Workzone: In U.S. workplaces, 'late' still a four-letter word

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This week, when the phone rang two minutes before a scheduled conversation, Tony Ellison was ready for the call.

Mr. Ellison, CEO of, would rather be early than late. is based in New York City, where the trains and certainly the buses don't always run on time, so Mr. Ellison understands that sometimes there are unavoidable delays. But being chronically late for work, or starting meetings well past the scheduled time, sends the wrong message.

"When you have somebody who is not being punctual, it sends the message that they don't care, they aren't respectful," he said.

Mr. Ellison has even fired people who are habitually tardy for work after repeated warnings: "That's something that needs to be addressed because it is contagious."

He is not alone in his view.

Perspectives on timeliness are sort of like lined notebook paper: There is the narrow rule, such as Mr. Ellison's, for people who would rather be early than late; there's the wide rule for people for whom the clock is more of a guide than an instrument; and there is the college rule, where you can leave if the professor is 15 minutes late.

Punctuality, and its sister topic, time management, are among the top issues addressed by the Emily Post Institute during business seminars, said the Mistress of Etiquette's great-great-grandson, Daniel Post Senning. (Another topic is not eating other people's food from the communal fridge, he said, but that has been covered in previous Workzone columns and will surely be revisited another day.)

Punctuality and taking full advantage of time is so important to American business that there is even the cliche, "time is money."

At the Emily Post Institute, Mr. Senning said, "We really emphasize starting on time and finishing on time." Meetings that run too long then spill over into later meetings, setting everyone back in their schedules.

Mr. Senning said the notion that one should be strictly punctual is very American.

In the U.S., he said, the concept that "time is money" is so woven into the fabric of business that American businessmen abroad are shocked by the lack of punctuality in other cultures.

"There are other cultures where it matters much less," he said. He said in China meetings almost never start on time, and the participants do not get right down to business when they do.

In Central and South America, businesses also seem to be in a completely different time zone than American businessmen because the culture there does not stress on-time behavior. Americans visiting those places always joke about (name of country)-time.

Mr. Senning stressed that as U.S. workplaces become more diverse, the cultural sensitivity on time might need some tweaking, so that various cultures understand what time means to the other and the message that tardiness sends to others.


Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.


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