my boss lies about deadlines

A reader writes:

I’ve noticed that my boss uses lying about deadlines to members of our team and external service providers as his tool to get things done … and I hate it. It’s effective because folks are working to meet a false deadline that, even when missed, will meet the real deadline. Unfortunately, it creates this energy of chaos/being overwhelmed plus, in my opinion, incompetence (folks miss the fake deadline with no repercussions) and lack of integrity. Do I just need to relax about the whole thing?

I answer this question — and four others — 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • An employee asked me to put it in writing that we’re not replacing him
  • I asked a friend of a friend to send me his resume, and it’s terrible
  • After an interview, a company asked if I’d be interested in a different position
  • References when you’ve been in the same job for 20 years

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. Roscoe*

    As someone who used to deal with people missing deadlines all the time at work, and still does so in his personal life, I’m all about the fake deadlines. The only way I’d see it as an issue is if the “fake” deadline is constantly unrealistic. But if its doable, then there would be chaos either way. This way at least when there is chaos and missed deadlines it doesn’t harm anything. Plus, as Alison said, “his” deadline may not necessarily be “THE” deadline, and for good reason. Maybe he needs to go over everything before its submitted or something, and wants to give himself ample time to do it.

    1. Kathleen_A*

      Yeah, I hedge on deadlines All. The. Time.

      Here’s the thing: There are people who are very careful to get everything done early, there are people who are seldom early but also seldom late, and then there are oh so many careless and cavalier deadline-breakers. You’d think that I could give the real deadline to the early and on-time finishers and then give an earlier deadline to the deadline breakers. But alas, that usually doesn’t work because the deadline breakers seem to have an instinct for such things, and so Deadline-Breaking Dan usually manages to find out that I’ve given a later deadline to Always Early Eloise and On Time Oliver, and will therefore ignore his earlier deadline.

      So almost everybody gets an artificially early deadline. Otherwise I would be driven insane.

      1. KHB*

        That’s a really good way to turn all your Eloises and Olivers into Dans – and make them resent you, to boot.

        It takes a lot of work and some uncomfortable conversations to actually manage the Dans out of their deadline-missing ways, but I’m convinced that in the long run, that’s the way to do it.

        1. Half-Caf Latte*

          That assumes that the deadline giver has authority to manage those folks. I reply on reports from people senior to me, both in my reporting structure and in totally different business units. Giving false deadlines is literally the only tool in my arsenal in many instances.

          1. KHB*

            It’s actually not, though. I don’t have any managerial authority over anyone, and I’ve gotten pretty good at getting people to stick to their schedules. You can always nag them. (Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of this, especially if you start the minute the deadline is missed.) You can have frank conversations about what it means for you (or others) when they don’t get their stuff to you on time. Or if things get really bad, you can appeal to their managers. Those are just the strategies I’ve used – there may be others.

            1. AnnaBananna*

              Hmm. I had to nag for monthly reports all the time from various levels of the org….and it never worked. There were no true repercussions because I wasn’t the leader of these flakers, and the flakers knew this. So they ignored deadlines. In fact, no amount of nagging from their leaders made any concrete and sustainable reaction to when they returned their reports.

              SO glad I’m no longer in that role. Like herding drunk cats.

            2. Red 5*

              Yeah, the person who misses deadlines the most for me is my manager.

              Those are strategies that can work in some situations, they’re not universal and they’re not universally effective. They depend on a lot of different variables. I’m genuinely glad it’s worked for you, but it’s not 100% foolproof.

              I know this because I’ve been using all of them for three years, it’s not working. The only thing that works is moving the deadlines up, and even that hasn’t really helped, it just gives me a bit more breathing room when they’re a week late because it still gives me a day to turn around the project instead of me already being two days behind.

        2. Roscoe*

          See, I don’t think it does. its not really my place to question WHY the deadline is what it is (unless it is so absurdly unrealistic that it can’t be reached). So I feel like, if you give me a deadline for Dec 1, but everything wasn’t “required” until December 15, why would that turn me into someone who doesn’t meet the deadline later?

          1. Kathleen_A*

            I truly don’t think it does either. I think maybe we have a different definition for “hedging” a deadline. I don’t mean that I lie, and I don’t mean that I create absurdly early deadlines. As others have pointed out, it’s just to ensure that I have enough time to do whatever needs to be done before I turn it in, and that the Dans in my life know when I need it, keeping in mind that the date when I need it =/= the date on which I absolutely have to have it. So I make them a little earlier than is absolutely necessary, but just a little.

            Eloise and Oliver won’t have problems with the deadline no matter when I set it (and if they do, they know can come and talk to me about it), and because they aren’t deadline-pushers, they understand perfectly well that I need the stuff well before I have to turn it in. The real reason for the deadline is to give me an opening to start reminding Dan, “Hey, remember that I need that by Friday, OK?”

            And BTW, I don’t have any actual authority over any of these folks. I am in charge of projects, not people, so yeah, nagging is a big part of my project management tactics.

          2. KHB*

            In a healthy work environment, it absolutely should be your place (or anybody’s place) to ask why the deadlines are what they are. (Or better yet, it should be clear without your having to ask.) And not only that, but the reasons you’re given should make sense (e.g., something of the form, “The client needs the finished product on day X, and I need a day and a half to look it over before I send it out the door, so I need your portion of it by day X – 2).

            I guess if you have absolutely nothing else to do in the days leading up to December 1, it might not make a difference whether you’re given a deadline of December 1 or December 15. But most of us, I think, are juggling multiple priorities, and we ought to be able to trust that the deadlines we’re given are a reasonable reflection of those priorities. If my giving you a phony deadline for the TPS reports means you put the teapot design project you’re working on on hold, that erodes trust, not just between you and me, but potentially across the whole teapot design team too.

            1. JulieCanCan*

              I don’t really agree with this. In general, a person needs a report when they say they need it, and it should be delivered by the due date. Barring any illogical, extreme requests or a truly unrealistic deadline, if your job entails submitting a report on X day, why would it be questioned?

              I understand wanting to be aware of company processes and function, so if someone is asking about why they need to get a report in by X day in order to better understand their job and their department as it relates to the company as a whole, that’s great. But questioning a deadline out of a belief or suspicion that it’s too rigid/early/whatever when everything and everyone else gives the impression that it’s on track and logical would appear a bit… (tone deaf?). Your report might be the first step of five separate levels that the information is filtered though before the end result is gleaned, which is why you need to get it to your supervisor on Wednesday. It might be passed through the hands of 4 more departments before the whole point of the report is complete on Friday.

              I just know that personally, if I requested a report to be turned in by the 15th of each month and I was questioned as to why I needed it then with statements like “it doesn’t seem like urgent information” or “I don’t see you even look at the report until the 20th – why are you asking me to get it to you 5 days early?”, I’d be irritated and inclined to avoid explaining why I need it by the 15th, because it’s not their concern. Of course, if someone said “Do you mind explaining what’s done with that report and why you need it mid-month? Do any other departments need that information?” I’d have no problem getting into the “why” and “how” of it. But if someone is debating with me about when they should have to turn in a report based on absolutely nothing? No.

              1. KHB*

                I think you might be reading way more into my comment than what I actually said. “Asking why the deadlines are what they are” is very much not the same thing as “arguing that the deadlines should be different.”

        3. Mallory Janis Ian*

          I just tell my folks the due-to-me deadline without telling them the deadline for me to turn it in to the next person. If they ask, I’ll tell them when that deadline is, but it doesn’t get them off the hook for my deadline. The ones who are good at deadlines turn their stuff in on time, and then the ones who are worse at deadlines get one general-announcement, group reminder email from me a couple days before the deadline. Then if they still haven’t turned the stuff in, they get an individual email with the department head copied. They will then come running down the hall to turn their material in, or to breathlessly say, “I’m emailing it! I’m emailing it!”. Basically, any type of collections for a deadline is a pain it the butt. I don’t think there is ever a perfect way to manage it; it just requires constant cat herding of the ones who are always near being late. I do like that I have a department head who will let them know that he’s displeased when they’re late, too; that it’s not “just the admin” who is displeased.

          1. Zoe Karvounopsina*

            Ditto. I take in papers and send them out to committees. My deadline for receiving them is usually ~3 days before I actually need to send them out, to account for ‘you have misspelled this word every single time’/’your formatting needs to be redone so people can read it’/’you have accidentally argued against your stated position: fix that.’

        4. Afiendishthingy*

          As a never-early occasionally-late usually on-time person, I prefer to be lied to about the deadlines! I just found out my deadline Tuesday is the final final deadline and my boss wants everything to her “days before” to review, and I haven’t started (neither has anyone else! We are in crisis mode putting out fires all the time.) now I’m spending the weekend working.

        5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I’ve never seen folks who are Eloises and Olivers turn into Dans simply because there’s an earlier internal deadline (I’ve also never seen them become resentful unless they think Dan is being excused for chronic late work product).

    2. Czhorat*

      Lying is always the wrong way to do it, but YOUR deadline for something is not your firm’s deadline.

      If I have a deliverable due on Friday, I’m going to tell the team working on it that I need it Wednesday so we can review, make any needed adjustments, and then send it on time. I prefer transparency with this so long as everyone working on it understands that THEIR deadline and the final deadline are not one and the same.

      1. Roscoe*

        But I don’t know that its “lying” as much as telling them just the necessary information. If I say “I need this report by Wednesday”, that isn’t lying. Its setting a deadline for when I do need it. Even if I’m not turning in the final product until monday

        1. Czhorat*

          True, but it’s perhaps best and most respectful to give a full picture. I often say things like,

          “This needs to be out for bid next Friday, and the owner’s rep wants it Wednesday to review. Please be finished with your part by Monday for internal review”.

          That short circuits the “fake deadline” discussion. Everyone knows what their deadline is, how it fits into the larger picture, and what the plan is. It makes them feel valued and respected as part of the process, as opposed to feeling left in the dark at best and manipulated at worst.

          1. Elsajeni*

            On the other hand, I often avoid doing this because I feel like it’s harder to follow, and it’s my job, not theirs, to keep track of all the moving parts. I know that my big project might be a really small part of someone else’s job, and they’re not paying as much attention to it as I am; I want to make it as easy as possible for them to do their part and get it to me on time, and part of that is making my request super easy to parse for a busy person who’s just glancing at their inbox. “I will need this by Monday” — great, I know exactly when you want it. “This needs to be submitted by next Friday, and I will be meeting with the dean to discuss it on Wednesday, so please get me your part by Monday” — guaranteed I will get at least one “oh I’m so sorry! I thought you didn’t need it until Wednesday/Friday!” response when I follow up.

          2. Red 5*

            In my experience, the more info I give about when I actually need something, the more people who miss deadlines will miss them.

            Because I have outright said “I need this by Monday so I have time to review it before Wednesday” and when Monday rolls around their exact words would be “Sorry, I don’t have it but you don’t really need it until Wednesday right?”

            It’s a complete and blatant disrespect of my time and effort at work, but there’s only so much to be done about that because it’s coming from higher up than me in the food chain.

            I think it really ends up depending on the person. When I had everybody missing deadlines (and I wasn’t lying about them, I just was giving myself enough time to actually do my work in a reasonable fashion without panicking and working late) I sat down and explained the process to everybody. Some people said “oh, I see” and haven’t missed a report since. The people who were already the most trouble just used it as an excuse to continue to turn things in late. They all know the larger picture, and exactly how every piece works. They just don’t care.

            1. sofar*

              Exactly this. I’ve worked with many people who would read “I need it Monday so I can submit it on Wednesday” as “She doesn’t need it til Wednesday, so I will send it to her on Wednesday end of day!”

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Yep, this.

        I had a boss that played head games like this with the deadline and all it got her was labeled Liar with a capital L.

        It does create chaos as the fake deadline causes people to work at maximum capacity for no real reason. What you get next is burned out people and lots of time off for doctor appointments because their job is making them sick. It’s always great to watch your hard work sit there for days/weeks because of a phony deadline.

        If a person cannot hit deadlines, you warn them, write them then fire them.

        A stronger approach is to tell them that they need to come tell you if they are not going to hit their deadline. Then, without biting their heads off, reconfigure so the work will be completed. If they routinely cannot hit deadline, then maybe the deadlines are not realistic OR maybe this person is to be considered a second stringer rather than a key or first stringer person. Some people are excellent backups and some people excel at taking the lead on a task. And some people just need to be shown the door.

        Some bosses totally enjoy chaos, upheaval and upset. The drama gives them energy that they would not have otherwise so they can go about their day.

        1. Czhorat*

          Right, and then the boss can make a decision.

          Maybe you lose one contingency day. Maybe you assign someone else who has more availability. In any event, everyone is working towards the same goal with the same information.

    3. Neptune*

      That fair, but I don’t think you’re *lying* there, which is what the OP says her boss is doing. If you say “this is going live on the website on Friday so I need it by Wednesday”, that’s fine. If you say “this is going live on Wednesday” when you know it isn’t actually going live until Friday, that’s when it becomes a problem for me. I’m not sure from the OP which one her boss is doing, but she does specifically say ‘lying’.

      1. Kathleen_A*

        True, but I can’t tell if what she means by “lying” is what I mean by “lying.” I agree with you, Neptune, that “This is going live on Wednesday” would be a lie if it was actually going live on Friday. But I just can’t tell if that’s what’s meant here. I know we need to take the OPs at their word, as much as possible, but there just aren’t that many facts here, which makes it hard to tell what the OP means.

    4. Kathleen_A*

      It seems to me that some of the people contributing to this discussion have a very different idea than I do about what I mean by hedging on deadlines. I’m sure this is partly my fault for being a little flippant early on and not explaining clearly.

      “Hedging,” in my lexicon, does not mean “establishing an absurdly early deadline.” It doesn’t mean lying. It just means setting the deadline early enough that I have time to do what I need to do – and that includes getting the Deadline-Breaking Dans of this world to turn in their copy in something approximating “on time.”

      In all cases – whether hedged or not – the deadline has to be reasonable. I truly don’t have the authority to enforce unreasonable deadlines, so any of you who are remembering situations or imagining situations in which Boss has had you move heaven and earth in order to meet an unnecessarily early deadline, that’s not what I am talking about at all.

      But the plain fact is that the Dans of this world will *never* take my deadlines as seriously as I do. Never. They might take their bosses’ deadlines seriously, but that’s because they take their bosses’ authority seriously. I have no authority – I just have a responsibility to get the project done on time – and yes, I absolutely do set those deadlines a little earlier than is “required,” and I am not ashamed of it. And I’m going to keep doing it. Far from resenting it, it seems to me that the Olives and the Eloises understand the necessity for this as well as I do. I mean, they all know what Dan is like!

      1. Red 5*

        “In all cases – whether hedged or not – the deadline has to be reasonable.”

        Yes, this is a very important part of this. It sounds like the OP’s deadlines, real or not, aren’t reasonable. That’s a big deal.

        But I think some people who hedge deadlines or try to give themselves extra room like you describe (and I’m one of them) are feeling a bit defensive because we’ve had this argument before with people who want to turn things in late and say “but when is it REALLY due?” when in the end the argument doesn’t even matter because you gave them a month to put together something that will probably take an hour they just didn’t make time to do it, and you communicated all you could the entire time.

        So perhaps we’re all making assumptions about whether this false deadline is reasonable or unreasonable based on our own past experiences and not actually discussing the problem at hand.

    5. LurkieLoo*

      I am on both sides of this same coin. I absolutely tell people I need things a few days earlier than I do because I need those extra days to make my contribution to the project. If I told them on Monday that I have to have it done by Friday, I would get it Friday morning and be pulling my hair out to get it done. I usually tell them I’d like to have it by Wednesday if possible, no later than Thursday. This generally works pretty well for me. I am fairly often the last stop before the project is finished and while I’ve never missed a deadline from procrastination, I do tend to run things right up to the wire.

      My boss always wants things done 3 minutes after learning about it needing done. This means that I always ask when it actually has to be done by. I am also careful to figure in any time needed after my part is complete. Don’t tell me you need i by this Friday when it’s not actually due for 2 months (generally with event preparation). The problem is I am already working on 3 other hard deadlines and we had 4 immediate-can’t-wait-fires this week. You’ll get it when you get it. I promise you won’t have to hand carry your supplies to the event.

    6. Artemesia*

      And internal deadline SHOULD be in advance of the external deadline. I sure don’t want to pass along crummy work that needs a final revision because lazyboy or slackergirl does last minute shoddy work. And pretty much any group has people who fit that description and most people occasionally get pushed to deadline and don’t do their best work. When I used to write grants this was a constant struggle as the drop deadline was firm and there were always people that pushed right up to it not factoring in internal approvals and such.

    7. media monkey*

      absolutely. my job is reliant on getting work in from other people and pulling it together to send to a client. if i gave real drop-dead deadlines, i would be in the office late every time i had a client deadline and would be sending over half complete work. to be honest, most people in this line of work tend to hedge deadlines more or less depending on the person they are briefing – if you know someone always hits their deadline, you will give them a real one vs someone who is always several days late. my goal is a happy client who gets what they need when they were promised – not an unpunctual colleague who feels he can take his time over a request as the deadline doesn’t matter.

    8. Cyrus*

      I’m curious about exactly what the OP’s boss is saying. If they’re literally lying, that’s bad, of course. But I expect some padding in deadlines and schedules all the time. The next step is never the last step, someone else always needs to do something with any product, and they need time to do it.

      Suppose the real, contractually-mandated deadline to deliver a report to the client is the end of the month. OP’s boss tells OP, “Get it to me by the 20th,” thinking that they’d need time to review it, and maybe there’s a little extra padding in there just in case OP slips a little or is out sick on the 19th or there are back-and-forth edits. Is OP hearing that as a lie? If so, I’d side with OP’s boss there.

      1. sofar*

        Yes, there’s a huge difference in someone asking for something several days “early” to give themselves some wiggle room and time to review — and in asking for people to bend over backwards to get something done in a day and then letting the work sit there for weeks.

  2. Dust Bunny*

    OP1 I think you need to let this go. I suspect that Alison is right and your boss is building in some breathing room in case something doesn’t go according to plan, which is a totally reasonable way of handling things that really shouldn’t need explanation.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      My boss tells us about it, but we do this all the time: “X thing needs to be in by Date A but we’re going to try to get it done by Date B because life is uncertain.” But he doesn’t really need to explain it because it just seems like the sensible thing to do.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      I feel like Alison has addressed this before: There are sort of two deadlines for a project–if my boss needs to hand it in to his bosses by one date, reasonably my department’s deadline would be sooner because proofreading, etc. It’s not a lie, though, it’s that we don’t actually have the same deadline as my boss does.

      1. Emily K*

        Exactly – it’s not a “fake” deadline, it’s an interim deadline for an interim stage of the process to be completed that allows time for the final stage to be completed by the final deadline. And the final stage may well be “Director reviews final product, formats/organizes, and assigns revisions if needed,” which might end up looking like “nothing” to the employee if there aren’t any revisions needed or that particular employee isn’t assigned them. But Director would be crazy not to build in time for that.

    3. Space Turtle*

      Glass deadlines aren’t “fake” – they are sensible. If you don’t know this from experience be very glad as you are lucky.

    4. Smarty Boots*

      There’s a difference between the client’s deadline and your team’s deadline, if that’s what’s happening. It would be very bad planning to make those the same deadline. There almost always needs to be time allowed for unexpected delays, checking work before sending it out, and so on. In fact, even if it’s just an internal deadline, there should always be planning for such. And giving external service providers a “fake” deadline? Same thing.
      Probably the manager should be following up with folks who miss the intermediate (“fake”) deadlines. Perhaps she is doing that and you just don’t hear about it?

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    If a boss has to lie about deadlines in order to get people to do things, there is a lot wrong and it’s not all with him.

    But it is totally reasonable to give an earlier deadline if you need to compile information or have something approved or whatever. That isn’t lying. That’s being proactive and knowing what time you need to get things done appropriately.

    1. Dave*

      In my industry false deadlines are a super common thing. It isn’t that their is necessarily anything wrong. People just have different priorities and deadlines.
      I do try to be upfront about things being due x but I need by y. And if I need something really early because of vacation I try to be upfront about it with people as early as possible.
      The goal should be meet the deadline the boss sets and that still leaves times for revisions and questions.

    2. JokeyJules*

      came here to say this.

      Also, if you give it to him on the due date but there was a misunderstanding/miscommunication there needs to be enough time to adjust.
      If he were telling you deadlines excessively early (i.e. I need it tomorrow but it’s due in a month) that would be one thing, but if hes asking for a few days earlier, that’s pretty normal.

    3. A Tax NERD*

      I do think there might be a management problem that’s leading to a cultural issue here though if, like the OP says, there aren’t any ramifications for missing Boss’s Deadline. It seems like a lot of OP’s coworkers might be thinking “ok this is probably a fake deadline so it doesn’t matter that I’m going to be late” and if that behavior doesn’t get corrected I can see where the OP starts feeling really frustrated by Boss’s Deadline not meaning anything.

  4. Knitting Cat Lady*

    The deadline thing:

    Meeting deadlines is very important for my employer. Due dates are tracked in our document management system and not meeting milestones is a huge deal.

    To actually get our reports released on time we usually have to be finished with the work about two weeks before release at the latest, so we can write the report and the whole QA process can take place.

    And the release work flow takes about two days as well. It can be done in a few hours, but that requires everyone to be available and calling the next person down the line once you finished your task.

    So if a report needs to be externally released by date X, I have to be finished writing it by X-5 days. And the deadlines are communicated accordingly.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I’m in a project where no one put in tI’m for reviewing & correcting errors. No one checked the promised date with the person making decisions about the project …and the dates overlapped a vacation that had been on his calendar for 8 months. I’ve gotten used to saying “regardless of who decided that, how do we fix it now?”

      I’m all on Team Buffer.

  5. Yay commenting on AAM!*

    Your boss isn’t lying about deadlines. The ultimate deadline (the “real” deadline) is his deadline, to submit the completed project. Your deadline is the deadline your boss gave you to turn your work into him.

    That everyone there has a problem with meeting deadlines, that you seem to think your boss is in the wrong for establishing a due date for his employees’ contributions to a project, and that you’re thinking it’s his fault for lying to you is indicative of a significant culture problem among employees in your department.

    1. DaffyDuck*

      +1. Your deadline isn’t the day it goes to the customer, it is the day your boss wants you to be finished with your part. There are probably several steps (review, compilation, etc.) that need to be done before the project actually goes out the door. Saying the deadline is the day the customer gets it is an excellent way to a)miss getting the project to the customer by the agreed date, b)lose customers because your company didn’t meet deadlines (I wouldn’t give you another chance, just never come back).

      1. LQ*

        I had something recently where someone (from crummy vendor) tried to scoff off a deadline (I’m the client here), I had to point out that the vendor (good vendor) needed to get it to me ahead of time so that I could review it and then send it back to them so that they could push it back through so that it could get to my boss which was the actual deadline.

        We may not need my boss to sign the contract until the 15th, but we are not going to just cover our eyes and accept whatever the vendor gives us (and good vendor knows that and got it to me nearly 3 weeks early, this is why I want to keep them around!) because that’s not how you do stuff.

    2. Amtelope*

      It’s odd that the deadline question is framing this as a “fake” deadline. It’s common in my experience to have internal deadlines that aren’t the day the work is due to our clients. The internal deadlines tend to be softer than the external deadlines — if we go into the buffer time that’s built in between the internal and external deadline, it’s not a disaster, but we need to figure out what took extra time and how to stay on schedule next time. If we miss our deadline to get work to the client, we’re risking our contract with the client.

      A schedule that has my team working right up to the moment when not being finished would be a disaster is a schedule that needs to be rethought. It’s much better to have your plan be to meet the soft deadline, so that if you do fail, you don’t fail straight into “now the client is screaming and threatening to call their lawyer.”

    3. Not So NewReader*

      This assumes the boss is sane. I have seen moving deadlines used as psychological weapons. When I read Alison said to go ask, I cringed. But then I realized there are normal bosses out there who would give a logical answer when asked. My experience in asking was nightmare. I’d say go ask if everything else seems to be okay. But if a person knows upfront that the boss is cruel then asking means taking your life into your own hands.

      I will say, once I got through with the war that started when I asked, I no longer had to deal with fake deadlines. It was a matter of standing up for myself and my crew every inch of the way through that conversation. I suspected it would be a difficult conversation because most conversations were difficult. I paced these various conversations out because of the exhaustion that set in afterward.

  6. Federal Employee 167590*

    There is a difference between lying about deadlines and adding a buffer to an external deadline and it’s unclear what is happening here. When I have something I need from my team that I then have to turn around and give to my boss or some other customer, I’m always clear and transparent. “This is due to my boss on Friday, so I need it from you all on Wednesday so I have time to review and ask questions.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. This is good time management and transparent.

    It becomes problematic when you say “This is due on Wednesday,” when you really don’t want it until Friday and there are no consequences for being late. It sets up an environment of uncertainty because no one knows when things are really due and an environment in which people can disregard deadlines and not face any repercussions.

    1. KHB*

      This is a good breakdown of the distinction between an interim deadline (what some people think is a fake deadline but really isn’t) and an actual fake deadline.

      I suspect the boss’s reasoning goes something like this: “The external deadline for the project is Tuesday, so I need all the component parts by Friday so I have some time to put them together. But people around here can’t be trusted to meet their deadlines, so I’ll tell them the deadline is Wednesday so if they miss it by two days, I’ll still be OK.”

      And that works…for a little while. But before too long people start noticing that it doesn’t matter whether they get their stuff done by Wednesday or Friday, so they start to conclude that the boss doesn’t mean what she says. That’s why the solution to people not meeting their deadlines shouldn’t be imposing fake deadlines – it should be actually enforcing the real ones.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yep, boss’ words have huge weight, everyone looks at every single word the boss says. It’s super important to be OVERLY clear. Even then expect at least 20% of them to misunderstand what has been said.

      2. bonkerballs*

        See, if my boss told me the deadline was Wednesday and I was panicked and went to him and said I’m not going to make it, and he came back with “don’t worry, I gave us a day or two of buffer room in case things came up” or whatever, I would never come away from that thinking my boss lied to me or doesn’t mean what they say. I would come away from that thinking my boss is smart. Resenting someone who’s smart enough to realize life happens and takes that into account when scheduling plans and deadlines seems really small and really petty to me.

        1. Federal Employee 167590*

          This is true, but I think there is a difference between going to your boss occasionally and letting them know in advance that a deadline won’t be reached and consistently not meeting a deadline and having there be no consequences. I think it’s ok to have some kind of buffer or for a manager to rearrange things to the extent possible, but what becomes problematic is if you are always using that buffer and deadlines really become meaningless.

          1. bonkerballs*

            Sure, but this issue we’re talking about is the boss, not the workers. People blowing past deadlines is a problem whether there’s a buffer or not. I don’t think a boss adding a buffer day or two into a deadline is going to create the resentment and/or lack of trust that KHB seems to think it will.

    2. Queen of the File*

      Yes yes yes. I have had bosses and clients who lie about deadlines for power trip/anxiety/mistrust reasons and it is not the same as building in some sensible margins by moving up a deadline. It has serious negative impacts to workload planning, professional relationships, and morale.

      The way to deal with people who don’t take deadlines seriously is to have actual, work-related consequences for missing them (your work wasn’t considered at the meeting because you didn’t get it to me in time for me to vet it first, eg.). If it’s still a problem, that becomes a performance or other workload issue that needs to be addressed for what it is.

  7. In a similar boat to #5*

    If all of your most recent supervisors are still with the company, how far back can you go? I’m in a position where I may need to provide references (uh, for the first time in my life), and all of my recent managers are still with the company and the first one to come to mind left the company way back in, like, 2010 and my work was different then so he can’t speak to my work as it relates to the primary qualifications for the job I’m applying for.

    1. BF50*

      This was me in 2015. One job for 10 years, all working for the same manager. The previous job was 10 years prior, for a toxic company that was so horrible it no longer existed and I definitely had not kept in touch with my manager. I gave coworkers and people who had overseen projects in other departments.

      I knew they weren’t great, but they were good enough to get me several offers.

      If I leave this job, I will be right there again, because my former company bars my former manager from giving references so she will only give a “personal reference.” I’ll still put her down, but we will see. My plan is to ask my current boss’s former boss and just hope for the best. Plus the coworker references and my really good performance reviews.

    2. Emily K*

      I would offer up the old manager reference, just so it doesn’t look like you’re being cagey and avoiding offering any managers. But then I would supplement with two recent references that aren’t managers, but ideally are senior to you and see your work output first-hand, or if you’re an internal service provider, peer-level colleagues who submit requests and receive deliverables from you can also work. Those types of colleagues are better able to speak to the quality of your work than a peer who works alongside you or collaborates with you, because evaluating the quality of your work output is part of their job even if they aren’t directly managing you. (Unlike peers who may collaborate with you but aren’t qualified to evaluate your part of the work or have no need to.)

    1. Emily K*

      One of my favorite ST cliches was always –

      Sisko: Chief, how long will that take you?
      O’Brien: Seven or eight hours?
      Sisko: You have three.
      O’Brien: Yes sir.

      It was never just shaving a couple hours off, it was always giving him less than half the original quoted estimate!

      1. SusanIvanova*

        O’Brien knew Sisko was the sort to cut estimates in half, so he doubled. It’s all about managing your managers. I used to work in a place where, if I said something would take X weeks (and I was allowing for distractions and delays), they wouldn’t believe me. But they’d believe 2X weeks. So I’d double, and then finish in X weeks, and they’d invariably be amazed.

  8. Amy*

    10 years ago, a colleague of mine was let go, partially due to performance and partially due to the economy.

    When she asked me to be a reference, I agreed. We were friends and I wanted to help her out.

    She has used me as reference at least 6 times in the last 10 years. Except I haven’t seen her since her last day at my company. We were both in our mid 20s and nothing about our work at the time was particularly impressive or relevant a decade later.

    Two weeks ago, she emailed me again. I told her this wasn’t a good time for me. I’m off work on short-term disability for pregnancy bed rest. I’m not really up to talking.

    She said, “no worries! I’ll just have the person email you.” (And then the person called and wanted to schedule what sounded like a moderately lengthy call.)

    Clearly, I need to grow a spine and just say I really don’t want to be a reference anymore. But I’d definitely make sure your references are 100% on board after so long and that you’re not over-riding their objections.

    1. Daniel*

      If it’s been 10 years, I’d suggest that might be your easiest out–say that it’s been 10 years since you worked together, and you’re afraid that employers won’t be impressed with a dated reference (which is almost certainly true).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’d tweak that a little — it risks sounding like it’s up to her to decide, instead of up to Amy. But I agree on using the 10 years thing and saying that unfortunately it’s been so long that you can no longer talk about her work with any nuance and so she should use more recent references going forward.

        1. WellRed*

          Hmm, what about if you are still with the same company, and want to use a previous supervisor as a reference? It’s been less than 10 years, but it’s been awhile. I certainly can’t use the current supervisor. Any other professional references are more than 13 years old.

          1. Sally*

            That’s what I did recently. I was at my previous company over 15 years, and I knew a couple of my previous managers would be discreet. Also, I was scheduled to be laid off (at some point, no specific date, which is why I was job hunting), so once I was offered the job, I asked my then-manager to be a reference, and she was happy to do it. The hiring process at this company was really great with the exception of asking me for references after they had offered me the job.

  9. Lindsey*

    Your boss can make the deadline whenever he wants as long as it is prior to the external deadline. The outside source needs it by Jan 1? Your boss can say that he needs it by Dec. 15, 20, 29 whatever. He may want time to review it, edit and improve it. Or maybe he just wants the project turned in earlier to satisfy the client or his own personal stress.

    1. Emily K*

      Yeah, in a sense, it’s not possible for the boss to lie about deadlines. Because the boss sets the deadlines for staff – whatever he says is the deadline IS the deadline because that’s within his purview.

      The boss might be a pushover who doesn’t enforce deadlines and allows late work to be turned in, but it’s not super fair/accurate to characterize “doesn’t have the fortitude to enforce deadlines” (weakness) as “lies about deadlines” (duplicitousness).

      1. JamieS*

        I’m thinking it’s something like the boss is telling OP and others that the external client is setting the deadline and that feels dishonest to OP. Basically “our client ABC Inc has said they need this done by Friday” vs “I’m setting a deadline of Friday to get this project done”.

        In the end it doesn’t really matter as far as how OP should handle it but I can understand the annoyance if that’s what OP’s boss is doing.

  10. gk*

    I say good for the boss for setting those deadlines earlier. Unfortunately in the working world you have to do that in order to reach targets. Although OP may be a great employee, OPs colleagues might suck and drag the team down in by missing deadlines.

    Typically bosses have to do this with those who somehow can’t manage their time. Not everyone is great at time management and this is a way to work around it without ruffling feathers or losing a employee with otherwise good performance. I also impose false deadlines with those above me as I realize their schedules are extremely busy. Moving it a few days earlier helps me out massively in case there are errors etc. and they already have a lot of lead time.

    I say let it go. As long as your stuff gets done, you’re good!

  11. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Re: fake deadlines…at OldJob, my boss’s boss asked me for a complicated report before the end of the day because he was traveling the next couple of days and urgently needed this data for one of his meetings. I busted my butt to complete his report, and walked 3 copies to him at 4 pm (this was 1996, no thumb drives). He put them in his In basket, said, ‘Thanks! Walk out with me,’ while turning off his office lights. I asked him if he was going to review the report, because Urgent! Travel! He said he didn’t really need the data right then, he just wanted to ‘know it was there’ when he got back from his trip.

    I don’t know if I looked incredulous or murderous or what, but he went back for the reports.

    1. Emily*

      Ha, I had a coworker not too long ago who was organizing a big review that was supposed to happen on his third day back from a 2-week vacation. He asked all of us contributing to the review to get our parts to him the day before he left for vacation, saying he would look at them the day he got back in case he needed anything changed/added.

      Believe that I immediately wrote back, “I’m confused. If you’re not going to look at them until the day you get back, don’t you mean you need our parts in your inbox that day, not the day before you leave?” He relented and my other colleagues were super happy that I’d bought them an extra two weeks.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Well, I sort of see where he was coming from though. Nobody wants to come back from vacation and have to scramble to have a big presentation in a day if someone slacked somewhere. Because I guarantee if he HAD said he wanted it his first day back, someone would still be scrambling to get it to him as there are always procrastinators.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This is the very thing that gets me.

      It’s a lack of respect. You busted your butt to get this report for him and he acted like it was nothing, no extra effort on your part. There is also the underlying message that he does not trust you to do your job in a timely manner.

      He’s lucky all he got was a nasty look.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Thank you for that, NSNR. When I was calmer I asked him if I ever did anything to make him think his requests were not important, or if I missed a deadline. To be fair to him, he said he was in the habit I described because other people missed deadlines – not me. He never did anything like that again, and I understood it wasn’t a personal slam.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      Yep. I had an awful boss who wanted me to stay late and work on something so she could look at it over the weekend (as if she ever actually worked on the weekend, but that’s a different story). I put it on her desk Friday evening, and since I knew she regularly lied about coming to the office over the weekend*, I deliberately placed it oddly on her desk. Monday morning, it was in the exact same odd position, obviously untouched. If you’ve got an internal deadline, and reliable people, let them know what’s going on. If you have to lie to your people to get them to do what you need, either something is wrong with them, or something is wrong with you.

      *A coworker and I were convinced she lied about coming to the office on the weekend, so we started sticking a hair across her door when we left on Fridays. It was always untouched on Mondays. Just call me James Bond.

  12. Future Goggles*

    I do a lot of work for other teams and there is this one in particular who comes at me with urgent requests all the time. They emphasize that it needs to get done quickly…has to be done today…this is a priority. And then I slave on it into the night so they can review in the morning (they are ahead of my timezone by 5 hours so we only have a few hours overlap) and come back with so many changes its like a new request. And when I say this is going to take some time to redo they are willing to push the deadline.

    I hate it. It feels like the first time they asked for it the urgency was a lie and my time was wasted. I don’t mind working extra or late when needed, but not under false pretenses.

    1. Emily K*

      I always try to avoid asking for really fast turnaround, and when I do I always let them know if there’s wiggle room or it’s negotiable. I’ll say something like, “The sooner we can get this, the better, because [reasons], but if you have other priorities to manage and that’s too much of a burden, our drop-dead date is X.” And if the drop-dead date is still a really quick turnaround, I’ll often add, “Let me know if that’s going to be unmanageable for you and we’ll come up with another plan.”

      I have found that people are a lot more willing to work through the night to turn a request around on a dime when they 1) understand the potential benefit/value of busting their butt and 2) know that you make a point of never forcing them to do it unless it’s beyond your own control.

      1. Queen of the File*

        This is all it takes really. Just saving the wolf calling for when there’s really a wolf, and doing what you can to keep the wolves from coming around in the first place :)

    2. Beatrice*

      I don’t do anything on an urgent basis for people who do that regularly. All of my work has standard expected turnaround times….I’m able to do things faster in a pinch most of the time, and I’m VERY accommodating, but if you’re so bad at managing your time that every single thing you bring to me is an emergency, I become a stickler for getting my full turnaround time on all your stuff.

    3. AsItIs*

      What’s that old saying…?

      There’s never time to do it right the first time but there’s always time to do it over.

  13. Falling Diphthong*

    #2 that’s an interesting (and potentially very bad for OP) gumption payoff. I don’t get OP’s “or else what?” reasoning here–the employee needed to hear “You will be fired if you don’t improve” not “No, of course we aren’t looking to replace you. You’re safe.”

    1. PollyQ*

      I kinda sorta get where the employee is coming from: “Why should I bust my hump if you’ve already started looking for my replacement?” but he never should’ve asked, and LW#2 NEVER should have guaranteed anything. Dude’s on probation, he doesn’t get to demand reassurance.

  14. bookartist*

    They’re not deadlines, they are dates when a task is due; he’s just using the wrong terminology and playing a dumb head game while doing it.

    1. Amtelope*

      Is there a difference, in your experience? In my job, I think people typically use “deadline” to mean “date when a task is due,” and “drop-dead date” for “date when a task absolutely must be finished or unavoidable bad things will happen.” So, “The internal deadline is March 1; the deadline to deliver to the client is March 3; the client’s drop-dead date to get these to the printer is March 5, so regardless of how far off the rails things have gone, we can’t ask for a deadline extension beyond that or there will be no final product.”

      1. bookartist*

        When I create schedules (I’m a project manager in an in-house creative agency setting) I only call one date a deadline – when my team is scheduled to deliver the approved and completed deliverable to the business owner. Every other date is associated with a task, and is the task due date. Using your example, I would draft a schedule that says: the date when the art director approves final delivery to client is March 1; the actual to-client deadline is March 3; and the to-printer date is March 5th.

        However, I would never build a schedule like that, but that’s because my crew meets the deadlines I set out. If someone doesn’t perform to the schedule, we let them go. It’s a harsh way of working, but in my personal experience, that’s the way we roll in agency life. (I also make sure we provide enough time to get things done, and I am empowered to tell people “No, we can’t meet your requested deadline” which I would not be able to do if we were not working within our own company)

        1. Amtelope*

          I think some of the context for this varies by industry. We’re in a position where we’re dependent on clients and third-party vendors to hit our deadlines, and where it’s often not possible to scope projects with perfect accuracy on our first try. Our space between internal and external deadlines is there to cover things like “the client said their proprietary teapot software was easy to use, but it is actually taking us twice as long as we expected to make each teapot in their system,” or “we agreed to do one round of revisions based on client feedback, but they have given us a solid page of feedback on every teapot requesting major changes to everything we did,” or “the client didn’t give us what we needed to start on time, but when we pointed this out, they said they don’t care and we still have to meet their original deadline.”

          It would be nice not to work with clients who do this stuff, but the reality of the field is that clients will always do this stuff — they are dealing with complex and shifting external constraints on what the final product should look like and when it needs to be finished, and they all think their tools are easy to use, because they’re used to using them — so we try not to plan to work right up against the genuine final deadlines, because there’s always something.

        2. Beatrice*

          Your comment about being empowered to tell people no just gave me flashbacks.

          I once worked with (not for) a company where nobody who set schedules or deadlines was ever empowered to tell anyone no. They had to accept the deadlines at face value and “figure out a way to make it work”.

          The result was that they missed deadlines a shocking percentage of the time – like 30-35%, 40% in a bad week.

          Since their actual delivery dates determined when the company got paid for its work, a low on-time rate meant that it was difficult to budget. A rational company would take steps to improve their on-time rate in that case, but that’s not what they did. No, they pressured their people to schedule EVEN MORE STUFF in key months/quarters, based on the expectation that they’d fail to meet deadlines a certain percentage of the time. So to meet budget in a month where they needed $1million in invoices, they’d schedule $1.3million in work, knowing that they couldn’t actually do that much, because they expected to miss deadlines on about $300K. And the bad decisions snowballed – every time their miss rate increased, they’d increase the rate of bad promises to offset it, which would only lead to a higher rate of misses.

          We had to part ways, but I heard new management eventually took over and set things straighter. Crazy times.

  15. Business Cat*

    It’s hard to know without further context which version this is, but I can emphasize with letter writer 1. There are sensible internal deadlines that ensure there’s a good buffer for work being completed on time with adequate review. In contrast, there’s other bosses for whom everything is presented as “Highest Priority” and “Super Urgent.” I’ve experienced both and if the LW is experiencing the latter, I get the frustration. There’s a couple of things at play when it happens. 1) Poor planning, fire drills happen, but they should not be happening all the time 2) Seeing a pattern many times over that says the urgency isn’t justified, but a motivating mechanism. In the case I’ve seen, the boss thought the way to jump to people’s priority one and get full focus was to inflate the urgency and priority (also occurred very frequently). This meant that everyone who worked for the boss was artificially stressed out (think “deadlines” of needs to be done today no matter what, then nothing even reviewed for two weeks) or if they’ve picked up on arbitrariness, stop listening to the boy who called deadline, which turns into a problem when the real fire drills happen. It’s a really frustrating situation, one that you can try to manage up by focusing on planning and workload, but is really hard to change if its been the boss’ modus operandi for too long.

  16. ArtK*

    OP #1: As others have said, your boss isn’t lying to you. There’s even a project management term for this: Management Reserve. That’s the extra time built into a project schedule to deal with the unexpected. It also deals with something else. I can virtually guarantee that if your boss gave you the “real” deadline, people would still be scrambling at the last minute. Or adding extra things “because we have the time.” That’s described in Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

    Any project manager who doesn’t include management reserve (both time and money) is setting themselves up for failure.

  17. Prof_elsie*

    #5 is just finishing an MBA program. That’s where to look for references for the new career.

  18. Dr. Johnny Fever*

    I worked with a group that was so notorious for missing deadlines that I admit, I gave them false deadlines of a month before I needed the work done. I would then get it just in time, “overdue” by weeks. Feedback given from folks all over, but their mgmt. didn’t manage the issue so nothing changed. That meant the PMs had to manage the notorious group to get any actual work accomplished.

  19. LinesInTheSand*

    The deadline thing:

    I’ve seen this go both ways. I’ve seen a lot of good use of interim deadlines. Particularly with freelance/contract work, it’s just good sense to set yourself up so that one disaster doesn’t cascade through the whole project. This is very common in the illustration field where the art director is working with 5-300 different artists. Things go wrong. Prepare for it.

    However, I’ve also seen bosses use this in a severely infantilizing way with their own directs as a passive aggressive alternative to issuing corrective feedback. There’s “I’m going to give myself a buffer because things go wrong” and then there’s “I don’t trust any of you people and I’m going to make sure you know it.” It sounds like LW1 is experiencing the second one, and that’s bad management.

  20. CupcakeCounter*

    I’ve been in the same boat as #3 but it was an almost family member. He was finishing a degree and had done several internships and was looking for another in order to get an idea for all of the types of jobs in our field and I work in the corporate sector of that same field. We had gotten an intern the prior few summers so I mentioned it to this guy and he sent me his resume.
    Shock is not a strong enough word.
    He asked several times about it and I lied to him and said because of some shuffling of duties and an office move we weren’t having interns that year. No way was I passing that on. He did ask for some resume help later after a friend said something.

  21. MissDisplaced*

    Fake deadlines: All for it! At least to some extent. I always “pad” my deadline with external vendors or teams by about 1 week. And it is usually missed by a day or so. But I hate if its done just to stress people out or push them.

  22. MassMatt*

    #2 it’s bizarre to me that someone on probation/given an ultimatum to improve or be fired would have the nerve to ask for written assurance of any kind. I can’t understand why you would provide something like that. He is on probation, his job is in jeopardy, he should not HAVE “peace of mind”!

    Too many organizations are reluctant to fire incompetent employees for fear of lawsuits, your letter is likely to be seen as dramatically increasing the chance for exactly that.

    Tell HR immediately, they need to know.

  23. Greg NY*

    #1: I’m all for building in buffers on what are firm deadlines. The deadline should be presented in a transparent manner (so there is no such thing as “lying”). It should be understood as there being a firm deadline for the final end product, but the initial deadline (which is a bit earlier) being for a product that is probably going to need some tweaks and minor revisions. A good manager would say that the earlier deadline means less stress for everyone versus a literal last minute crunch, and it also means that if the end product ends up being finished sooner (say, it doesn’t need revisions), that the team can leave early the afternoon before the final deadline (since the end product would’ve already been completed). I think the manager’s biggest problem here is the lack of transparency.

  24. Yikes Dude*

    I don’t know if I would consider that lying about deadlines? As a manager, they totally are within the scope of their job to set deadlines for staff that are different the project’s actual “everything must be perfect and submitted” deadline.

  25. stitchinthyme*

    Re: references – I often wonder when a reference should “expire”? For instance, I’ve been in my current job for five years. If I should decide to look for a new one, should all my references be from my current job, or is it okay to use one from my previous place?

  26. Anonymous Admin*

    I can really feel for the last OP, regarding references. I’ve been with my current company for 8 years, having switched jobs internally a couple times. This is the only company I’ve been with post-college, and all of my current & former managers are still with the company (and very much do talk to one another about these things! There would be no privacy there).

    As far as the job I held in college…I haven’t kept in touch with the managers there, and they couldn’t really speak to my work anyways. The person who could best speak to it was a coworker who happened to be my (now, sadly) late mother. Two strikes against her being a reference there!

    I really need to move on, but the reference thing is one reason I haven’t made much of an attempt.

  27. Stan Lee (not the famous one)*

    In response to 2. An employee asked me to put it in writing that we’re not replacing him:

    How would you feel if the letter just said “I certify that as of this date nobody has been employed for replacement?”

    Leaving out the “and that no plans are made for Bob’s dismissal” part wouldn’t make the letter any less factual. As of this date, there may well nobody employed for replacement. But that doesn’t prevent the company from employing someone for replacement on or after the next date.

    Although, with the letter as written, if Bob does get fired and he claims the letter is a de facto promise that he wouldn’t be, the company could truthfully say that as of the date of the letter, there were indeed no plans for Bob’s dismissal, and that any such plans that were subsequently implemented were not made until, or after, the date of the letter.

  28. Anonomo*

    The probation term confused me on LW2, as Ive only had ‘probationary periods’ in the beginning of a job and some type of PIP is done for later discipline. If thats the case here, it would explain why the employee asked for confirmation that he isnt being let go and points to more of a culture where management has been failing to lay out clear expectations. Agree with Alison either way though, even if your a very low level manager, its a great quality to be open with employees on their performance.

  29. Lettuce Mutton Tomato*

    #4 is in the same position I’m in, except none of Alison’s suggestions work for me. I’ve worked here for 13 years (since I was 24) and, because it’s a small company with very little turnover, I have no former managers or co-workers to use as references. The only former employee (yes, there’s only one!) who could attest to the quality of my work is a former co-owner of the company and is still close friends with the current owner. Obviously that’s not an option. Other than that, I can use the company I worked for from the age of 17-24, but I fear that’s reaching too far back. And, again, it was a small company so I could only use the owner as a reference. I’ve asked for suggestions from readers here before and the fact that no one could think of anything was so depressing. I’m pretty sure I’m stuck at this job until the owner dies or I move to a different state.

  30. GreenDoor*

    #4 – Don’t be so set on the first position that you shoot yourself in the foot. I once applied to be a teller at a bank and was interviewed and when I got a call back it was to ask me to consider a different position. When I probed a bit, I was told they really loved me but I was actually overqualified for the teller position and they wanted me in their accounting department – at $3 more/hour than the teller job. Keep an open mind – there could be a really great reason why they’d like you to consider the other position.

  31. Been There*

    I worked for YEARS with people who purposely blew off internal deadlines, because they didn’t have any respect for the people who were responsible for the external deadlines. They thought the internal deadlines were just arbitrary BS. People like me and our administrators, who were responsible for the external deadline, had to sweat every damned external deadline because of these people.

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