        2. LQ*

          This is awesome (your update and that you searched your email to find out that you had sent the letter)!

          Glad you’re at a better job.

        3. Jaydee*

          It sounds like you got a bad mix of “officially we are flexible with occasional 5-10 minute lateness, but really I’m judging you every time it happens” combined with “do as I say, not as I do.” Like what your boss said and did versus what she really wanted did not match up. That would be immensely frustrating. Glad to hear you have found a better fit at your new job!

          1. Koko*

            Yes, that’s a good way to describe it. She was an interesting boss to work for. In a lot of ways I admired her as a professional role model because she was very effective and well-respected in our industry, and she seemed to have achieved that without neglecting her own self – she regularly went to yoga on her lunch break, spent the summer working in another state so her children could be with their grandparents for the summer, etc. But she was more or less addicted to her work, always sending emails at all hours of the day and night seven days a week, and it truly seemed to be because she wanted to be doing it, not because the work demanded it.

            So, officially, we had this casual culture because she wanted us to be the kind of office where people could go to yoga on their lunch break and that sort of thing. But unofficially, those benefits were really only meant for those of us who worked as hard as she did, which was none of us. (And we were all making about 1/4 to 1/3 of what she earned, so we had good reason not to want to pull the kind of long hours and go “above and beyond” the way that she did.)

  7. jm*

    Could OP notify one of the co-workers, instead of the boss, when she is running late?

    It seems like a good solution since the co-workers will be the ones covering the phones, etc., while OP is driving in. And, of course, it would mean that the boss didn’t know whether OP was running late or not — unless the boss showed up on time.

  8. Pep*

    Yes, I was going to say the same thing as jm. Is there some reason why OP can’t follow his/her co-workers’ leads and just notify one or both of them instead of Boss? It seems that would eliminate a lot of stress on OP’s part of perceived slacker-hood.

  9. Persephone Mulberry*

    I am unclear on why the OP needs to notify Boss, when her coworkers are the ones who need to know in order to cover the phone and door….or if everyone is supposed to be notifying Boss, and only OP is following that rule?

    In any case, I might take this up with the boss as, “Is it actually useful to you for me to notify you when I’m going to be late, or would it make more sense for me to just email Lucinda and Percival, since they’re the ones who cover the phones for me?” If Boss replied with no, he wants to be notified whenever anyone is running late, I might drop a casual, “oh, really? I think Lucinda and Percival usually only contact me or each other, so I wasn’t sure.”

  10. Long Time Reader First Time poster*

    I guess what I would do in OP’s shoes is continue (as instructed) to notify the Boss whenever I *thought* I might be late… and then to follow up with an email noting my arrival time (“No worries! I got in at 8:45 after all!” or “Got here at 9:05 — phones are covered now!”).

    Since it sounds like most of the “I’m possibly going to be late” messages are of the better-safe-than-sorry type, I’d want to be sure that I wasn’t giving the Boss the *perception* that I was always late. Rather, I’d want the Boss to understand that I was really only late once every month or so, and then by only 5-10 minutes.

  11. Anonymous Educator*

    But when Boss is also late, she never knows that the others were late as long as they get in before she does — and she’s often late, so as far as she knows they almost never are.

    Sometimes my boss will make comments about how one of my coworkers is “such a hard worker, first one in the office every morning!” when actually that’s me! I’m the first one in the office 98% of the time and most mornings I’m 10-15 minutes early!

    I honestly don’t think this comment has anything to do with the OP sending emails of “I might be late” to the boss. If the boss is “often late,” then the boss really has no idea who is the first one in the office every morning. It sounds as if the boss either 1) is good buddies with the coworker and just thinks highly of the coworker and then makes up a compliment through the rose-tinted glasses, or 2) has been lied to by the coworker about who shows up first.

    That said, I don’t espouse coworkers throwing you under the bus, but if your job is to open up and answer phones, you really need to make it on time. I’ve had jobs (plural) where my commute is anywhere between 90 and 140 minutes, and I was late to each of those jobs once total per job. It sucks to leave that early with such a long commute, but if you have to, you have to.

    Alternatively, if your boss is “often late,” do you really need to send emails saying you might be late? Just hope you’re on time, and if you’re late often enough that it’s a problem, leave earlier. Bad traffic is a valid excuse only a handful of times. If the traffic is bad all the time, you need to adjust your schedule.

    1. Koko*

      The problem was that the traffic wasn’t bad all the time. Most mornings I got there 20 minutes early. Once or twice a month there would be an accident along the two-lane road that was the only option for my commute, and I would be stuck sitting there while people figured out how to merge, and it ate up that 20 minutes and then some.

    2. Koko*

      Also, my boss had explicitly told me I had to email even if I was only going to be 2 minutes late. Although she was often late, she was sometimes there, and if I had walked in at 9:03 with her there and without having emailed her I would have caught hell for it and been accused of dishonesty/trying to hide my lateness from her.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        In that case, I would just keep doing what you’re doing and take Long Time Reader First Time poster‘s suggestion about just correcting yourself “Oh, I’m not later after all. Just wanted to give you a heads-up, just in case.”

  12. Lou*

    Sometimes the hardest workers are overlooked either boss is forgetful or has a poor image of you already. Been there, done that.

    1. JM in England*


      Once the boss has that poor image of you, it’s almost impossible to shake :-(

  13. Oignonne*

    Is all the emailing truly necessary? I understand some of it is a courtesy thing, but I’m wondering if the OP and coworkers could simply all just proceed with the understanding that each might be a few minutes late on occasion. Could the OP simply communicate to the boss and coworkers and say “As you know, there are rare occasions when I am not in the office to answer calls during the first five minutes of the day. I will try to ensure this doesn’t happen, but if the phone rings and I am not here, could someone please answer it?” Or if that’s not feasible based on the location of the phones, could the OP just arrange to contact a coworker directly when they will be late? This process surely has to be more efficient than sending the boss “maybe” emails every other week and then having the boss contact another employee.

  14. Sherie*

    Show up on time and quit having a reason to email that you are running late. Leave 10 minutes earlier!

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