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Threats, Bribes, and Shaming: Getting People to Meetings On Time

on April 8, 2013

Read any of the numerous articles about how to improve meetings and you’ll see a tip that simply says, “Make sure people show up on time.” That’s not advice. It’s the equivalent of your stock broker telling you to “buy low and sell high” or your business adviser telling you to make more money than you spend.

We all know we want everyone to show up on time, but complicated lives and business makes it difficult to stay fixed to a timely agenda. It’s often physically impossible to show up to a meeting on time. Many people like to stomp around and get all mighty about the importance of meeting times (See numerous articles on the subject of “Why meetings suck”). With all the grandstanding about meeting times, there’s one critical factor that none of these articles about meetings point out:

Other important things are happening when your meeting is starting.

People have critical deadlines and sometimes there are other meetings more important than your meeting. Starting your meeting on time probably isn’t the most important thing that day. In any business, we shouldn’t be motivated by the clock but rather what provides the most value to the business. All companies are in the business of making money and staying in business. No company is in the business of starting and stopping meetings on time.

With that said, lateness to meetings is still a common irritation that annoys almost everyone. Are there solutions to persuading people to show up to meetings on time?

I did some research and thought a little about some creative ways to get people to show up on time and I asked my followers as well. Here’s a culmination of the advice which I’ve broken down into three main categories – Threats, Bribes, and Shaming – and then one Wild Card category and finally the Nuclear option.


You’ve been assigned…everything: With this technique, make it clear to all attendees there will be some consequences for being late. Employment attorney Heather Bussing at Bussing Law suggests that anyone who’s late or misses a meeting will get assigned all of the work that comes out of the meeting.

Cough up the cash: On Quora, Joseph Hsieh, cofounder of Sometrics, suggests that the last person to the meeting has to contribute some money to the weekly bagel/donut jar.

Take notes, or clean up our mess: Hsieh and Craig Jarrow, author of Time Management Ninja, plus a few others suggested another good penalty would be forcing the person who shows up last to take meeting notes. That idea doesn’t work well in practice or theory. If the person shows up late they’ve missed part of the meeting, assuming everyone else started on time. Plus, being that they’re forced to take notes they probably won’t do a good job. Lastly, it devalues the importance of meeting notes. All you’ll get in the end are really crappy meeting notes. Instead, if you have a meeting with food (see “Bribes” below), make the last person who shows up have to clean up the room when the meeting is over. This technique was also suggested by Jarrow and could also fall under the category of “Shaming.”


Food, glorious food: Instead of threatening attendees with a stick, attract them to your meeting with sugar, literally. Many people suggested food for the first people to arrive, especially donuts and cookies. Go so far as to have a 30 minute pre-meeting for socialization and a limited amount of free food for early arrivers, said Jonathan Bloom, journalist for KGO-TV in San Francisco.

Coolest projects: For those employees not motivated by food, but rather interesting work, let those who arrive on time for meetings get first dibs on new projects, suggested Jarrow.


Similar to threats is the wonderful art of shaming.

Set standards from the top: “Make sure the boss is on time. She sets the culture,” said Cory Ostos Arcarese (@CArcMedia), “If she respects their time by not keeping them waiting, they respect hers.”

“If you are the manager, all you have to to do is say, ‘This meeting started at 9:00. It’s 9:04. What part of this meeting starts at 9:00 did you not understand? Was I not clear,'” noted Patty Azarello, author of “RISE, How to Be Really Successful at Work.” “At that point everyone is squirming and no one is late again. Really, you only need to do this once or twice and then everyone is on time. The big problem happens when the manager is the one who is always late. Then it’s pretty hopeless…”

In an article on CNET Steve Tobak (@SteveTobak) concurred with Azarello. “If most of a company’s executives exhibit this trait, then find another company. It’s a sign of immaturity and disrespect for others.”

Make lateness visible: Alexander Kjerulf, author of the blog Chief Happiness Officer, had a great little shaming technique for meetings. He would set out four glasses with names attached to each and drop in green marbles for those who showed up on time and red marbles for those who arrived late. Attendees will inevitably ask, “What’s the deal with the marbles?” All you have to say is you’re keeping track of who’s on time and who’s not. No need to threaten them. just let them know you’re counting marbles.

“This is not punishment it’s just a way of making the issue visible,” said Kjerulf.

I like this idea although I would make it a little more permanent, say writing on a board that can’t be erased. Once people are publicly outed for their behavior and it sits there for a long time they will naturally just change their behavior to avoid being shamed.

Act like high school students: “When someone arrives late, stop the meeting and give the late person an obnoxious round of applause,” said Christina Walkup, Project Manager of Omnific Pictures. “No one wants to be that person. And its a lot of fun to embarrass your co-workers in public.”

Hold meetings in a tiny room: Spark Media Solutions partner Joy Powers (@JoyPowers) had a previous job where monthly meetings were held in a room which didn’t afford everyone a place to sit.

“If you show up late, you didn’t have a place to sit for an hour,” said Powers.

Wild Card

Start and end on time: Much of the advice out there just says, “Start the meeting on time and end on time.” This unfortunately doesn’t work if the key person who needs to be there hasn’t arrived. On the rare occasions that’s not the case and you have the luxury of just starting meetings on time and ending on time regardless of who is in the room, then just keep doing it and people will get the idea that your meetings operate on a precise schedule.

“Waiting for [late arrivers] only teaches them that it’s OK to be late,” said Kjerulf.

Have a meeting buddy system: “Never go to any meeting that can’t start without you,” advised Bill Biggar, CEO of SudokuPDQ. Always have a “second” or someone else that can speak on your behalf should you come late.

Schedule short meetings: There’s no reason that every meeting must be held in 30 minute increments. If a meeting is an hour long then it’s no big deal to be 5-10 minutes late, right? But if the meeting is 15 minutes long and you’re 10 minutes late, you missed the meeting.

Schedule the meeting at an odd time: Choose odd times that don’t correspond with the top or bottom of the hour, or end in “5” or “0.” This psychological trick will put more emphasis on the importance of the start time.

Let others see how late you’ll be: If lateness is a reality given that people are traveling, then you could take advantage of the mobile application Twist. Available on both iOS and Android, the Twist application lets you alert people as to how far away you are and calculates based on traffic or if you’re walking how long it will take for you to get to your destination. You can purposely share this with a small private group.

Go Nuclear

Here are a couple of options that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate, but you can pretty much guarantee no one will ever be late to another meeting or you’ll be sued for wrongful termination.

Quoting the film “Glengarry Glen Ross,” comedian Steven Carey Lassoff suggests, “First to arrive, a new Cadillac, second, a set of steak knives, third, you’re fired!”

Similarly, you could take the approach of Chinese military general Sun Tzu, said Eric Gold (@mrericgold), “When someone shows up late for the next meeting, fire that person on the spot in front of everyone else.”

What do you recommend?

This is just a sampling of the different ways you can get people to come to meetings. I’m interested to know what techniques you’ve seen work and which ones don’t. Share in the comments below. I promise to respond on time.


Stock photo of bored meeting attendants courtesy of Bigstock photo.

Creative Commons photo attribution to zamboni.andrea, David Gallagher, Dawn Huczek, and marsmet546.

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