Pilita Clark: When a rude boss keeps you waiting, why not walk out?
Is it reasonable to leave after being kept waiting 20 minutes without explanation for a 30-minute meeting?
A friend of mine did something the other day that I have often wanted to do myself but have always been too cowardly to try. He walked out on a rude chief executive. The result was so encouraging it has made me think that more people should do the same.
My friend, Ken Hudson, is an Australian business consultant, and two weeks ago he turned up at the Sydney office of a reasonably well-known organisation for a half-hour meeting with its chief executive.
The CEO had confirmed the 1pm meeting over email in person two days earlier, so Mr Hudson, who had arrived ahead of time, told the receptionist to let the man know he was in the foyer and was happy to wait until the scheduled time.
By 1:10pm he was still waiting. By 1.15pm he was miffed. Did the CEO definitely know he was there? “He knows,” said the receptionist. Twice.
At 1.20pm, with no word still from the CEO and another meeting to get to, Mr Hudson left.
That night he posted a question on LinkedIn: was it reasonable to leave after being kept waiting 20 minutes without explanation for a 30-minute meeting? Or were these the new rules of the game?
“I was genuinely interested,” he told me last week, explaining he had been out of daily corporate life for years, and for all he knew it was naive to still expect punctuality in today’s rushed business world.
People on LinkedIn assured him he had done the right thing. Several said the CEO’s behaviour was depressingly common, and many said they had adopted a rule to leave after 15 minutes. The CEO himself seemed to confirm the wisdom of this approach. He emailed the next day to apologise and arrange a new meeting, this time for an hour.
Even so, I was not entirely convinced. For one thing, much depends on who one is trying to meet. Angela Merkel and Pope Francis are among the many leaders who have been kept waiting by the notoriously unpunctual Vladimir Putin. They had little choice.
Nor did I the night I sat until 1.15am in a Havana hotel room with a visiting foreign minister due to see Fidel Castro, who eventually called the meeting off.
If the chief executive of the Financial Times is reading this he knows he can keep me waiting more than 15 minutes any time he likes as long as I want to keep my job. The more I thought about it, though, the more I could see there are times when walking out makes sense.
For a start research suggests a meeting that does not start on time is troublesome. In a gathering that starts even 10 minutes late, the frustration people feel seems to spill over into the meeting itself, writes US academic Steven Rogelberg in his 2019 book The Surprising Science of Meetings.
People are more likely to interrupt each other throughout, and overall late meetings produce fewer new or good ideas. This is unfortunate considering Prof Rogelberg’s studies also show that meetings tend to start late 50 per cent of the time.
Things may be different in a one-on-one meeting, especially if it is a job interview. But even then being kept waiting for no reason should be a warning that this is an organisation to avoid.
Ultimately the best argument for the walkout is the deep satisfaction of preserving one’s dignity, particularly if it is possible to follow the example of Scottish investor Hugh Hendry.
Hendry is a former hedge fund manager who once flew from the UK to Brazil to meet the chief executive of a company in which one of his funds had a stake of nearly 5 per cent.
On arrival he was kept waiting in a glass-walled office where he could see the CEO, he later told the investor news website ValueWalk. Eventually a young woman with no hands-on experience in the business emerged to say the chief executive was busy but she could take his questions.
Furious, Mr Hendry pulled out his phone and told her he had his trader on speed dial and would be selling 1 per cent of equity for every five minutes her boss failed to materialise.
“He didn’t come so I was like, ‘screw you’. I sold it,” he said. “Thankfully I did because actually the stock bombed.”
It could have gone the other way, of course. But even if it had I am sure the pain of loss would have been dulled by the simple joy of revenge.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020
Previously published in The Irish Times.