what to do if an employee keeps missing deadlines

If someone on your staff is regularly blowing deadlines, it’s crucial that you address it quickly – otherwise, the habit can get ingrained and even spread to other team members, who may figure that deadlines aren’t taken seriously.

Here’s what to do.

1. Sit down with the staff member and ask what’s going on, and listen with an open mind. Start out by simply naming the problem and asking for the staff person’s perspective: “You’ve been missing deadlines lately. What’s been happening?” Then, give her some room to talk. You might learn that deadlines haven’t been as clear as you thought, or that someone else is causing a roadblock in her work, or that her systems haven’t been sufficient for the number of projects on her plate. If you have trouble getting an understanding of what’s causing the problem, try digging in a bit by asking questions like, “So that I understand, what’s involved in making X happen?” and “What sorts of things are getting in the way?”

2. Talk about the impact of the missed deadlines. The idea here is to demonstrate that these aren’t simply arbitrary deadlines; they have real-world consequences. For example, you might say, “When you turned in your billings so late, Jose ended up having to work over the weekend to get invoices out on time.” Or, “We agreed that I’d be able to look at the brochure three days before it was due to the printer, but I received it too close to the print deadline to be able to give meaningful feedback.”

3. Ask what tools your employee is using to track projects and deadlines. Does she have a system or is she relying on memory? Or is she using tools that aren’t up to the job, like a spreadsheet when a more robust project management software is needed? Also, is she blocking out time to work on projects well in advance of deadlines, or is she only turning to them close to the due date? With complicated projects, is she scheduling out each moving piece and allowing buffers for things to go wrong? It may be that she needs better systems or that some coaching on project management work habits would help.

4. Clearly state your expectations for what needs to change going forward. Often this won’t just mean “meet all deadlines”; in some environments, especially ones with heavy workloads and competing priorities, it might mean “come talk to me well in advance if something is getting in the way of you meeting a deadline.” In that context, what you want is both a heads-up and an opportunity to help move other priorities around.

5. Talk about next steps. If the conversation hasn’t already produced clear ideas that the employee will try, ask directly, “What would it make sense to do differently going forward?” You want the employee to have a clear sense of what specific steps she’ll take to solve the problem – something more than just “try harder.” Ideally she’ll come up with these on her own, but if she’s struggling, it’s okay for you to be fairly directive about what you’d like her to try (for example, “start entering interim deadlines in our shared project management tracker” or “front-load your week so you’re getting time-sensitive work out of the way before tackling other projects”).

6. If the problem continues after that, you need to treat it as a serious performance problem. Assuming the person’s role requires reliably meeting deadlines (and most do), an inability to meet deadlines after this kind of coaching may mean that the person can’t stay in the job. Be clear with the person that the problem will jeopardize their job if it continues, and give them a short period of time to show whether or not they’re able to get the problem under control.

I originally published this at the Fast Track blog from QuickBase.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Jack the treacle eater*

    I don’t know if I’m misreading, but although step 1 talks about obstacles, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that the employee is at fault and resolution is entirely the employee’s responsibility. (though agreed, #4 mentions ongoing discussion in the event of roadblocks). As part of the analysis, should the manager also make sure they are creating an environment where employees can succeed and there are no external obstacles to completion?

    1. Michelle*

      I agree. If multiple departments are involved, it could be other departments are getting things to the employee late so it’s harder to get the final product to the correct people on time. I’m responsible for the monthly staff e-newsletter and it’s hard to have it out by the 1st each month when people are submitting their items on the 30th/31st, despite multiple reminders.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, that’s certainly not how I intended it. #1 says: “Sit down with the staff member and ask what’s going on, and listen with an open mind. Start out by simply naming the problem and asking for the staff person’s perspective: “You’ve been missing deadlines lately. What’s been happening?” Then, give her some room to talk. You might learn that deadlines haven’t been as clear as you thought, or that someone else is causing a roadblock in her work, or that her systems haven’t been sufficient for the number of projects on her plate. If you have trouble getting an understanding of what’s causing the problem, try digging in a bit by asking questions like, “So that I understand, what’s involved in making X happen?” and “What sorts of things are getting in the way?”

      1. Jack the treacle eater*

        Sorry Alison, it wasn’t intended as a criticism, more as a general point; I did take in #1, and given the even-handedness of you writings generally, I didn’t think ‘blame the employee’ was what was intended.

        I think I was just emphasising that, having covered the points in #1, the manager should go on to action any findings, rather than jumping straight on to #2 etc.

        I’m probably viewing things from a slightly biased perspective, having recently been working in a very bad bullying and blame culture where managers knew intellectually that they should remove barriers but instead defaulted to blaming the employee. Having seen the corrosive effects this has on company and employees (myself included), perhaps I like to see things underlined a bit (too much?).

        1. nofelix*

          Yeah managers often seem to listen to the employee’s feedback only to resolve the blindingly obvious issues. Other issues are then ignored so the employee can still be blamed if things go wrong.

    3. TootsNYC*

      Re: roadblocks

      I believe that it’s my job as a manager to make it possible for my employee to do a good job.
      It’s my employee’s job to give me the information she gathers that makes it possible for me to do so.

      So if there are roadblocks, I should work to remove them–UNLESS: the employee can remove them herself.

      The last item on my life of 8 ways to show respect for your employees is: “Don’t fix it for them.”

      So my ideal situation is for me to anticipate every roadblock I can, and to work to eliminate them before we even start, at the time I’m setting up the systems, procedures, etc.

      And then my employee goes to work, and loops me in when roadblocks occur. I need to know about them–even when she fixes them herself; it’s part of my “continuing education.”
      And my employee needs to alert me–and herself–whenever she sees a POTENTIAL roadblock, and formulate what plan she can.
      If she is not in a position to be effective, or if her attempts are unsuccessful, then she makes sure I have that info, and I tackle the roadblock.

        1. TootsNYC*

          How to Show Respect for Your Employees
          1. Tell employees what is expected of them.
          2. Make the work doable and worth doing.
          3. Don’t make people engage in wasteful actions.
          4. Provide proper tools.
          5. Tell employees how they are doing.
          6. Listen to their ideas and let them implement.
          7. Recognize and reward them for performing well.
          8. Don’t fix it for them.

          It’s from some Lean Management type training my old boss went through.

            1. Liza*

              (And apparently I refreshed the page at exactly the right time, because it looks like you posted that less than two minutes before I replied!)

  2. Kay*

    Setting realistic deadlines is also crucial. I have a colleague who loves to set deadlines for things weeks and WEEKS before they need to be done. Then she starts freaking out 48 hours before the deadline. She never consults with us about what a realistic deadline would be (we’re the ones doing the research and giving her the information that she then puts into our system ahead of certain events), schedules in 3x the buffer that any reasonable person would need, and as a result, I constantly blow past her deadlines. Which, unfortunately, has led to a) myself and others in my position completely bypassing her in our workflows and doing her part of the work ourselves, on a more realistic schedule and b) a more cavalier attitude on my part toward more general deadlines. Which I actually hate about myself, to be honest, but it’s really hard to fix when I’m constantly given such ridiculous deadlines and my boss backs me up.

    Anyone have advice for retraining yourself to take deadlines more seriously after constant exposure to “eh, whatever” situations?

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I tend to create my own deadlines in my head, and handle those deadlines very seriously — regardless of what the deadline is that I’ve been told. Sometimes my deadline and the “official” deadline match up (most of the time, really) and sometimes they don’t. But I still have the deadline I’ve painted in my mind, and that is absolute.

    2. LQ*

      My guess is she’s a person who needs deadlines to get things done and so she sets a far out deadline so that she can get the pressure of the I ONLY HAVE 2 DAYS TO DO THING.

      My primary question for you is…is there a problem with you getting it done 3 weeks early? Are there other pressures or things you are waiting for that need to be done on a closer to deadline time frame? Could you just treat it like a real deadline? (Assuming it is the same amount of work if you do it 3 weeks early or 3 days early of course.)

      1. Kay*

        In the vast majority of cases there’s zero chance of meeting her deadlines, because she sets them arbitrarily with no sense of the order we need to do things in, or what’s realistic in the time we have to do them. Whenever I’ve tried to share information in process with her, she has no respect for the “in process” nature of something, no matter how clearly I mark what is confirmed and what is not, and either I end up redoing her work or incorrect information is passed on.

        We also had the opposite problem a few weeks ago: I had confirmed all information way, way ahead of time, and then she sat on it before sending it out to partners who were begging for it because she had decided that it couldn’t possibly be shared before her hard deadline. She has absolutely zero flexibility.

        It’s far from just me that has this problem. It’s the same with literally everyone who works with her.

        1. LQ*

          That’s much stranger. I could see myself always setting things far in advance because I prefer things to be done early (since something usually goes wrong) but I’m very consistent in it (and it is flexible because it can be). I don’t know that I have any words of wisdom for dealing with this person.

          I would say for yourself regularly work backward from things in your head to help yourself get back on track with deadlines.

          I am a crucial part of getting Thing Live on the 15th. For that to happen Wakeen needs 2 days to QA, Maribel needs a week to fix bugs Wakeen found, Jan needs to do pre-publicity by the 7th, so I need to have my stuff to Jan by the 4th so she can write it up and get it live by the 7th.

          Whatever those pieces are. I find working backward helps a lot on solidifying why deadlines need to happen.

          1. neverjaunty*

            I agree, that’s really weird. Who thinks a deadline works BACKWARDS such that you’re not allowed to share it early?

            Do you guys have the same boss?

    3. Mockingjay*

      The problem with deadlines is differentiating between a hard date – product delivery, must be met, no matter what – and dates used as estimates in the process – say, a draft in about 2 weeks. You and your team must be on the same page on what constitutes a hard deadline for your project.

      Employees need to understand that the hard date must be met, and the others (estimates/process milestones) are to be used to manage the daily work of meeting that hard end date.

      Experienced employees can usually handle both; these are the people that are ahead of schedule and can pick up slack so the hard date is met. Less experienced staff or those with a rigid working style are going to be the sticking points.

      1. Jack the treacle eater*

        That’s really a management issue, though. If the manager is vague about deadlines or not clear that a deadline is firm, it’s unreasonable to expect the employee to work it out and get it right every time.

  3. Mike*

    To help our team keep pace we do daily standups. In a 15 minute time we talk about what we did the day before, what we are going to work on that day, and any roadblocks. While the manager is there we are reporting to the entire team and the manager is reporting to us. Combined with traditional project management software we have a decent idea where things are at and can adjust the team if need be.

    Interesting thing has happened, other groups in the organization are getting more interested in our process and how it might improve their team.

    1. nofelix*

      Can you describe more about this process?

      My manager does the same thing but it is the opposite of efficient reporting. Wondering what you’re doing differently. Since there are six of us in the team, 10 – 15 minutes per person makes for a fairly long morning meeting.

      1. Jack the treacle eater*

        Just a guess from my own experience but I wonder if that’s a case of setting expectations for the meeting. It sounds as though what’s needed might just be bullet points while what’s happening might be lengthy and vague discussion.

      2. Mike*

        We are a programming group so we do Scrum style morning standups. The 15 minute time block is for the entire group (6 programmers, 1 manager, 1 IT support person). I’ve done it in larger groups where we had about 15 people total reporting out. It is designed to be short and to the point and is used to spawn additional discussions afterwards to solve an issue.

        Some keys: Standing up really does help (we got lax on that and recently went back to standing), set a timer, have a rule that anyone can say to take the discussion offline (for when you are getting too deep into it or it is taking too long), and keep in mind that the purpose is to identify roadblocks as soon as possible.

  4. Mike VP*

    I’d love to see this article in a different lens. The information was great (OBVI!), but as someone who relies on other people higher on the org chart to meet deadlines on projects that I drive, it would be awesome to see a set of suggestions with a managing-up perspective! I have a lot of various ways I go about it, but am curious to hear some best practices.

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