Celestial Streaks, Missing Molars Make Tardiness Excuse List

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 17, 2010

Comets, volcanic ash and missing teeth are among the oddball reasons employees have given for straggling into work late.

A CareerBuilder.com online survey conducted in April and May 2010 with more than 500 business leaders in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden unearthed the following doozies:

  • Employee had difficulty adjusting to the climate change from winter to summer.
  • Employee was concerned about the impact of an impending comet.
  • Employee’s cat was stuck in the flap of the pet door.
  • Employee was delayed by volcanic ash.
  • Employee’s house was on fire.
  • Employee said a bank robbery occurred in front of his house.
  • Employee said police were taking fingerprints from a stolen car that blocked the employee’s car.
  • Employee said a horse jumped over a hedge and onto the top of her car.
  • Employee said someone moved his teeth.

But U.S. employers have heard their share of wacky tardiness excuses, too.

A clothing malfunction was the funniest excuse Jan McInnis says she’s heard. She’s a comedian and the author of Finding the Funny Fast: How to Create Quick Humor to Connect with Clients, Coworkers and Crowds (Cubicle Comedy, 2009).

“Back when I worked at a real day job,” she told SHRM Online, “my assistant actually called in to say she couldn’t come in because she put her clothes on and they burst!”

Fat chance that was made up.

Sometimes employees forget they are using old material.

“The worst excuse I ever received for someone being late [for] work was ‘my father just had a heart attack,’ ” recalled Barry Maher of California-based Barry Maher & Associates.

“That’s rough,” I said. “I thought for sure when we attended his funeral last year that he was finished with that sort of thing.”

Michelle Johnston heard her favorite excuse when she was directing the health promotion program at California’s UC Davis.

“The employee lived five minutes from the office but was 25 minutes late because his wife made him French toast,” she recounted to SHRM Online. French toast is for weekends, Johnston told the employee.

Sometimes the unusual excuse is true.

Jo Murray of California-based Jo Murray Public Relations, who has an office in Idaho, recalled the time a reliable employee who was new to the area was delayed 15 to 20 minutes by sheep crossing the road.

“She was afraid I was going to question her, but I have lived in Idaho long enough to know that sheep going to/from mountain grazing areas have the right-of-way on highways. I had even seen the sheep myself earlier that morning, and I definitely believed her.”

Rachel Rice-Haase, SPHR, HR coordinator at Oberstadt Landscapes & Nursery in Wisconsin, had an employee who blamed his lateness on shooting a deer in his front yard before heading to work.

Sometimes crime fighting figures into the excuse.

“Several years ago, I had an employee who was perennially late,” said Al Warnick, recalling a story from his corporate career. Today, Warnick is associate department head in the Management Department at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University in Salt Lake City.

One day, coming in 20 minutes late as usual, the man told Warnick he had prevented a robbery that morning.

The employee explained that while passing the neighborhood bank on his way to work, he noticed a car parked in front with the motor running and a suspicious person behind the wheel. Ever vigilant, the tardy employee pulled behind the car, telling Warnick that he “did all I could to appear threatening.”

After several minutes the man pulled away nervously.

“So you see,” the employee explained, “while I was late for work, it was for a very good reason.”

Warnick eventually terminated the employee—tardiness was a factor—but it was the best excuse he said he ever heard.

Employer Action

CareerBuilder.com found that 39 percent of U.K. employers it surveyed are paying more attention to employee punctuality than they did during healthier economic times. Fifteen percent would terminate a worker who was late two or three times, and 12 percent would terminate an employee for being tardy four or five times.

“Arriving late can impact perceptions of our professionalism and reliability, not only in the eyes of your employer but in the eyes of your co-workers, who may have to pick up the slack,” said Tony Ray, managing director for CareerBuilder UK, in a news release.

However, many employers are flexible—46 percent of U.K. employers surveyed don’t care if employees are running late as long as their work is of good quality and completed on time.

Susan Petracco, co-owner of NetBlazon, a Florida-based e-commerce consultancy, told SHRM Online that her company is “too small to terminate employees for coming in late. We just lecture them.”

Rice-Haase of Oberstadt Landscapes & Nursery said her organization has not gotten stricter about tardiness but has started tracking it.

“We are still fairly lenient as long as we are informed; however, we have started to keep better records of employee absences in case it becomes a major issue, and also so we know when it’s becoming an issue,” she said.

Her company now uses a spreadsheet to record every absence and tardiness, and the excuses used.

“In the past we only tracked [paid time off] on our payroll system, and we found that when a supervisor mentioned having issues with an employee being late or being late for work frequently, we barely had any records to prove it. And if tardiness ever became a factor in terminating an employee we had very few records and facts to go by.

In any case, she says, "We still try to respect the fact that employees have a life outside of work, and understand that issues arise and not always at everyone’s convenience,” she told SHRM Online. “However, proof and a record of absences and tardiness are becoming more important to our organization, especially since we have thinned out our workforce.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect