Sunday, April 26, 2009


I'm driven by deadlines.

Meetings, articles, social obligations, family events ... Every week more than one deadline looms. Hitting various deadlines often requires me to intricately orchestrate tasks so that everything can get done on time.

Even so, it's rare that I miss a deadline. Partly this is out of a feeling of obligation to meet the commitments I've made, but there's also the sense that, if I miss one, the result will be akin to my experiences at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where one late aircraft can trigger a chain of delays that snarls thousands of people who have nothing to do with that first plane.

That's why I hate it when colleagues, family or friends give me a false deadline. You know, one that has been set weeks before the actual deadline, because the deadline setter doesn't trust people to get things done when they say they will.

Last week a reader told me that his boss, the owner of the company, is notorious for missing deadlines on projects. As a result, my reader and his co-workers have taken it upon themselves to lie when the boss asks them about the deadline for any given project.

"Is it wrong for us to do this?" he asks.

Short answer: Yes, it's wrong. There's a basic ethical obligation to be truthful to your superiors, and nothing about this situation changes that.

We all have colleagues who simply cannot be counted upon to get things done on time. Even when they are gifted, talented people, they are officially among those who drive us nuts.

It's even more challenging when your boss is such a person. When the boss misses a deadline, the whole company misses it and the whole company pays the price. And, of course, there's nobody to call the boss on the carpet and demand that he or she get organized or else.

If you're looking for the ethical approach, however, lying to the boss is not the way to go.

It's ultimately the boss's job, not yours, to see that projects get done on time, even ones that he has entrusted to you. Your job is to make your best effort to accomplish this, and that doesn't mean lying to your boss. All you can ethically do is make clear the consequences of his failing to meet the deadlines: "This is when we need your signoff, and if we don't get it by then the project will inescapably be late."

Once you've done that -- and make sure that what you tell him is true -- you've done all you can do. If he still doesn't come through, devote your unscheduled down time to coming up with a diplomatic way to demonstrate, in the inevitable post-mortem, that the project's lateness was indeed due to his missing the deadline.

Hopefully being burned once or twice will convince him to get serious about time management. In any case, however, you'll know that you did your best and were honest and straightforward throughout.

Please, however, give colleagues who regularly make their deadlines a break by not misleading them into thinking that their work is due before it actually is. I'll appreciate it very much.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Not only is it unethical to lie, but once your boss becomes aware of it,he/she will never know whether or not you are being truthful about future deadlines.
Better you should be a nag, which by itself might prompt him/her to meet that deadline.


Charlie Seng said...

I agree with dag2427, the example given as the way to react to a boss who misses deadlines is simply what passes for judgement today. You go to work and get a salary for meeting the requirements of the job, whether they are given to you by a boss who is perfect, or by a boss with human foibles and weaknesses. To me, it is just an example of today's lack of principles where someone thinks they can judge their boss by making their own rules in reaction to your boss's weaknesses.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

alohame said...

once a liar, always a liar. that's not good sense as a person, nor a worker. it will eventually catch up to you and you will lose your job, your friends, your rep. is it really worth it?

Shmuel said...

I'm all about honesty, but I strongly disagree with this one. You've got two choices here. You can give the real deadline, in the full knowledge that the boss isn't going to make it. In this case, you've followed the letter of the ethical law, but you, the boss, and everybody else ends up miserable. (Well, possibly everybody else ends up miserable while you bask in the warm glow of self-satisfaction, as you tell yourself that it's not your fault.) Or you give the fake deadline. The work gets done in time, you're happy, the boss is happy, and the only problem is that the deadline you gave was entirely true in a psychological sense, but not a strictly literal one.

I think your basic problem here is that you're assuming the boss wouldn't want to be "lied" to under these circumstances. This assumption baffles me.