(MoneyWatch) Whether you've planned ahead and failed to meet your mark, or procrastinated until it was too late, missing a deadline never feels good. It can also ruin your reputation and damage your career, if you don't handle it well. Here's what to do if you miss a deadline at work:
Give them a heads up early
Your best bet is to give your boss and/or co-workers notice before you miss the deadline. "It's much better to get ahead of the situation and let your boss know that you are unable to make the deadline due to factors outside of your control than to wait until after the deadline has passed to address the issue," says Cheryl Palmer, founder of Call to Career.
Explain the new time frame
What is your new, real estimated time of delivery? Share this information as soon as you realize you won't be able to make your goal, says Ronald Kaufman, author of "Anatomy of Success." "Then as concisely and as objectively as possible, be prepared to communicate why the deadline was or will be missed. If it was your fault state it matter-of-factly, taking responsibility, and relating what you learned. If it was someone else's fault, whether or not to point a finger depends on the circumstances," says Kaufman. Is it a vendor or subordinate you chose? Then the responsibility still lies with you.
Never avoid the obvious
It's very unlikely that someone won't notice you missed an important deadline they're waiting on. "Sometimes we think it's better to keep our heads down and not let others know when we're about to miss a deadline, when it's actually better to give forewarning. Your manager and/or colleagues may be displeased; yet you increase the chances of maintaining your credibility by being honest and forthcoming up front, instead of waiting to lower the boom after the fact," says Colette Ellis, founder of InStep Consulting.
Next time, plan better
Your aim generally should be to under-promise and over-deliver. That way, if you fall short you may still be in the clear. "Think clearly and carefully as you set deadlines and take into account all that you have on your plate before picking the date," says Ellis.
And don't make this a habit
In addition to planning better, next time do everything humanly possible to meet your deadline. "Your track record matters," notes Gary Malin, President of the New York City-based Citi Habitats real estate brokerage. "If you have proven to be a trustworthy and reliable employee who typically makes deadlines, most supervisors will be understanding." Everyone makes a mistake -- but people need to know they can count on you to do your job, and help them do theirs, by making missed deadlines far and few between.