How to Deal with People Who Are Late to Meetings

When someone is chronically late, don’t coddle them. Give them consequences, and shape their behavior so they don’t impact the rest of the team.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #557

Today we’re going to talk about how to deal with people who are late to meetings.

Meetings! I just love meetings! 

No … I don’t. I hate meetings. I especially hate meetings when people arrive late. It’s truly maddening and disrupts the entire flow. You need to whip them into shape, for the good of the team. Also, because it can be really fun to use a whip. But you need to do it in a professional manner.

Be Understanding

When Late Lenny shows up late, how you handle it will depend on Lenny’s history. If they’re usually on time, then you don’t necessarily have to make lateness an issue. It’s entirely possible that they simply got held over in a prior meeting, or they got caught in a traffic jam, or their dog ate their homework. When the meeting’s over, just ask. “You showed up late. Was Fido’s having a low-fiber day? Canine digestion is such a delicate thing.” 

Make sure you both understand the subtext: “Show up on time to the next meeting.”

Once, just to be a nice person, I would have advised you to be understanding. But that’s so pre-social-media. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. So smile nicely as you ask Late Lenny about Fido. And make sure you both understand the subtext: “Show up on time to the next meeting.”

You can also ask what would make it easier for them to arrive on time. Then get creative. If they have a condition like ADHD that makes it difficult to be prompt, you could try assigning them a meeting buddy. If Fido is the problem, buy them a ream of inedible paper for their homework.

Let Repeat Offenders Pay the Price

Sometimes, Late Lenny will arrive late again and again. Each time, they have a truly reasonable excuse.

“A call with our division head went longer than expected.”

“I had to put the finishing touches on the team’s progress report and send it to headquarters.”

“My dog ate my homework (it seems Fido loves inedible paper).”

Even though there's an excuse for each incident, the fact that there’s some incident every time you need to meet is a problem. But it shouldn’t be your problem.

Next time, start the meeting on time. When your apologetic resource shows up (See? We’ve already dehumanized Lenny from colleague to “resource,” which will make hard decisions easier to make), smile sweetly and say, “Welcome!” and go right back to the meeting. Don’t bring them up to speed. Don’t recap. Don’t waste the team’s time slowing down progress just because a special someone had a good excuse. 

Don’t waste the team’s time slowing down progress just because a special someone had a good excuse.

Leave it to Lenny to figure out how to recover and get up to speed on what they missed. If someone else wants to volunteer to meet with them later, that’s fine. But don’t suggest it.

This is a technique called “letting someone deal with the consequences of their own actions.” If you make it easy for them to waste everyone else’s time, they’ll do it. Why wouldn’t they? By refusing to hold back the rest of the team to make up for their flakiness, you’re pushing the consequences squarely onto the person who’s mucking things up.

Bribe People Who are On Time

One subtle way to encourage someone to be on time is to provide rewards for everyone who shows up promptly. You don’t want it to be obvious that this is what you’re doing. Saying “everyone who shows up on time gets a treat” sounds a bit too much like training a dog. People don’t like to be treated like dogs.

Just announce that you’ll be bringing donuts to the meeting. Make sure there’s something for everyone, so choose the vegan, nut-free, dairy-free, low-carb, non-GMO baked donuts. Purchase exactly as many donuts as you have attendees, and tell people that after everyone present has had one, they’re free to take seconds. When everyone but Lenny has had one, everyone will want Lenny’s donut as seconds. Divide it between everyone else. Lenny will rush in with today’s excuse: the rideshare couldn’t drop them off because a clown car was unloading in the parking spot, and it takes sooo long for 87 clowns to climb out of a Volkswagon beetle. Just as Lenny arrives, pop the very last piece of donut into your mouth and say, apologetically, “I sofffy uuu kooden get heah. We ade all de donutz. YUM!” 

Their own fear of missing out will get them showing up on time next time.

Penalize People Who are Late

For extreme cases, delicious healthy donuts aren’t enough motivation. You need to resort to the strategy of last resort: punishment. Although you can often offer rewards without consulting with others, when it comes to social penalties, get the whole team’s buy-in. If the whole team sets the punishment, they’ll all help implement it.

When it comes to social penalties, get the whole team’s buy-in. If the whole team sets the punishment, they’ll all help implement it.

Ask the team what the penalty should be for latecomers. Don’t mention Lenny by name. Just have the group agree on a penalty. For example, whoever is more than 2 minutes late has to pay for the vegan, nut-free, dairy-free, low-carb, non-GMO baked donuts. If you’ve priced health food recently, you know how great a penalty this is.

Next time Lenny is late, they’ll feel it in their pocketbook, not just their wristwatch.

Off With Their Heads

If nothing works, it’s time for a serious talk. Lenny is wasting everyone’s time and failing to be there to contribute when they’re needed. Bring this up at their performance review, and make fixing it part of their personal development plans.

Or, if all else has failed and it’s enough of a drag on the team, consider helping them find gainful employment elsewhere. 


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About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.