Don't Delay Dealing with Chronically Late Employees

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Do you have a problem with employees arriving late to work? If so, you're not alone. Overall, American workers do an adequate job of showing up for work on time. But for some perspective, employees in the United Kingdom and Australia put the United States to shame. A recent survey by Deputy (a workforce management software company that deals with workforce scheduling) found that on any given day, 6% of U.S. workers show up late for work, compared to just 2.4% in the UK and only 1.2% in the land down under.

And while more Americans (about 9% in the survey) arrive early for work than in the other countries, that may be small consolation when tardy employees are disrupting or demoralizing their colleagues, and not getting their work completed on time.

Potentially more troubling is the survey's finding that younger generations of employees have higher tardiness rates than the older ones. This could suggest that trouble lies ahead as older employees leave the workforce. For example, the on-time rate for U.S. Baby Boomers is 90.2%, versus 82.7% for Generation Z.

Establish Your Policy

The first step in addressing the issue, if you haven't already done so, is to establish a written policy on when employees (both exempt and on-the-clock) are expected to arrive at work. That includes both arrival and departure, especially if you have a flextime program.

As with any HR policy, it's important for the policy to:

Even if your workplace culture is relaxed, if you don't have a policy to fall back on, you'll have a tough time dealing with employees who abuse it. Still, your policy can be as flexible as you want it to be, so long as it's enforced consistently. The trouble is, the vaguer your policy and the more subjective the enforcement criteria, the harder it might be to discipline an employee without risking a discrimination accusation.

Consistency is also important in how you enforce your policy over time. If you have a written tardiness policy (for example, in your employee handbook) and ignore all but the most egregious infractions, you'll probably need to give everyone a heads-up if you plan to begin holding violators to account.

Also, any changes to the policy itself should be fully communicated to your employees.

ADA Accommodations

If you decide to beef up your policing of tardiness, be mindful of the possibility that an employee might have a "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that could justify periodic tardiness.

Otherwise, enforcing a punctuality policy generally will involve the same principles and steps as with other disciplinary measures. For example, don't let a problem fester before acting. The more you look the other way when an employee is late, the more surprised and possibly oppositional that worker will be when you first confront the behavior.

Try to be discreet when holding disciplinary meetings with employees. Your goal isn't shaming, but a change in behavior. Besides, making an example of an employee can be counterproductive with other employees if your action is viewed as unduly humiliating to the offender.


Also, be sure to have sufficient documentation to support the "charge" of excessive tardiness. If the employee's comings and goings aren't registered on a time tracking system, notes of your own observations should suffice for your first discussion.

Your initial goal for that first meeting should be to determine the cause of the tardiness pattern, and the employee's own thoughts about the situation. Assuming the causes don't justify a pattern of late arrivals, your next goal may be to have the employee create a plan to remedy the situation. If that plan doesn't work, it will be harder for the employee to argue that you've been unfair.

It's also essential in that meeting to explain the consequences of a failure to correct the problem. If you use a progressive discipline approach (such as three strikes and you're out), make that clear. Then stick to that program. Failure to do so will not only make it harder to resolve the issue with that employee, but create bigger challenges for you if word gets out that your policy isn't what it's purported to be.

Final Thoughts

If they stay in business long enough, nearly all employers must deal with employees who are unable to show up on time and always seem to have an excuse ready. Employers understand that circumstances sometimes intervene – an unexpected detour, a car that won't start, a babysitter who doesn't show up — but those things should be rare. While you know how much it bothers you when one employee is chronically late, don't underestimate the extent to which it bothers the rest of your staff. That's especially true of anyone who must pick up the slack for the missing employee. To promote harmony in the workplace, deal with repeated tardiness right away.

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