Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My dog ate my homework and other work excuses that don't work

We've all heard one. We've all said one. A lame excuse. While excuses can be annoying anytime, chronic excuses in the workplace can tarnish your reputation and cast doubts on your abilities.

Excuses that don't work:
  • I was working on [low-priority project]. If you have a hard time prioritizing your work, ask your supervisor when the projects are assigned. If you don't ask, it may be assumed that you should know, and this excuse won't fly.
  • I didn't know it was due yet. A few things you should always ask at the beginning of a project: timeline, budget, and relative priority. Not asking doesn't mean you're off the hook.
  • Most things that you volunteer without being prompted. Making an excuse when you're not being questioned makes you sound guilty. Are you? 
  • Anything that's repeated more than once a month. Chronic excuses send up a red flag. If you are constantly having difficulty getting your work done, then maybe you're in over your head.
Excuses that sometimes work:
  • I'm waiting on [someone else]. Does this someone else know you're waiting on them? What's their excuse? While some folks just can't be prodded along quickly enough, learning good project and people management skills can help you avoid most situations like this.
  • I didn't see that after-hours request come in. Although the lines are increasingly blurred with today's technology, this is valid if you're an hourly employee and aren't required to check in outside of work. If you're salaried and exempt from overtime, it's a little fuzzier, especially if you have a work-issued cell phone that you're expected to check.
Valid excuses:
  • I was working on [higher priority project]. Although any excuse should also be avoided, if a high-priority rush project came in and took up your time, don't drop the ball. At the same time, you shouldn't let progress lapse on lower priority projects if you can help it.
  • Emergencies. While I hope this doesn't happen to you, sometimes an emergency can derail our work. Sudden illness or medical emergencies, death, and personal catastrophes can result in unplanned days off work. 
I've made my fair share of excuses over the years (just ask my mom, she's heard them all). The most memorable one, though, has to be from President's Day weekend my second semester of grad school. K proposed on Friday night and I had an assignment that I hadn't started writing yet due at 5 pm on Saturday. I emailed the prof for a 24 hour extension, which she granted. When I got back to class on Tuesday morning, my prof outed me to the whole class, saying it was the best excuse she'd ever heard. I highly doubt it, but I was glad she was understanding (her son had recently gotten engaged, too).

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard at work? The worst one you've ever used?


  1. Worst excuse I hear a lot is something like "I didn't see it in email / it was lost in all my email," the implication being that this person gets so much email, they can't keep track. Yes, we all get tons of email. But managing that email *is* part of your job, esp. when you work in high-tech (as I do). Don't wait for someone to IM or text or call you about a project!

  2. I love your engagement excuse. I'm terrified to use excuses because I'm afraid I'll get caught in some awful lie. I usually just say I had a personal emergency without elaborating. Procrastinating on Pinterest is a personal emergency, right?

  3. Ugh....I am just sick and tired of office politics. Just got the job done and schmooz later...

  4. Very sweet story. I think the biggest "excuse" I have given was when I took some cold medicine in college that wired me for like 12 hours. I was supposed to be finishing up a paper but I couldn't concentrate so a friend saw me and suggested I email and call my professor for a short extension. He was very understanding. Once the medicine was out of my system I still had the cold but I banged out the paper no problem.

  5. @ trystan - oo those are bad. Email can be totally manageable if you do it right, and few people really are THAT inundated with real emails they have to read (as opposed to CCs or FYIs).

  6. I'll tell you the one I used today, which is true...
    My grandmother's freezer broke down so I had to empty her freezer and take all the food to my freezer so it would not get spoiled.
    I was late.

  7. @ lorena - that's reasonable. I also think there's a big difference in being late (for a workday) vs. not getting actual work done.

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