How you manage employee tardiness as a business can affect much more than just the late employee. Allowing too much tardiness may increase turnover and decrease business efficiency and morale. Implementing time tracking, keeping records, and communicating a clear policy to your employees sets transparent expectations. Your team should know that frequent tardiness has consequences, and even innocent or infrequent hiccups can affect other employees and the business’s bottom line.
This guide will help you hold your employees accountable for their arrival times by giving you the tools you need to effectively improve your company’s culture. If you have employees who need to be disciplined for excessive tardiness, we’ve provided a free warning letter template you can modify and use.
Tips to Handling Late Employees
Communicate Your Attendance Policy
Your company should have an attendance policy setting forth the company hours and when employees should be ready to work. Within this policy will be a section on tardiness, what’s acceptable, and what’s not. Communicating this policy to your team is key to alignment. When your employees know what’s expected of them, it’s easier to hold them accountable if there’s a pattern of poor behavior.
Your attendance policy should clearly describe:
- Company hours
- Which person to call if an employee is going to be late
- How to correctly track time
- An acceptable window of time for an employee to arrive at work
- Consequences for tardiness
When communicating your policy, make abundantly clear that tardiness disrupts everyone. If one employee is late that can snowball into other employees having to cover and forgoing their own work. If this is a new policy for your company, it’s important to make this point clear because some employees may not realize their actions have consequences.
Nearly one-third of employees admit to being late to work at least once per month, and around one-fifth of employees are late at least once a week.
Have a Time Tracking System
To keep accurate records of when employees come and go, you need to have a good and easy-to-use time tracking system. A robust time tracking system will give you detailed reporting. Running weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports on your employee’s tardiness will quickly highlight any problems that you need to address.
With an electronic timekeeping system, your employees can punch in and out from their computers or phones. You can even restrict the app on their phone to only work within close proximity to your building. This ensures accuracy of the punches and lets you know which employees might have patterns of tardiness.
With your electronic timekeeping system, records are automatically kept. Visible to both you and to the individual employee, either of you can access these confidential records. Even if you’re not present every time the employee arrives, you still know if they’ve been tardy by looking at the system.
Maintaining these records is crucial to proper discipline. When you need to have a tough conversation with an employee about tardiness, you have data to back your position up. Without the data, you may appear to have an opinion or perception that the employee is late without providing any facts. This may leave employees feeling attacked instead of supported.
Warnings or other disciplinary actions, including and notes on attendance should be stored in a personnel file by management.
Define the Consequences
Include in your policy a brief discussion of consequences for employees who have repeated late arrivals. Before you can create that policy, however, determine exactly what those consequences are for your company. We recommend two core pieces to include: 1) progressive discipline; and 2) a three strikes rule.
Progressive discipline is a manner of disciplining employees using graduated steps. A sample discipline progression for a tardy employee might look like this:
- First offense: The employee has a discussion with their manager and HR about their behavior and how it affects the rest of the company
- Second offense: Provide the employee a written warning and require they have a discussion with their manager about actionable steps to correct the pattern of tardiness
- Third offense: Suspension and possible termination
It might seem harsh to terminate an employee just for being late a few times—and that’s why we suggest you include a three strikes rule and establish your own guidelines of what is appropriate in your business. In the sample above, if an employee progresses through these consequences once, they will face penalties but should not lose their job. It’s when they have progressed through these levels of discipline three times in a short period, say a rolling six-month period that they would face termination.
They were clearly given ample opportunity to correct their behavior and were unable to do so. It’s clear that their concern for the policy and the impact their behavior has on their colleagues is not important to them so they may face termination. With these tips in mind, you can create a policy that is fair to employees while holding them accountable for inappropriate behavior.
Take Action Immediately
Everyone is late occasionally. Sometimes traffic is backed up, public transportation is late, or an alarm doesn’t go off. A few times per year, these things are bound to happen. But when it becomes a pattern, that’s when it can grow into a much bigger and costlier problem. As a manager, it’s your job to say something and stop this behavior right away.
How to Help Employees Ditch Tardiness
You need to take swift action to combat faltering employee morale and lowering productivity levels. Your response should not be harsh, but it should address the issue with specific examples of the employee’s tardiness.
Communicate and Keep It Private
While it’s important that other employees know tardiness is not taken lightly, you don’t want to reprimand an employee in a public setting. Any HR discussion like this should occur in private and remain confidential.
You want to make clear that a violation of your company policy is not appropriate, and you want to make sure that you don’t come off too harsh—your employee is someone who may be dealing with personal issues you don’t know about. It’s best to begin by simply asking questions.
If an employee has been late several days in a short period, just ask what’s going on. They may have personal issues that are overwhelming them or a medical issue that’s preventing them from arriving at work on time.
While we recommend asking questions and being supportive, you want to be careful about violating any employment laws. As it relates to an employee’s recent tardiness, you can ask if there’s a condition that might be causing them to show up late and affecting their ability to do their job. It’s best to ask open-ended questions and get the employee to talk rather than trying to pry.
For reference, here are some questions you want to avoid:
- Are you pregnant?
- What medical issues do you have?
- Can I see your recent medical diagnosis?
- Are you taking prescriptions that make you drowsy?
Here’s the best way to ask about the employee’s pattern of tardiness: Are you suffering from a medical or personal issue that’s preventing you from arriving to work on time? By specifically relating an otherwise prohibited medical question to a core job requirement (punctuality), you can avoid the appearance of discrimination.
Define the Corrective Actions
Getting to the underlying issue is vital to correcting the behavior. Discussing the ways you can help your employee will make them feel supported and more likely to take corrective action seriously.
Work with your employee to define the corrective actions, providing reasonable timelines and support. This might look like:
Consequences for Failure to Complete
Reduce tardiness by 50%
Final written warning
Communicate with manager before tardiness occurs
No more than five late arrivals
Final written warning
This example provides your employee with clear communication about what’s expected of them and how they can improve their behavior. By setting out the consequences for failure to meet your expectations, you make it clear what may come next for the employee.
Don’t just give the employee a list of expectations—have a discussion with them. If there is a personal problem the employee is having, work with them to find a solution. If there is a medical issue they’re experiencing, discuss flexible work options.
Regardless of the outcome, document everything. If tardiness has been a problem with this employee, make sure that you document the specific dates and times the employee was late, as well as the corrective measures that you both agreed upon. Also make sure you note a date to review their progress.
Review the Employee’s Progress
One month is a good time to review data with the employee. After whatever time frame you set, reconvene with your employee. If they have reduced the frequency of their tardiness, recognize their improved behavior.
However, if the employee has not improved their behavior, it’s time to take the next step in your progressive discipline procedure. That may be a final warning or termination if this has been an ongoing pattern. If it’s the latter, make sure you have documented everything appropriately. Terminating an employee, especially one who may have a medical reason for showing up late, should be taken with great care and should involve a consultation with an employment attorney.
Why Employee Tardiness Needs to be Addressed
Addressing employee tardiness may not be a pleasant conversation, but it’s one that’s required to prevent even the perception of abuse. Regular communication and check-ins are key to making sure that your employees understand the expectations. These conversations can also help you uncover any struggles your team may have in their personal life that’s contributing to their tardiness.
Team Morale May Falter
Employees notice what other employees do. I once managed a team where every employee sat in a bullpen, so it was abundantly clear to everyone when an employee arrived late or left early. It was also clear, and even more harmful to team morale, if I didn’t address the issue immediately.
And that’s one of the biggest concerns with employee tardiness—the perception by other employees of favoritism or an unenforced policy. Either way, team morale can falter when even just one employee has a pattern of tardiness that goes unaddressed by management.
If an office of 22 employees opens at 9 a.m. and Amanda arrives consistently between 9:10 and 9:30, other employees will notice and one of two situations will result. Either:
- Other employees will start showing up late just like Amanda, or
- Other employees will become frustrated that Amanda gets away with being late and not care as much about the work they do
In either situation, you have a problem on your hands that needs to be addressed. Ignoring this issue will not make it go away and may result in additional lost productivity and potentially higher turnover.
Business Efficiency May Lower
Related to team morale is a drop in productivity because employees who are unhappy or disengaged are less productive. According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, unhappiness at work directly affects an employee’s level of productivity. A dissatisfied employee is more likely to grow bad habits, like showing up late.
So, tardiness can reduce your company efficiency and, ultimately, your bottom line, in two ways. First, when one employee consistently shows up late but you do nothing to correct the behavior, other employees become frustrated and their work may suffer. Second, those other employees have now become disengaged and may develop bad habits of their own, such as tardiness.
Burnout May Be the Cause
When people think of burnout, they usually think of entrepreneurs who work 24/7, are obsessed with their business, and are never able to turn their brain off.
Burnout is a complex issue that stems from many problems, both personal and professional. Addressing the employee with the right approach may depend on what causes the tardiness. If it’s burnout, discipline alone won’t help. That may just make the employee more disengaged and late more often.
To effectively address tardiness with a burned out employee, you need to provide them with support and help them figure out the root cause of their burnout. Not that you should avoid punishment for patterns of tardiness—it just shouldn’t be the only thing you do to correct the behavior.
May Be a Case of Discrimination
And here’s why you shouldn’t avoid discipline altogether—it could rise to the level of employee discrimination. As I always tell managers; what you do for one, do for all.
If you penalize some employees for being late and not others, it might violate anti-discrimination laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Even if you do this unintentionally, it’s still against the law and could result in employee lawsuits and fines from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Late Employees in the Age of COVID-19
If you manage employees who work from home because of the pandemic or you have a policy that allows flexible work schedules, you would expect every employee to be on time, every time. There’s no traffic to deal with and no public transit delays, there are just a few steps from bed to computer.
And yet, some employees still cannot seem to log in on time. Can you hold them accountable for being late when they’re not coming into a physical location? Yes. Let’s go back a few years, before the COVID-19 pandemic, to illustrate this point:
A United States Court of Appeals opinion from the Seventh Circuit in Chicago
An employee was permitted to work from home because of health reasons but routinely clocked in for work late and failed to notify their manager nearly every time.
The employee argued that punctuality was not essential for her position, as evidenced by the fact that her employer allowed her to work from home. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, stating that an “employer is generally permitted to treat regular attendance as an essential job requirement and need not accommodate erratic or unreliable attendance.”
Here’s what this means for you: Just because you allow employees to work from home does not mean your company gives up its right to have set business hours and hold employees accountable to being at work during those hours. In other words, attendance is still an essential function of every employee’s job, regardless of where they work.
So we know normally, even with a distributed workforce, you can still hold employees to attendance policies. Let’s look at this now, specifically in the age of COVID-19, and consider whether you should penalize an employee in violation of your attendance policy if they are away from work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As long as the employee is not tardy because of a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)-covered illness, then you can consider the employee to have violated the attendance policy and discipline them according to your policy. If, however, an employee is tardy because of an FMLA covered situation, you cannot penalize the employee.
Whether to Discipline Employees for Tardiness Related to Health
Example Situation Causing Tardiness
Can I penalize the employee?
An employee who tested positive for COVID-19 and is required to stay home but is asymptomatic was late
An employee was late because they were getting a COVID-19 test
An employee arrived late because they feared getting COVID-19 at work
An employee took their spouse to the hospital to be admitted for COVID-19 and was late
While these are the “by-the-book” answers, we recommend taking a more lenient approach in these situations. Disciplining potentially large numbers of employees could result in a substantial portion of the workforce subject to termination. This sets a bad tone and would require lots of time on your part to work through the disciplinary procedures.
You may wonder if this sets a dangerous precedent, allowing other employees to argue their absences should not count. As long as you consistently apply and communicate this leniency to COVID-19-related absences only, then you are well within your rights to continue holding other absences to your strict policy.
For other helpful tips, check out our guide on managing employee attendance.
Addressing employee tardiness can be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be challenging. Speaking with employees the moment their late arrivals become an issue can prevent other employees from disengaging and avert the company from developing a culture of inefficiency. Without a quick response to tardiness, you risk losing revenue and quality employees. Taking swift action keeps everyone happy, productive, and profitable.