Sorry I'm Late, but My Lizard Died

Excuses for tardiness show employees’ creativity—but may also open employers’ eyes

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 1, 2016
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How can you expect an employee to be on time when there’s fresh powder on the mountains just begging to be skied? Or when abject with grief over the loss of a pet lizard that died during surgery?

These were among the more-unusual excuses people have given for being late to work, according to a CareerBuilder survey released Jan. 28. The excuses, collected from Nov. 4-Dec. 1, 2015, are from 2,595 hiring and HR managers and 3,252 full-time workers in the U.S.

Traffic, oversleeping, bad weather, lack of sleep, and getting children to day care or school were the typical reasons given for late arrivals, but others were more creative:

  • My hair caught on fire from my blow-dryer.
  • All of my clothes were stolen.
  • There was a store grand opening and I wanted to get the opening-day sales.
  • A Vaseline truck overturned on the highway and cars were slipping left and right.
  • I thought of quitting today but decided not to, so I came in late.
  • I was confused by the time change and unsure if it was “spring forward” or “fall back.”
  • A black bear entered my carport and decided to take a nap on the hood of my car.
  • I had to chase my cows back into the field.
  • I was detained by Homeland Security.
  • I had to finish watching “My Name Is Earl.”
  • There was fresh powder on the hill. I had to go skiing.
  • My lizard had to have emergency surgery and died during surgery. I had to mourn while deciding whether to bring the lizard corpse to work or have the vet dispose of the lizard.

Jonathan Ceballos, HR director at Florida-based USBMemoryDirect.com, has heard his share of creative excuses during his career, including the employee who claimed to have accidentally driven to a previous job.

Chris Idle was an office administrator for a company in the U.K. where an employee’s pet hamsters provided an interesting reason for her lapse in punctuality. A male and female hamster had escaped from their cages a few weeks earlier. The amorous result: The employee had spent the morning playing midwife to 18 hamster babies.

And an excuse heard by Heidi Barnes, HR generalist in Florida: “I am late today because of who I am.”

Opportunity for Empathy

CareerBuilder found that 33 percent of employers aren’t bothered by the occasional late arrival as long as it does not become a pattern. Nearly two-thirds of workers (62 percent) say they typically work a longer day to make up for their lateness. 

However, slightly more than half of employers say they expect employees to be on time every day and 41 percent have fired someone for tardiness. Employers may want to think twice, though, before taking such a drastic action.

“Sometimes an excuse is not as outrageous as you think,” observed Joni Holderman, founder of Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Thrive! Resumes.

After an hourly employee was late because he had helped his neighbor change a flat tire, Holderman issued him a written warning, as it was not his first offense. When Holderman spoke with the employee and learned that his family had raised him to help others in his community, her eyes were opened.

“I learned a valuable lesson: Really listen, to understand the employee’s point of view.” 

The employee, too, told Holderman “a better solution would have been for him to offer his neighbor a ride to work [so they were both on time] and change the tire after work,” she said. “It was early in my career, and it was a learning process for both of us.”

But If You Must Be Tardy …

Scott Love, author of Why They Follow: How to Lead with Positive Influence (CreateSpace, 2015) offered a piece of advice for tardy workers:

“When you are running late to a meeting, pull over and buy a box of doughnuts. Nobody will get mad at someone who was thoughtful enough to bring doughnuts to a meeting,” he said in an e-mail.

It’s a recommendation he has followed once or twice, but he added a caveat.

“Dunkin’ Donuts only gives you a 10-minute amount of forgiveness. But with fresh, hot Krispy Kremes, you can miss the whole meeting and they'll forgive you.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter. Check out the SHRM LinkedIn discussion she posted on this topic.

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