Employee excuses are as varied and individual as the people that provide them. It is the oldest trick in the book that is perhaps learned from the school culture where “the dog ate my homework”. It is extremely frustrating to rely on completed work only to be provided with excuses, especially when they come from the same few employees. Leaders are bombarded with excuses such as: 

I was waiting for you to give me more information”
“That’s not my job”
“I am under the pump right now”
“I didn’t understand I had to do that”
“It's not my fault, ‘X’ never did their part”

If excuses are part of the accepted culture in your business, then you will continue to be frustrated and bemused.

12 tips to help to create a culture of ‘no excuses’

1. Set the expectations clearly 

If your employees struggle to understand what you expect from them, it is time to change your approach. When expectations are laid out clearly, it removes the “I didn’t understand” excuse straight away. To eliminate misunderstandings:

  • be clear on deadlines and deliverables;
  • put the expectations in writing via email to confirm a verbal agreement;
  • ask clarifying and confirming questions to ensure the employee has the same understanding; and
  • assign individuals to be responsible for tasks to avoid ‘the blame game’ amongst team members.

2. Make employees accountable

Employees will work out if you are a ‘soft touch’ leader. This means that if you repeatedly let your team member off the hook for not delivering, you are establishing a culture where non-performance is acceptable. Employees learn that if they do not deliver, there will not be a consequence and hence no enticement to change. It is time to let the team know that you will no longer be letting underperformance go unchecked.

Creating a system of accountability holds employees responsible for their contribution to success. When we stop accepting excuses, employees stop making them. If a team member didn’t deliver, look past excuses to determine if there is a legitimate reason. If it is purely an excuse, an opportunity has been presented to partner with the employee to overcome the barrier.

3. Don’t hide your disappointment

Leaders will often want to hide their disappointment to avoid the risk of upsetting employees. This is particularly true for ‘pleaser’ personalities as there is a desire to not make the other person feel bad. Showing your disappointment is not about punishing employees – it is about demonstrating that their decision to not deliver has an impact.

Consider helping the employee to understand the impact of their actions:

Mark, I can appreciate that you have been busy, and this has contributed to missing the deadline. I am, however, disappointed that you did not flag with me earlier that there was a chance the report would not be delivered. If you had given me this information, I would have helped you to reprioritise or allocated another resource. As a result, I will now miss my deadline to the Chief Executive. In the future, I need you to commit to communicating with me prior to missing a deadline so that we can work together on the right solution. Is that something that you can commit to?”

4. Keep a close eye on workloads

If an employee keeps missing deadlines, there are usually the following rationales:

  • there are genuine reasons outside of their control stopping the deliverable;
  • there is simply too much work for the timeline;
  • there is no the support in place to achieve success; or
  • the employee does not have the ‘will or the skill’ to deliver on time.

When you keep a close eye on workloads, it makes it easier to determine what you are dealing with. If there are genuine obstacles in the way, you will be much better positioned to support before it is too late. Conversely, if it is a ‘will or skill’ scenario, you are presented with an early opportunity to intervene.

5. Ask for updates

Waiting until the day before the work is due to ask how it is going is problematic. When employees know that they need to give weekly or regular updates, it keeps excuses at bay as there is clarity and accountability in place. Invite team members to give updates through meetings, status reports, or in 1 on 1s.

6. Be clear about what is most important

It is not uncommon for work to pile up and the employee to become overwhelmed. In this scenario, they will make their own determination about what is most important, which may differ from your own priority list. When workloads are high, be clear with the team member about what is most important to you in terms of delivery. Without this clarity, employees will self-select, which may leave you without a key section of your own management report or deliverable.

6. WIIFM – “What’s in it for me?”

Leaders can be quick to think that employees should ‘just do it because that’s what they are paid to do’. This may be true but helping employees to understand their ‘why’ is worthwhile as it creates motivation and connection to the task.

In addition, it empowers employees to understand ‘how’ what they do contributes to the success of your team and the broader business. Every role is valuable, so assist your team to understand that they are an important link in the chain.

7. Focus on the strength of teamwork

“It’s not my responsibility” are not words that you ever want to hear, but it comes when there is a clear lack of teamwork. Perhaps the whole organisation currently works in ‘silos’ where teamwork is non-existent, or maybe there is just an issue in your team. It is worth investing the time into creating a team culture where ‘we’ is much more important than ‘me’.

Consider putting more of a focus on team success over individual goals and look for opportunities where stronger performers can partner with struggling employees to drive improvement. Make it clear through your actions and messaging that whilst individual success is important, the real victory is when the whole team makes it over the line.

8. Lead by example

Are you someone that provides excuses to your own manager? Do you ‘pay forward’ excuses by using your team member’s excuse as the reason the monthly report did not get completed on time? It is time to lead by example by owning your own workload, providing updates, and seeking help before the deadline looms.

9. Resist the temptation to do it yourself

Of course, it is easier to ‘do it yourself’ but that is not your role and the employee will always know that there is a ‘get out of jail free card’ waiting for them. When the employee states that they can’t do it, ask questions to understand what hurdles are in their way and work together to remove them. Restate to the employee that the task is their responsibility and resist the temptation to get into the driver’s seat.

10. Listen to the problem, not the excuse

Even short excuses have lengthy justifications attached. Unless the excuse is justified for circumstances outside of the employee’s control (e.g. technology, other departments) then the ‘reason’ for the excuse does not matter. Do not waste time entertaining the excuse and trying to validate whether the excuse has merit. Confirm your understanding and move quickly to asking them to identify a solution.

11. Be courageous with repeat offenders

Excuses do come from all types of employees, but there will usually be one or two repeat offenders on the team. These employees can be counted on more for their excuses than their output. Help these employees to understand the expectations, ask for their commitment to meet them, and consistently address underperformance in a timely manner.

12. Don’t give excuses a platform

Excuses will only thrive in a workplace where they are given the platform to do so. They become cancer in an otherwise healthy team environment. It is critical that leaders create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their hurdles and roadblocks before they veer off course. Demonstrating to employees that excuses will not be entertained creates a fair and consistent workplace where everyone is accountable for their performance. 

Further information 

Ai Group has experienced HR consultants who can partner with your business to devise workplace leadership strategies designed to increase engagement and operational efficiency. For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.