Should we wait to start a meeting or an event until everyone has arrived? That’s kind of the question a reader we’re calling Petra asked after she recently found the ballet she had paid to watch start 15 minutes after the published performance time.
“What really got me is that they were still seating people who arrived even later,” wrote Petra, who noted that when someone arrived late, it often resulted in a whole row of people having to stand to let the person into their seat.
After the ballet performance, which Petra reported was exceptional, she considered whether she was overreacting. She remembered, however, that it’s not just ballet performances that seem to be interrupted by tardy attendees. More and more people seem to be showing up late to virtual or in-person meetings at work, Petra wrote.
What’s worse, she noted, was that they never seem to be called out on their lateness, nor do they offer an apology to the those who assembled on time. Most often Petra indicates the meetings start without the late attendees, but it particularly aggravates her when the convener says something like: “Why don’t we give people another few minutes to arrive before we get started?”
Why, wondered Petra, should those who were responsible enough to show up on time have to wait?
Petra has every right to be aggravated. There are occasions when people, even Petra, might be late for a meeting or an event because of unforeseen circumstances. But should they expect the meeting to wait for their arrival before it begins?
Employees of companies create the norms for acceptable behavior. If colleagues know that meetings never start on time, the message is likely to be received that showing up on time doesn’t matter. But if meetings were to start on time regardless of whether everyone had arrived on time, the message might be made clear that it was important to be there on time both out of an interest to accomplish whatever task is at hand and to show respect for colleagues’ time.
If an employee is perpetually late to a meeting, then the right thing is for that person’s manager to remind them of the importance of showing up. If the late arriver is the manager or boss, then the message is sent that lateness is OK. If lateness is the norm, employees like Petra will have to decide if the aggravation is offset by other positive aspects of working for this business.
As for the ballet or any other performance, the right thing is to make every effort to get people seated and to start on time. Once the performance starts, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider reverting to the old tradition of only seating people during breaks in the performance. I am confident some places already do this. Sure, it might be frustrating to late arrivers to miss some minutes of the performance, but then the vast majority of the patrons who are already seated won’t have to be frustrated by waiting longer for the action to start or to have it interrupted once it does.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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