After Hours

10 excuses your boss doesn't want to hear

Ducking responsibility or shifting blame when a project goes wrong is unprofessional -- and it won't win you any points with your boss either. Justin James explains some ways to circumvent the need for excuse making.

There are lots of reasons why a project might not be going well or may even fail. When your boss wants to know why, there is a world of difference between offering an excuse and providing a legitimate reason. In truth, most excuses only make your manager more upset and put the blame on you. Here are 10 common excuses that employees give their managers — and how you can turn them from weak excuses into a way of getting your supervisor to help you resolve the problems before your project is jeopardized.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: I didn't understand the assignment

Not every boss has great communication skills. And yes, having a manager who is not good at explaining what needs to be done makes life difficult. At the same time, using your boss' inability to explain things as an excuse for not doing them just does not fly. If an assignment does not make sense, it's your responsibility to find out what really has to happen. And if you find yourself in this situation more than once, it is a sign that you need to be extra careful when working with this particular person to get things fully understood.

2: The deadline was impossible

We all know this situation: A manager hands you an assignment with a deadline attached to it. You tell the manager that the deadline can't be met and you're told, "I don't care; make it happen." When the deadline is missed, you say, "But I told you the deadline was impossible!" and the boss is still angry. The disconnect here is that simply saying that the deadline is not possible is not good enough. As soon as the boss tells you to do it and you passively accept the ridiculous deadline, you make it your responsibility to meet it.

Your best defense is to negotiate a better deadline, and to do that, you need a project plan. The fact is, you always should be able to paint a picture of what a project will entail with some broad strokes anyway, and it is fairly easy to assign some rough estimates of the time to make each step happen. When you show your supervisor that even the most optimistic rough draft of a plan that omits a million minor details shows that it will take three months and they are demanding three weeks, guess what? It is now your manager's responsibility to deal with the deadline issue. You have turned an opponent into an ally, and no sane boss can hold you accountable for the bad deadline anymore.

3: A valuable resource was not available

A good part of a manager's job is to ensure that the team has adequate resources in the form of time, money, and equipment. If you are missing a critical resource, your manager needs to know now — not when the project is late or has failed — so that he or she can fix the problem immediately. When you tell your boss ahead of time, it's not an excuse — it's asking for help to solve a problem. When you tell your boss after it's too late, it becomes an excuse and the failure is on you.

4: The requirements shifted

We all know that requirements get changed constantly. All too often, projects undergo the "gold plating" process long after deadlines and success conditions are determined. That being said, it is really bad form to use this as an excuse for failure. It's up to you to nip these changes in the bud as they come up. With each new requirement, you need to show how it will affect the possibility of meeting deadlines and the defined success conditions and either move the goalposts as the requirements change or don't allow the change. If you allow new requirements to be added without changing deadlines, you have effectively made it your responsibility to meet the new targets.

5: I have personal issues

We all have personal issues that come up from time to time. But if your personal issues are affecting your projects' success, you need to either deal with them or get some help with your work. If things have gotten to the point where your boss is asking you, "What is going on here?" it's too late. Explaining your non-work issues at this point is just going to make your boss even more upset. But if you explain that you are having some troubles as soon as you see they are affecting your work, your boss will be able to make the needed adjustments. Most supervisors would rather shift resources or expectations than try to force someone with an outside issue to be 100 percent.

6: I don't have enough time

If you do not have the time to do something, no amount of money, motivation, or resources can make it happen. If there is too much on your plate, you need to get rid of some of it or let your manager know you are overwhelmed. If you don't get any relief, it's your manager's problem, not yours if deadlines can't be met. But like so many of the other situations listed here, it is your responsibility to make it clear that there is a problem as soon as you can, so that adjustments can be made.

7: I don't know what went wrong

Some projects just fall into a rut and never get out. When you're doing the project post-mortem, there is no single thing anyone can point to and say, "This is what messed the project up." All the same, when a project is off the rails, everyone is usually aware of it, even if they don't know why. This kind of situation can be embarrassing. After all, how can you know that the project is blowing up but not know why? Usually, it's a case of "death by 1,000 paper cuts." The project lead had a bad illness and lost a week of time, the servers were down for a day due to hardware failure, the QA person had a death in the family, and so on. All of these reasonable issues can add up to a critical amount of lost work. All too often, we think that if you just keep pushing, maybe the mystery problems will go away and the project will get back on track. But it never actually works out this way. If a project is going south, you have to let people know, even if you don't know exactly why, so they can adjust expectations.

8: We ran into blockages

Workplaces are filled with people who have different, sometimes contradictory, goals. For example, you might need the QA team to test your application but another team's project has priority, so your application does not get tested until long after your deadline is missed. These kinds of work blockages happen all the time. If you can't get the situation sorted out yourself, determine how much delay you will suffer and what your options are and present them to your manager. Armed with that information, your manager will be able to make a decision from there or possibly get priorities straightened out.

9: The only copy of the work got destroyed

If your work is stored on a computer, you have no reason in the world to have only one copy of it. Not only should you be making regular backups, but they should be on different devices in different locations. Back up local files to the network server or work on the network and allow the IT department to handle things. If you think your boss will give you a free pass because the only copy of a critical file was on your laptop, which no longer works after you dropped it, you are dead wrong. In reality, using the "no backups" excuse will have your boss wondering whether you can be trusted with any more projects at all. Back up your work, and you will never have to tell your boss that the dead thumb drive has your only copy of the project.

10: The dog ate my homework

Sometimes, inexplicable events come up that keep you from getting things done. These things happen. Does your boss want to know that your project is late or won't be done satisfactorily because of these kinds of random issues? Of course not. But sometimes, there simply is nothing that can be done about it, especially when it comes up at the last possible moment. Just roll with the punches on this one.


Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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