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You’re in panic mode right now.
You’ve been cramming to meet a deadline, and there’s just no way it’s going to happen. Not to mention, this project you have no shot of completing is due in a few short hours.
You contemplate throwing your computer out the window and coming up with an elaborate lie. But a much better (and more professional) option is to send an email explaining the situation.
In it, you should do four things:
When you admit you messed up, people are more likely to believe you that you can identify what went wrong and prevent it in the future. If you blame someone or something else, they’ll think you learned nothing.
Tell the other person what information you can provide in the meantime so you’re not leaving anyone empty-handed. This could be more insight into the direction you’re taking the project or ballpark numbers—something that proves you’re on track to get it done.
Share when the work will be completed, and—whatever you do—don’t give into the temptation to only ask for one more hour. (You don’t want to send this email twice!) Ask for more time than you think you need, that way you can send a polished final project.
People make mistakes, and so if this is the first time, the other person should understand. That said, you have to follow up and turn everything else in on time (or early).
Here’s what that email will look like:
Dear [Boss, Client, or Co-Worker Name],
I’m reaching out because, unfortunately, I won’t be able to submit [project] in [number of] hours as promised. I take full responsibility for underestimating how long it would take, and for not reaching out sooner.
Attached, I’ve included [notes, a rough draft, ballpark figures, or an outline]. While this is not ready to be shared with [team/clients], I want to give you a sense of where it’s headed.
Now that I know how long it takes to [run the numbers/work with this new program/draw conclusions from findings], I feel confident I can have this finished in [extremely realistic amount of time]. I will have the finished project to you by [new time] on [day].
I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience and want to assure you this won’t happen again.
Your recipient may be annoyed, maybe even angry, and that’s to be expected. You’d probably feel the same way if you were in his shoes. However, once you’ve done a great job and turned it in, it should blow over.
Of course, this email only works if this is not a regular occurrence and there aren’t major repercussions. If you’re continually missing deadlines, I’d suggest bumping the conversation from email to a phone call or an in-person meeting. And going forward, instead of addressing it on a project-by-project basis, talk to your boss about your workload or your client about unforeseen obstacles, so you can address the larger problem.
Finally, if there will be major repercussions, like you could be responsible for the company losing a high-paying client, you need to deliver the news in person (if at all possible). Along with hitting on the points mentioned above, add “Is there anything I can do to make this better?” and then be prepared for the answer.
You may be asked to work overtime until you get it done, or CC your boss on every email and send daily updates for the remainder of the project, or transfer your work-to-date to a co-worker who’ll take over lead. Skip the temptation to give a rebuttal, pointing to everything that’s gone right. Demonstrate a positive attitude as you move forward with the suggested solution.
Assuming you’re a hard worker who slipped up once, take a deep breath and remember that you’ll be able to earn back your reputation. The fact you’re worried about the impact of this proves just how much you care about your career.