How you manage an employee’s excessive tardiness can affect much more than just the employee in question. Allowing habitual lateness to continue without action may increase turnover and decrease business efficiency and morale.
Some simple solutions to target tardiness in the workplace include implementing time tracking, keeping thorough attendance records, and communicating a clear policy to your employees. Your team should also be made to understand that frequent tardiness has consequences, and even innocent or infrequent hiccups can affect other employees and the business’s bottom line.
This guide gives you the tools you need to manage and prevent employee tardiness. We’ve also provided a free warning letter template you can modify and use for employees who need to be disciplined for excessive tardiness.
Best Practices for Preventing Excessive Tardiness
With all the negative consequences of employee tardiness—for the employee in question, their colleagues, and your business—it’s vital that you properly manage and prevent this behavior. Here are some best practices to help, whether you have an in-person or remote work environment.
Communicate Your Employee Tardiness 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 that covers 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 employee tardiness policy should clearly describe:
- Your company’s working 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 or log in remotely
- Consequences for tardiness
Need a Sample Attendance Policy?
When communicating your policy, especially if it’s new, make it abundantly clear that tardiness disrupts everyone. One employee being late can snowball into other employees having to cover and forgoing their own work.
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.
Define the Consequences Clearly
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.
Consider the circumstances of your business and workers. Must they work certain hours? Do they need to be available at specific times? If the employee works remotely, what should matter most is that their work is done on time and correctly—whether they do their best work at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. shouldn’t matter.
However, remote workers who regularly interact with clients or colleagues should still be held accountable under this policy, especially if they don’t show up on time for meetings or other important gatherings where punctuality is expected.
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 the accuracy of the punches and lets you know which employees might have patterns of tardiness.
With an electronic timekeeping system, records are automatically kept. These confidential records are visible to both you and the individual employee. 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 instill 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 notes on attendance and tardiness, should be stored in a personnel file by management.
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 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 Chronically Tardy Employees
You can’t simply tell a worker there’s a problem without offering support to correct it. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also helps keep your business compliant.
Communicate & Keep It Private
While other employees must 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. Make sure, however, that you don’t come off too harshly—your employee may be dealing with personal issues you don’t know about. It’s best to begin by simply asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity. Employees will be able to tell if you’re looking to help or for a reason to discipline them.
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 situation that might be causing them to show up late and affecting their ability to do their job, but don’t ask them specifically if they have a medical condition that’s to blame. 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 having any particular 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.
Consider Employee Burnout
When people think of burnout, they usually think of entrepreneurs who work 24/7 and are obsessed with their businesses and never able to turn their brains off—but it’s so much more than that. It 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, then 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 support them 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.
Define the Corrective Actions
Getting to the underlying issue is vital to creating an action plan for tardiness. Discussing the ways you can help your employee will make them feel supported and more likely to take corrective action seriously.
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.
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, leaving no surprises for anyone.
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. Conversations with late employees can also help you uncover any struggles your team may have in their personal life that are 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.
Consider this example—if an office of 22 employees opens at 9 a.m., and Amanda arrives consistently between 9:10 and 9:30, then other employees will notice and one of two situations will result.
- Other employees will start showing up late just like Amanda.
- 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, as employees who are unhappy or disengaged are less productive. With employee engagement low and stress at an all-time high, worker productivity is already falling—unsurprisingly so. A dissatisfied, unhappy, and disengaged employee is more likely to grow bad habits, like showing up late.
So, tardiness can reduce your company’s 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.
May Be a Case of Discrimination
Avoiding disciplining a tardy employee 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).
Employee Tardiness & Remote Work
While remote work provides many positive benefits to both employees and employers, there is an inherent lack of structure in some remote work arrangements. This can result in procrastination, oversleeping, working odd hours, and other issues that lead to tardiness despite having a shorter commute and prep time.
Can you hold remote employees 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—regardless of the reason—it 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, if attendance is still an essential function of an employee’s job, you may hold them accountable for being late. If their job function doesn’t require specific hours, you may consider adjusting your attendance requirements to instead focus more on worker output.
So we know normally, even with a distributed workforce, you can still hold employees to attendance policies. What if an employee is working from home because of a health issue for themselves or a close family member?
As long as the employee is not tardy because of a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)-covered illness, 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.
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.