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How to Handle Chronic Tardiness

    By Cheri Baker of Emergence Consulting

    When I ask managers what frustrates them, chronic tardiness is high on the list. Let's take a look at the situation in some depth today.

    Not every workplace is rigid on start times of course. If your job isn't customer-facing and doesn't require specific hours, it probably makes sense for management to focus on deliverables instead of watching the clock.

    Not every job has that luxury however. When you have customers calling or visiting, patients that need to see the doctor, or students showing up to be taught, timeliness is essential. Not only because there is work to be done at a certain time, but also because being ready to work and on time is a visible marker of our commitment and accountability. Being present when we said we would be shows that we are able to meet our promises and that we care about our customers and coworkers.

    So let's say you have someone who is chronically late. They are supposed to be at work ready to start by 8 am sharp and they always show up on the edge at 8:02, 8:05, 8:23, etc.  You see them slink quietly into their office in the hope that no one notices. Because they are often "so close" to being on time, it can feel petty to confront them on being just a couple minutes late.

    Root Causes of Chronic Tardiness

    Sometimes the problem is logistical. Taking the 7:15am bus gets them to work on time about half the time, the other half of the time they run late. The employee doesn't want to take the 6:45am bus and wake up half an hour early. Alternately, they may be cutting it too close with dropping kids off at daycare.

    Sometimes the problem is a difference in expectations. You believe that having a structured start time is important, and your employee believes that there should be wiggle room depending upon traffic or circumstances. This can also happen when a former manager allowed for wiggle room and you don't.

    Sometimes the problem is lack of planning. Your employee may be disorganized or not managing her time well. She stays up too late, oversleeps, or fails to account for traffic.

    Sometimes the problem is lack of enforcement. Your employee has been chronically late for YEARS and no one has ever enforced the rule. Or perhaps your peer managers are not enforcing the rules. Thus an "unofficial acceptance" of tardiness has become the rule.

    What Should an Enlightened Manager Do?

    Taking the time to figure out the cause of tardiness can be instructive, but as the manager it's also good to get your own head on straight before you approach the employee.

    1. Set Reasonable Start Times - As the employer you get to set start times however, I encourage you to avoid setting start times that are arbitrary. Start times should be linked to business needs. Insisting that someone arrive at 8 am sharp when there is no business reason to do so can lead to frustration. In roles involving customer facing there will always need to be structured start times.

    2. Encourage Two-Way Communication - When an employee is expected to be at work at 7am sharp but they can't drop off their child at daycare until 6:45 am, it will create a horrible tug of war. No one likes to say no to the boss, so the temptation will be to see if they can slide under the rules without breaking them. Be open to adjusting work schedules on a case-by-case basis if the business can permit it. Sometimes a 15 minute tweak can make the difference for an employee with challenging logistics.

    3. Emphasize the Business Need - When an employee walks in the door 3 minutes late and finds a customer has been waiting for them, it negatively impacts the business. Don't be afraid to emphasize the reasons for punctuality. Tardiness can reflect poorly on the company, cost them customers and demotivate employees who do show up on time.

    4. Be Consistent - When you have a superstar who is late and also a marginal performer who is late, it can be tempting to come down hard only on the latter. If timeliness is important though, it's important for everyone. Be sure that you're not using tardiness as a convenient excuse to remove someone with deeper performance issues that can backfire in a court of law.

    5. Don't Accept Excuses - While it is good practice to help an employee troubleshoot a problem, it's not your job to fix it for them. You are not required to accept excuses.

    "I understand that your bus options are not great in the morning, but being at work on time is an expectation of this job. I need you to be here on time or we'll need to find someone who can be."

    In conclusion, chronic tardiness requires timely and assertive communication from management in order to turn the problem around.  Don’t be afraid to lay down expectations kindly but firmly.  It’s your job to do so!

    Reprinted with permission from the Enlightened Manager Blog