Whether it is a customer, a colleague or a superior, what is the most professional and least career-damaging way to explain a shortcoming or inability to handle a short term request due to getting unexpectedly ill - especially while already at work?

Maybe a deadline, replying to a specific question by a customer, something I just could not do because I was ill that moment, etc. Generally these are things no one else could do.

  • Is this a one time event? Or is this an ongoing condition that flares up with some regularity? I would also be seriously concerned about why no one else could deal with an issue-- businesses need to be structured so that others can take over if one person is unexpectedly away. Apr 7, 2014 at 14:41
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    Paolina, welcome to the Workplace! I made a slight edit to focus your question and make it a bit more scoped for the site. If this changes your intent too much, feel free to edit back in any required information.
    – enderland
    Apr 7, 2014 at 14:44
  • @JustinCave - It is a one time case, but is happening more frequently to me. Of course I understand that an ideal business should have all kinds of contingency plans, but this is a pretty small business and the kind of situations I am talking about are pretty unexpected.
    – Paolina12
    Apr 7, 2014 at 15:00

3 Answers 3


I would say that in a situation like this, communication is paramount. As soon as you know you will not be able to meet the deadline or answer a question, communicate this to the other party. Simply say something like:

A terrible migraine prevents me from meeting your request within a reasonable timeframe, if this request is really urgent please contact John Doe ([email protected]). Otherwise, I will contact you as soon as I get back to the office. Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience.

This is of course assuming that you have a colleague who can step in. But even in that case, communication is very important.

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    Is it necessary to include specifics of your illness? You wouldn't say "a nasty case of diarrhea", would you? Better to be generic, I think.
    – Codeman
    Apr 7, 2014 at 19:20
  • I agree, simply mentioning one is sick should suffice. Apr 7, 2014 at 19:32

The most professional thing you can do is plan ahead - if you know certain situations are more likely to make you ill, then avoid finding yourself there in the first place.

For example, say after a long trip you feel so tired you can barely walk. In this case, avoid scheduling meetings the next day. Or, avoid traveling before a deadline. Simply put: if you want to be a professional, be professional with yourself first. It's likely that you have accumulated a lot of "mental" data about your illness, to the point where you should have a model that can help you work around what your work schedule should be. If you don't have one, try writing down your work pattern, see if you can spot what circumstances allow you to work undisturbed, and what hinders you.

Secondly, have somebody trusted back you up. Consider this a "plan B": your boss, a colleague, anybody who could catch the bullets in these emergency situations where you can't deal with them. Be honest with this person: let them understand they are helping you, let them know about your illness, and never ever abuse their patience. Consider this a "business deal" and treat is as such. Don't mix friendship with professionalism.

Everything else is very much dependent on your illness and the nature of your job.

  • lorenzog, I appreciate your answer, but obviously you are giving a preventive solution rather than how to address something after it has happen. Note also that I clarified in the comments above, I truly mean situations where I suddenly get ill WHILE I am at work, and not cases where I am off for a sick day. Hope this clarifies. Thanks in any case!
    – Paolina12
    Apr 7, 2014 at 15:05
  • Hi, thanks for the clarification. My second solution still holds - have somebody trusted who can help you for sudden, unexpected situations. Probably, in the end, there's no silver bullet to address your circumstance.
    – lorenzog
    Apr 7, 2014 at 15:08
  • lorenzog, if you were in my situation, in the very instant, what would you reply to the customer?
    – Paolina12
    Apr 7, 2014 at 15:11
  • If you're ill and as you said your condition prevents you from even thinking about what they are asking the best thing to do is nothing. Wait until your brain gets back in gear. Anything else you said is very likely to make your situation worse.
    – lorenzog
    Apr 7, 2014 at 15:17
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    If you say that you are too sick to work, I would be surprised to see you a few hours later at the parents meeting. If the meeting is the day after, a day is more than enough to get better from, say, a very bad headache. Apr 7, 2014 at 15:28

The decision as to whether to get someone else to fulfill the request while you are ill at work depends upon what the deadline is, the SLA (Service Level Agreement) and the firm's own customer service and support goals to external and internal customers. You should escalate that decision to your management ASAP. That's doing it formally. Again, the reason you want management making the decision is that they know the policies, the priorities, the deadlines and what can be massaged and what can't and the plain fact is, you and I are not aware of all of the nuances.

Informally, you may ask your colleagues to fill in for you and back you up. But then, it is your responsibility to make sure that they actually come through for you and you have to escalate to management when their walk doesn't match their talk.

One more alternative is talking to the individuals who made the request including the internal and external customers. But even if the customers agree to a postponement and no service agreement is being violated, you should still notify management as an FYI and a matter of professional courtesy.

I am assuming here that you are referring to a short-term mishap such as a case of food poisoning from your favorite deli - a mishap that should clear by sunup tomorrow :)

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