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Ethical Q&A: Persistent lateness

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Ethical Q&A Over the next few months, Tor Goldfield will be looking at what it takes to be an ethical employer, each month answering a different question on common business issues. This month, she discusses what to do when an employee is persistently late.


Question
Our start time is 9am and while most employees arrive on time or often a little early, one person is persistently late. While this is usually only by five minutes or so, I am getting increasingly frustrated with their inability to arrive on time. How should I address this in a productive manner?

Answer
If you find yourself getting wound up by an employee’s persistent tardiness then it may come as some comfort to find out that you’re not alone. Research suggests that 87% of bosses find lateness to be a matter of great irritation. A separate study by Bibby Financial Services states that this problem costs small businesses in the UK £755 million in lost productivity and profits each year.

The key to dealing with a situation like this ethically is to allow the employee the time and space to state their case and explain their actions. An ethical employer takes the welfare of each team member very seriously; evaluating the situation prior to acting and taking steps to solve the problem in the most beneficial way for all parties.

“The key to dealing with a situation like this ethically is to allow the employee the time and space to state their case and explain their actions.”

There can be many reasons why someone is late for work on a regular basis. While mornings are a real struggle for some people, continually arriving a few minutes late is often a sign that something deeper is wrong. Most likely it is a sign that they are low in morale, lacking confidence in their abilities or not being stimulated by their work for some reason.

It is important to address any lateness early on and to arrange an informal chat with the employee, giving them the opportunity to talk about this habit and what can be done to help them arrive on time in the future. Speed is of the essence here. Tension can quickly escalate in a work environment so take heed of the early warning signs and act while you can still remain objective and calm.

Rather than focusing on the lateness itself, it is better to look at the reasons behind this trend. Consider if there is anything else the management can be doing to provide a more stimulating and appropriate environment. It’s important to resist the temptation and easy option of allocating complete blame for this behaviour to the employee. This approach can lead to a dramatic slide in performance.

Regular appraisals and good communication channels allow you to understand how people are doing and to address any issues like lateness in a structured and professional manner. It could be that someone finds it hard to get in at a certain time because they have to travel a long way and public transport is letting them down.

Thinking about how they could be offered more flexibility in their working hours can be useful in this regard. For example, having a staggered start time around a 15 or 30 minute time window can help employees to feel more in control. Similarly, allowing those who start earlier to leave earlier – within reason – might highlight the benefits of having more time in the evening, thereby subtly influencing the traditional latecomers.

Providing access to other transport methods, such as a subsidised bike scheme, could also help to overcome any transport infrastructure problems, while enhancing employee wellbeing and your business’ environmental credentials.

If these options aren’t feasible then it’s good to discuss what can be done to help with their timekeeping. Lateness can become a vicious circle: the person knows they are doing it and their confidence is dented because they feel they aren’t performing well, which further impacts on their work – a cycle that becomes hard to break.

“Rather than focusing on the lateness itself, it is better to look at the reasons behind this trend.”

Knowing how an employee is fairing overall is half the battle. If they feel valued, focused and supported in their role, with a clear path forward, then it is hoped that they will enjoy their work and persistent lateness won’t be an issue.

Taking this approach engenders genuine loyalty from employees because they appreciate that you care about them as an individual and are prepared to understand their personal needs and motivations. This can be extremely valuable in retaining people, which is the foundation of any successful organisation.

However, it may be that the person just isn’t in the right job. The question here is whether their role can be adjusted in any way to make the most of their strengths while also benefiting the business. If not then it’s best to take a pragmatic approach and help them to move on to a more suited position in a productive way.

If you treat people with respect then they will always speak well of you and your company in the future, which is not only good for business but also a more enjoyable style of management.


Tor Goldfield is director at ethical media relations company Blue Rocket.

4 Responses

  1. Late arrivals
    I want to just add to Jane’s comment. There is no indication of the size of the Team here, because my first question usually, is to ask how come everyone else can make it? Of course we talk to the person and check the reasons, but in the final analysis there is a job to be done which means customers requirements to be met. Also, the notion that “glide time” can help has been found wanting in New Zealand, because all that tends to happen is these people work that system as well. Public bodies went wild over this many years ago in New Zealand, but it is now not anywhere near so popular mainly due to the good performers in the Team still complaining about those who managed to “work the system”. Unless there are acceptable reasons for continued lateness around which a solution can be worked, the fact is that work starts at a certain time………period.

  2. Wider ethical issues
    I was intrigued that the ethical slant in this article extended only to the individual employee. In dealing with situations such as this, ethical consideration should also be given to co-workers and depending on the role, clients. The impact of the individual on others should not be overlooked and often it is leverage by third parties that will sting a manager into action.

  3. Me thinks they do protest too much
    The author of this article seems to have fallen into the usual trap of only being able to look at the arrivals board and ignoring the departures.
    It is very rare indeed for employees (of almost any grade) not to be expected to work beyond a strict 9-5 regime these days. I would worry more about staff who can’t and won’t go home (who are also likely to be exhibitting signs of underlying problems) than I would about people who are ten minutes late, (even on a persistent basis). Presenteeism isn’t everything!

  4. latecomers – often stay late also – it’s a compromise.
    with ref to the paragraph above: Thinking about how they could be offered more flexibility in their working hours can be useful in this regard. For example, having a staggered start time around a 15 or 30 minute time window can help employees to feel more in control. Similarly, allowing those who start earlier to leave earlier – within reason – might highlight the benefits of having more time in the evening, thereby subtly influencing the traditional latecomers. I have never worked in a place where folk who get to work early then leave early – generally those who are in early are the ones who complain about the latecomers. i work in an IT environment where most arrive in after 9.00 but usually before 9.30. Nothing is said or even noted because the same folk are those who end up working through most lunch breaks and staying after 5.30. I find that it is those who have ‘clerical’ jobs that are the only folk who complain..

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