I volunteer at a charity, where meetings usually run overtime as staff go off-topic. I had to attend a 30-minute meeting, in a room with no clock. After we discussed the relevant subjects, a donor to our charity and a senior staff started to go off-topic.

Even when off, my smartphone shows a clock on the screen. Assume that I can't place my phone in plain sight (on a desk), as this looks unprofessional. Worried that we had gone overtime, I took out my smartphone from my pocket to glimpse at the clock. The donor noticed, and said bitterly:

If you have somewhere more important to be, then don't hesitate to leave.

To avoid upsetting a donor, I apologized and said I could stay. I had nowhere urgent to be, but I preferred returning to my desk to use my time to help clients, rather than listening to prattle.

He caught my drift, and quickly ended the meeting. But offended, he kept scowling at me.

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    You can try to reason your 'impatience'. What were you planning to do after the meeting?
    – Sip
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 7:51
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    Exactly - what precisely was wrong with going over time in that particular situation, and why wasn't it possible to gracefully excuse yourself if you really did have somewhere to be?
    – Beanluc
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 18:25
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    Hey, folks. Please don't use comments for answers; write out answers as proper answers. Use the comment section to suggest improvements to the question itself - not courses of action - or request clarification. Thanks.
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 23:24
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    This question still doesn't say whether there was any real reason at all to actually care about going over time, other than scratching a mental itch due to "the schedule says we have 1/2 hour". Did you have to be somewhere or do something else, or not? This is important information to determine a helpful answer.
    – Beanluc
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 18:29
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    Are you sure having your phone on the desk is unprofessional? I would think others would just consider it desk furniture if it's displaying only the time (and not, say, Facebook or a screensaver of bikini models). Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 18:43

14 Answers 14


I am from Belgium, I don't know if there is a lot of cultural differences between our countries but I find the reaction of the donor unprofessional and misplaced. I think it is rather rude to say such a thing, and I think it is everybody's right to simply check the time.

Additionally, the donor has no way of knowing why you checked your phone. Maybe you were expecting an important text or email. There could be dozens of important reasons to check your phone, all of them that he has no need of knowing. So don't feel too much as if you were the one doing something bad.

I will try to expand a bit more on the interpersonal side of the issue. While I don't think you did anything wrong, it is a difficult scenario to bridge with the other party. I say this because I think it is not you that feels self-important but them. Additionally, I also think that when a person takes offence in such a small thing, they are (In my personal experience) more prone to take critique in a defensive or otherwise not a productive/ bad way. So I vote against discussing this with them.

That, of course, leaves not a lot of other, simple solutions. As Incog mentioned in their answer you can choose to excuse yourself to the bathroom or have somebody else text you at time x.

The root of the issue seems to be other people getting side tracked. In regards of that you can try to pull everybody back on track. Note that even if you bring this as gentle/ kind as you can, some people might still take offence in this. Your donor being the kind of person I would guess to do that.

For bringing it up, I suggest you either bring it very gently and friendly, or use humor in it (if the situation allows it). In my personal work environment I would say something along the lines of "Alright guys, let's get back to the issue at hand now, enough chit chat." But I can see this would not be okay in all environments.

If yours does not allow this, try something more neutral and friendly, something like:

Excuse me ladies and gentlemen (Maybe this is too formal?), but we should get back to the meeting schedule, we only have limited time and there are important things left to discuss. There are still other things we should discuss (At the suggestion of @Raidri).

It does help if your meeting has a schedule, points it needs to address, so you can use that as a reference.

Now how to prevent this from happening in the future, by technical means.

I own a fitbit, and it also tells me the hour, it is pretty easy to tap it and see the hour appear on the screen. It is very clear yet plain white on black text, so you can easily see it without moving your arm closer to your face while others might not even notice the display lighting up. Perhaps this, or another sort of it, might be an option. Don't buy it just for this though as it is quite expensive.

I also have a watch and when I wear it I have the habit of taking it off and putting it down on its side, in front of me. Above my notebook or next to my laptop. I do this because I easily get hot and just dislike the feeling of the wristband when writing and/or typing. When put this way, it is easy to quickly peak over at it to get the time.

Lastly, you have a myriad of pens, I don't find a link now, but I know there are pens with clocks in them. Usually, these are designed for kids, and tacky, but it might be another solution to your issue.


There are a lot of answers here, but one thing that seems to be missing from most of them is the relationship between a volunteer and a donor as it relates to running a charity.

I have a fair amount of experience working with both groups in a professional environment within the United States (so there may be some cultural differences), and I have run into multiple issues where donors, for lack of a better term, feel entitled to run things by virtue of being willing to give money. Some donors have management skills that prevent this from being an issue. Others... do not.

Managing donors is a major focus behind the scenes for all charities. Many decisions that might otherwise be considered unsound from a business perspective are made strictly to keep the donors happy. The more money these donors provide to the charity, the more process is adjusted to keep those individuals happy.

So while the donor in your situation was both rude and unprofessional, that's not something I suggest addressing, unless you really don't care about the success of the charity... which seems unlikely since you are willing to volunteer.

Which brings us to your role.

As a volunteer, while the donors may not appreciate you, chances are very good that the people who manage the day-to-day operations of the charity place a great deal of value on you and your time. Donors (or rather, their money) are the lifeblood of charities, but volunteers are the muscle to put that money to good use.

Your time is valuable, and if the charity is well run with a dedicated administrative staff, they will recognize that. Even if the donors don't care, the actual charity staff will, and they should be willing and able to provide assistance.

So, to address your situation...

The first thing I recommend is trying to keep some padding between these meetings and other appointments or obligations you may have. This isn't always possible, but it is worth attempting to reschedule if the proposed time is too close to something else you have to do, particularly for very short (30 minute) meetings. Even if the response is "no, that's the only time that works", you've already established that the time is inconvenient for you, and by showing up, you're being generous (remember: as a volunteer, your time is valuable, too!).

This sets the stage for the second recommendation, which is to set expectations up front. This isn't just for the meeting organizer; you need to set your own expectations. Do you have any flexibility if a meeting runs long? Are you willing to stay late, if the meeting runs over due to tangential discussion? What if it runs over due to discussion that is very much on topic and relevant to the stated purpose? How late can you stay?

The outcome of these questions should be your hard stop. What is the latest you can possibly attend before excusing yourself?

Your best bet is to tell the meeting organizer ahead of time. Assuming this isn't the donor, but someone who regularly works to run the charity, they then should be keeping track of the fact that you may have to leave if the meeting is running late.

Ideally, if your hard stop is within an hour of the stated end of the meeting, and the meeting has a history of running late, the meeting organizer will announce it at the start of the meeting. If not, you can simply announce it yourself:

I just wanted to mention that I have a hard stop at x o'clock.

This is unlikely to cause conflict, as donors typically understand conflicting schedules (even donors who are currently retired) and obligations.

Once you've established that you can't stay past a certain amount of time, this gives you a perfectly good reason to keep an eye on the clock (although arp's suggestion to use an alarm app is an excellent one.

If you say "I have to leave at 3pm", and at 2:15 you look at your watch, the donor can't really get much traction behind saying "If you have somewhere more important to be, then don't hesitate to leave." You (or the charity staff) have already told them that you have somewhere to be.

Even if you didn't start of by mentioning a hard stop, you can certainly bring it up if it seems like the discussion has gotten off topic. What typically works for me is to start off by validating the importance of what is being said, but point out that there is a more important topic that needs to be discussed, as well as a time limit:

These are all very good points, and we should work through them to get them resolved, but the primary goal of this meeting was to discuss x, and I think we may have strayed from that topic. I actually have another commitment in 45 minutes, so perhaps we can come back to this at a later date so we can make sure we get x resolved in the time that we have?


Shy of having a phone with an always on screen, as mentioned above, and having to place it on the table, which you say you're not comfortable with...

One method I've personally used is to excuse yourself to the bathroom. Check the time there, return to the meeting.

Alternatively, arrange with a co-worker to message you at a specific time and use the vibration notification as an indication, or, indeed, use a third party app that assists with this.

I've also had success including my phone in the conversation as if to say I'm checking an email or document that pertains to the topic at hand so I can refresh my memory or use that information to contribute to the conversation.

It's an awkward situation to be put in regardless, I'm sorry you had to experience it :( Hope you can take some of these tips on board. Good luck :)


Since you have not specified a good reason for ending the meeting on time then all I can say is that checking the clock for the sake of checking the clock is rude. If you are not the coordinator then you have zero reason to guilt attendees for running over the time.

In your exact situation the only plausible and non-offensive response you could have given was:

My apologies, I thought I felt my phone vibrating and just wanted to make sure it wasn't something important.

If you actually had somewhere to be then this could have mitigated the scowling:

My apologies, I have xyz obligation at 2:30 but please continue the meeting without me.

This works equally well if you wish to waste your time no further with off-topic meeting conversation so you can make up an obligation or make it more general such as:

My apologies, I do have to excuse myself at 2:30 but please continue the meeting without me.

Next time, if you have somewhere to be then mention at the start of the meeting:

My apologies but I will have to excuse myself promptly at 2:30 to do x, y, and z.

I've attended various "30-minute" meetings which transcended into 1-2 hours; get used to it and plan accordingly.

  • that would apply when there would be important discussions going on, not when the meeting seems over and people go off-track with stuff the OP isn't involved in. Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 1:44
  • @Darkwing Excusing oneself gracefully is a learned interpersonal skill regardless if it is a family crisis or a simple desire to not have one's time wasted. Listening and even participating in social discussion is quite beneficial for mental and career health. Scoffing at the perceived irrelevance of the discussion between a client and senior staff member is a sure-fire way to get you labeled for not being in tune with the business. This is why I offer graceful solutions for excusing oneself regardless of why they wish to be excused.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 12:09

IF you lead the meeting, start a meeting with something like:

Okay we are scheduled till 13:00 and I am afraid I have to leave right after to see after this important charitable cause. So please let´s focus on the agenda first and don´t be offended when I watch the time a little. Of course you are welcome to stay and discuss individual topics and enjoy some more coffee for as long as you want.

If you are just one of the attendees a short.

Sorry, I have to leave right on time today, so please don´t take offense if I have to watch the clock occasionally.

(adjust phrasing to fit your culture/style/circumstance)

That way you set the expectation for how much the attendees need to keep time discipline and also for your watching the clock. This is generally a good Idea to hold effective meetings. Additionally, as a donor will be sympathetic to your cause, he should be understanding that you have to look after it.

I experience this kind of behavior frequently in business-meetings, mainly German but with mixed nationalities attending and is is usually well recived.

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    This feels too pre-meditated and delves into being pre-offensive. I think this is unnecessarily wordy and very presumptuous in a negative way.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 13:44
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    @MonkeyZeus: May be cultural but this is quite usual and regarded polite and professional in business meetings in my experience horizon. (then it´s a flight to catch, a customer to call etc ...)
    – user6109
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 13:53
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    I am not opposed to letting attendees know that you will be leaving early but your phrasing is extremely off-putting especially since OP seems to be just another attendee and not the leader. I would re-phrase your statement to "Before we get started I would just like to mention that I will have to leave promptly at 13:00 to tend to other matters." So now when people see you quietly get up to leave then they will not take offense. Reminding people of the schedule when you are not in a position of power is a faux pas
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 14:04
  • @MonkeyZeus: Shure, this should not be taken as a phrasing service, everybody has to adjust to fit his style/role etc. Edited accordingly.
    – user6109
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 14:10

Do not check the time on your smartphone.

I find checking anything on the smartphone during a meeting generally quite rude (unless context requires it, but I've never seen that happen). I don't bring my phone to important meetings, or when I can't leave it outside the meeting room, I switch it off.

Get a wristwatch or meet in a room with a wall clock. It is far more subtle to check a wristwatch (or even a wall clock) than to check a smartphone. I can subtly check the time on my watch without even turning my head, by just moving my eyes for a split second. The other party will probably not notice, but even if they do it's less obvious and less obnoxious than taking out a smartphone during a meeting.


There are several rather separate issues here:

  • the tendency of meetings to go beyond the scheduled time
  • the need to give extra deference to topics your donor wishes to discuss
  • your desire to excuse yourself from meetings in a timely manner without offending VIPs
  • the technical issue of subtly learning what time it is.

The technical issue is the easiest and the least interesting -- keep your phone in your pocket and use an alarm clock app or private meeting notification to make it vibrate in a certain pattern at a certain time. (I am assuming that you have a specific competing obligation for your time rather than just the urge to flee an overlong meeting if you can.)

Keeping meetings on track and within the allotted time is a much discussed general workplace issue. It may be worth raising the issue with the chair of a rambling meeting to see if they have any ideas for better focused meetings. One tactic that I have seen work well is to split rambling meetings into smaller sessions, both to help keep focus and to narrow the audience required to attend.

Another possible solution is to recognize when a conversation has gone beyond the main topic of the meeting and no longer requires a full quorum. If the chair says "those not working on project X are excused." then those to whom the meeting is no longer relevant can leave.

Deferring gracefully to the wishes of important people is a skill that everyone can benefit from. If your organization's primary donor will be offended if staff members aren't interested in hearing their opinions, then staff need to sit and listen politely. (This is a special case of The Golden Rule: "she who has the gold, makes the rules.") If your donor is truly out of line, Senior Management should try to find a way to tactfully and privately raise the issue.

As for getting out of the meeting gracefully, that depends a lot on your office culture. It's one thing to apologetically leave an end-of-day meeting that runs over your working hours when you have a bus to catch or kids waiting at daycare, and another thing to just want to get back to work. You can try saying something like "if I'm not needed here any more I'd like to get back to (some task)" but that doesn't leave you much recourse if you're told you are needed to stay, and may leave you out of the loop on important decisions and tasks.

I've worked in a lot of different organizations with wildly different approaches to meetings -- what works well in one place will come across as rude in another, so my experiences should be measured against your office culture to see if they will fit.

  • "I am assuming that you have a specific competing obligation for your time rather than just the urge to flee an overlong meeting if you can." I don't see why OP needs such a specific obligation to make use of that method. If they're actually still interested in the meeting at that time, they don't need to do anything; assuming that they recognize what their phone is telling them, they could just ignore it, not even needing to look, now knowing that it's past the originally allotted time for the meeting.
    – user
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 11:47
  • The whole point is that it can be perceived as rude to leave a meeting with important people simply because you are not interested in the direction the conversation has taken.
    – arp
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 15:09

Assuming you have some time flexibility: Get your phone out and send a text message to "whomever" you're meeting next letting them know you'll be a little late. You can easily check the time during this. If one of the other folks at the meeting ask you what you're doing you can honestly say, "I'm guessing we're going to go a bit over, and I just wanted to let "whomever" know I'd be a few minutes late."

This lets you check the time, is polite to your next appointment, and also suggests that the current meeting is important to you (you are willing to be late to another one to stay at this one right?!)


When meeting important people (that is important to you or your cause) you should plan ahead that they might go overtime. Ideally it won't bother you at all, so you have no need to check the time.

If you have something universally understandable important (pregnant wive with expectations of delivery any day now or similar), just mention it up front that you might leave on short notice due to that.

If you have something that's "just expensive" (like a plane you need to catch), mention it casually at a convenient time and have a timer that informs you when you need to leave, then quietly stand up, excuse yourself and leave. There is no need for anyone else to leave for that too.

Think about it this way: If you check the time and you see that you are overtime: What would you do? Leave anyway? Then its important enough. Stay? Then don't check the time.


Other answerers mentioned looking at your watch for the time, as this will be less noticeable than looking at your smartphone. What will hardly be noticeable at all, is looking at the other person's watch for the time. You're still looking in their general direction, and it's normal not to look each other in the face throughout the entire meeting.
Of course, this will depend on the other person actually wearing a watch...


You have two problems - 1) checking the time, and 2) the fact that the meeting runs over. For both of these problems, if you have someplace to be, it is not unprofessional to make sure you're going to keep all your commitments. Unprofessional is allowing yourself to be late for your next appointment because someone rambled too long in this one. For best results, let them know at the beginning of the meeting.

"Julie, just a heads up, I have a hard stop at 1 to prepare for my 1:30 with the Johnston account."

For times when you don't have a conflict, don't worry about the time. Focus on your client. Looking at the time when you don't have somewhere to be is not just "looking impatient" - it's actually being impatient! And unless you have amazing slight of hand, there is no smooth way to pull a phone out of your pocket to check the time. You will need to install a clock in the room or get a watch to sneak a peak easier.


I thought I got a text message. Just needed to check to make sure it wasn't anything urgent.

It might make you look a little bit flaky, but if they press you on it, you could just say something like

I have to take care of [family member], and if some emergency comes up, I need to be able to take care of it.

Alternately, if your volunteer position is unpaid and you're currently looking for paid work, you could just say

I have to be able to check my phone in case I get contacted by a potential employer.


Most of the answers focus on how to avoid this in the future. I would just add that you should call their bluff. That is to say if they say "if you have somewhere else to be then you're free to leave" then say "thank you actually I have an important call/meeting/appointment/anything to get to in a few minutes" and then leave. Obviously after you pull this move don't let them catch you in the break room relaxing but presumably you have other work to do and the donor is going to go home after the meeting so there should be little risk of that.

You can't play this card very often so the other tips on how to avoid it are good.


(Guys/Folks/Gentlemen,...) Excuse me for a minute...!

  • Outcome A: The others just ignore you or gently nod and continue the chit-chat. All good. Check the time once outside. If you really have another engagement, just say it once you are back; any IPS problem henceforth is theirs, not yours. A "donor" for charity would not like to appear scoffing at a similar cause (any other "engagement" you would have most certainly is related to charity too).

  • Outcome B: Questioning looks (whether benign or hostile). Explain that you need to check with someone on an urgent update you were awaiting regarding "Charity Project Y". Of course, that someone (your trusted coworker, for example) should be able to back up your "excuse" just in case they wander into the room while you are away ("ah yes, I am here for that too" or something similar). Again, a "donor" for charity would not like to appear scoffing at a similar cause, so you should be excused without any drama. (From here, it should be similar to Outcome A).

  • Outcome C: Hostility. Not your IPS problem. Anyone who (politely) asked to be excused deserves a chance to explain. You may just have to live with this self-important donor (you are helping the charity that way). Your workplace policy and/or local law will guide you on the extent of such misbehaviour that you can tolerate beyond which it becomes a workplace safety issue. I know it becomes tricky given the context of charity, but you are the best judge when the situation develops beyond being just a bad day at work to an employee safety/rights issue (and how much of the grey area in between you can safely tread without causing extreme duress to yourself).

  • I’m very confused by this answer. The question is not specifically about checking time on a watch or anywhere else but is clearly, “How can I check the time on my smartphone without looking self-important or impatient?” But then you state, “Check your watch once outside.” Huh? If anything, checking a watch is subtler than checking a smartphone. So I am highly confused when you even explain further and even state, “Your workplace policy and/or local law will guide you on the extent of such misbehaviour that you can tolerate beyond which it becomes a workplace safety issue.” What? Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 15:42
  • @JakeGould I appreciate your feedback (I even edited my answer) but I'd appreciate more if you take my observation about employee safety in the right context. Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 16:06