Last Word: It’s 1:50 p.m. Where Are You?

Back-to-back meetings are a scourge to businesspeople—especially when they run past their allotted time. Here’s how to resolve the situation in a way that is the least rude to everyone.

By Peter Post

It’s 1:50 p.m., and you’re starting to feel uncomfortable. The meeting you’re in was scheduled for 1 to 2 p.m. But there is no end in sight, and you have a meeting scheduled for 2 to 3 p.m. with your team to finalize a project that is due at the end of the week.

Back-to-back meetings are a scourge to businesspeople. Managers share their experiences and frustration with back-to-back meetings with me, so I often offer this scenario as a problem-solving exercise in business etiquette seminars for new hires.

If you find yourself in this “between a rock and a hard place” situation, two courses of action are immediately apparent:

  1. You can choose to blow off the second meeting. You think to yourself: “I’m sure my team will understand.”
  2. Or you can choose to announce to the current meeting that you have another meeting to get to, so you will have to excuse yourself and leave in the next minute or so.

Neither of these solutions works—it is rude either to the people you are with or to the people you are meant to meet with at 2 p.m. Still, you need to resolve the situation one way or the other, and you need to do it in a way that is the least rude to everyone.

Begin by identifying which meeting is more important. If it turns out the first meeting is with your CEO, then it is more important. In that case, instead of simply announcing you need to be somewhere else in a few minutes, you could explain to your CEO that you have another meeting scheduled to begin in 10 minutes and you would like to ask them to push back the start time for that meeting. This way, you don’t keep the people in the second meeting cooling their heels waiting for you.

However, if your second meeting is the more important one, then let the first meeting know of your situation and ask to continue it at a later time: “While I really like what we’re accomplishing here, it’s about 1:50 and we’re meant to break at 2. I do have a 2 p.m. meeting I need to get to. Could we take a moment to schedule a continuation later today or tomorrow morning?” This approach shows respect for both groups.

The real issue here is that you let yourself get into the situation in the first place. Here are some tips to avoid the problem altogether:

  • When you schedule meetings, make sure you provide a buffer time of at least 15 minutes between them. A 30-minute buffer is even better. If the meetings are in different locations, plan for that in your scheduling, too. Inevitably, despite your best efforts, you’ll still find yourself tightly scheduled sometimes. When that happens, anticipate the problem and address it before the first meeting starts.
  • If the first meeting is the more important one, contact the people in the second meeting, explain the situation, and let them know you’ll be there ASAP or try to reschedule for later. Alternatively, you could ask a surrogate —an assistant or a colleague—to fill in for you until you can get there.
  • If the second meeting is the more important one, check in with the organizer of the first meeting and let her know you have a hard stop at 2 p.m. and will have to leave before the meeting ends. That way when 1:50 rolls around, you won’t find yourself squirming in your seat wondering what to do.

If you have business etiquette questions you’d like Peter Post to answer either in an upcoming issue of Training magazine or in an online article, please e-mail them to Trainingmagazine Editor-in-Chief Lorri Freifeld at lorri@trainingmag.com.

Peter Postis a director of The Emily Post Institute (http://www.emilypost.com/seminars), great-grandson of Emily Post, and co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business.”

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