Have you ever thought about the amount of time you have spent waiting for someone to come to a meeting? Why is it that we cannot seem to get to meetings on time? Everybody has access to clocks and watches, and some even have computers and electronic devices that can send reminders of upcoming events, yet the problem of meeting timeliness persists.
So, what can be done about this chronic “late for meetings” problem? The noted behavior researcher, B. F. Skinner, concluded that behavior is a function of consequence. By this standard, a major cause of individuals being late is that there are no consequences for their tardiness.
Now, think of your experience with the timeliness of scheduled meetings. Are the meetings delayed while everyone waits for those unable to arrive on time? Do those who are there start calling those who are not? Do latecomers simply walk in with nothing being said? Are some so time-challenged that they don’t show up at all? If any of these scenarios apply to your organization, then maybe you need to think about establishing consequences for lateness or for being absent. Yet, what consequences can we impose that can alter behavior without being petty or overly harsh? Consider some of the following:
Postpone the meeting, and reschedule it to a time after normal working hours. If everyone who is supposed to attend is not there at the appointed start time, the meeting is postponed to a time later than normal hours. Unfortunately, this penalizes those who made the effort to arrive on time, but it will generate peer pressure. In this case, the consequence of the lateness is the negative effect on coworkers. Each will be inconvenienced by the behavior of whomever is late and will likely make their displeasure known to that person. The risk of alienating co-workers should provide the necessary motivation to get to the next meeting on time. A variation on this approach would be to give whoever is late the responsibility of rescheduling the meeting at a time convenient to everyone. The consequence of having to check everyone’s availability in order to reschedule a meeting can also motivate people to get to meetings on time.
Lock latecomers out of the meeting. The idea is to close the door (or even lock it if possible) and allow nobody in once the meeting starts. This can be especially effective for a meeting in which plans and assignments are made. The consequence of missing this type of meeting is a potentially large additional workload. (When someone is not there, many assignments can become theirs.)
Impose a monetary penalty. The idea of collecting “fines” from anyone coming late to a meeting has a certain amount of appeal and has, in fact, been implemented by many companies. The idea is that all latecomers make a monetary contribution to a jar. This contribution may vary, but $5 is a common amount. The consequence here is financial, and if behavior does not change, it has the potential to be quite expensive. Periodically, all of this money should be used for a worthwhile purpose, such as paying for lunch or company shirts, as a kind of repayment to those who may have been inconvenienced by the lateness of others. The money collected can also be used as a charitable contribution to a recognized organization.
Of course, any type of consequence requires discipline to be effective. If consequences for being late are adopted, they need to be administered fairly to everyone. The first time an agreed-to consequence is not enforced, precedent is set and the consequence loses its value as a means of altering behavior. (He was 10 minutes late and didn’t have to put any money in the jar, so why should I?)
Ultimately, although consequences can help alter behavior, a change in a company’s culture may also be needed. Word has to come from the top that it is disrespectful to your coworkers and simply “not right” to be late for meetings. Obviously, there may occasionally be instances beyond our control that will cause us to be late for a meeting. If this is truly “once in a while,” it can be tolerated. Unfortunately, in many organizations, lateness for meetings is an epidemic. If not addressed, this lack of respect for timeliness can upset many employees, and, if tolerated long enough, will affect the organization’s performance.