How to Deal with Chronically Late Employees

“Traffic was so bad this morning.”

“My alarm didn’t go off.”

“I thought my shift started at 11.”

The words are different, but the tune is the same: Late. Again.

You’ve tried letting it slide. You’ve tried bringing it up in employee reviews. You’ve tried giving warnings. Are habitually late employees just an inevitable thorn in your side? What can you do?

Put responsibility where it belongs (hint: not on you).

As a manager, ensuring that employees are on time might be your responsibility, but at the end of the day, it simply isn’t possible to make your employees show up on time. What does that mean for you? Put the responsibility on the shoulders of the only people who can make it happen: employees themselves. How?

  • Refuse to nag. Decide what’s important, and what you will and will not do or accept when it comes to tardiness.

  • Involve the right people. Make sure no one is caught off guard by communicating consequences with everyone involved early in the process.

  • Clearly outline and document consequences. Written warning, docked pay, docked bonus

  • Offer options and accountability hand in hand. Say something like “I do need you to be here reliably on time in the mornings. I need you to either commit to that going forward, or we can talk about changing your start time—which one makes sense?”

  • Focus on the behavior, not the individual. This helps you keep your cool and puts the focus on the issue at hand.

Be a hardnose.

Nobody wants to be a hardnose (we’re keeping this PG). But when it comes to setting boundaries with employees about key company policies (ahem, being on time), it’s crucial and non-negotiable. The good news is that setting and then standing by boundaries isn’t as difficult or painful as it might sound.

  • Start now. Don’t wait until you’re on your last nerve to address the issue (if that ship has sailed, take a step back from the problem, grab a latte, whatever it takes). Waiting until you’re at code red also sends a confusing message to other employees about the (seeming) lack of consequences.

  • Outline clear expectations. In many cases, employees are chronically late simply because they can be. Change the tone by setting expectations for punctuality and then writing them down someplace where they’ll be seen often, not just the employee handbook (a reminder in the company newsletter, a twice-yearly email, etc.). Determine a clear progression (e.g., one verbal warning, one written warning, a write-up with HR, a day’s leave without pay, etc.)

  • Involve the right people. Making sure that all managers and company stakeholders are in the loop when it comes to cracking down on lateness is key to avoiding distracting sidebars if a disgruntled employee whose pay was docked for lateness tries to go over your head (the old “mom said no, go find dad” routine).

  • Be consistent. While it may be easy to let some instances of lateness slide, calmly taking the steps you’ve outlined and agreed upon sends the message that punctuality is important. Some lateness is inevitable, so follow your gut. But as soon as a pattern emerges, be proactive and stay consistent.

Change your paradigm.

When dealing with chronically late employees, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the lateness itself — sometimes at the expense of the bigger picture. Take a step back and ask yourself why this matters. Is this employee late and unproductive, or does he make up the extra hours? Is she missing meetings? Is the employee’s lateness affecting others’ ability to get work done effectively? The answer may very well be a resounding yes, but sometimes it’s no, and the lateness itself is the biggest problem. What to do if this is the case? Change your paradigm.

  • Consider your competition. With a workforce that increasingly values flexibility (and has opportunities in the gig economy to find it in nontraditional working arrangements), allowing for more flexibility in arrival times may give you a significant boost in morale.

  • Meet halfway. Consider a policy that allows for flexibility some of the time (e.g., arrival time in the mornings) and a no-tolerance policy for other times (e.g., meetings).

  • Adjust schedules when possible. If there’s a pattern in the excuses for late arrival (oversleeping, for instance. Or running into traffic after dropping kids off at school), adjust schedules when possible. Why fight an uphill battle?

  • Empower your employees. Give your employees the tools to be transparent about what they’re working on and when, with a best-of-breed time-tracking app, such as TSheets, that helps everyone stay on the same page.

All employees are going to be late once in awhile. After all, they’re only human. But when it comes to chronically late employees, placing responsibility where it belongs, setting boundaries that everyone is aligned on, and changing your paradigm when necessary goes a long way toward fostering a work environment that’s good for everyone.

— Angie O’Hara (Director of Marketing at TSheets)

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