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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Never on Time: How to Handle a Perpetually Late Employee

We’ve all been there. That time your alarm mysteriously didn’t go off, you couldn’t find your keys, and the train was late. It happens to the best of us, and for most of us, when it does, it makes for a stress-filled morning.

But, there’s another breed of latecomers out there—those who don’t seem the least bit bothered by clocking in a little (or a lot) late for work.

As a manager, nearly every employee I had was late to work at least once—including me—but there were a few who pushed the envelope and made it a habit to not be on time. Here’s how I handled them.

Big Brother is Watching

I hate to get all 1984 here, but this was the first lesson I learned when dealing with an always-late employee. Most of us cringe when we hear the words “micro-manager,” but sometimes it’s a necessary evil, and managing a constantly tardy employee is one of them.

Several years back, I had one such employee. I was a new manager, and didn’t want to come across as heavy-handed, or worse, as Big Brother. So, the first few times he was late, I let it slide. Then, a pattern emerged, and his lateness quickly became the norm. When I finally approached him, I was shocked at his response. He looked at me, genuinely surprised, and said, “I didn’t think you paid attention to that sort of thing!”

I hated to admit it, but he had a point. I was so worried about being the bad guy that I forgot to be a manager. I needed to find a way to gently, yet clearly, make my employees know their punctuality was important, and that I’d notice if they were late. I started by making a point of simply saying good morning, or walking by employees’ desks when they showed up late. I didn’t have to say much, I just made sure they were aware I noticed when they strolled in.

In almost every instance, that’s all it took. Employees were either apologetic about their lateness or truly did have something going on that was making it difficult to get it together in the morning. Either way, my staff seemed to appreciate the personal approach, and while they all knew I was paying attention, not a one complained about being watched.

Grab a Latte

Occasionally, though, the problem persisted, despite my gentle monitoring. When this happened, it was time to call in the caffeine. And by caffeine, I mean, take your tardy employee out for coffee, or even lunch.

I learned this after one of my star employees suddenly started showing up late pretty consistently. My casual comments didn’t seem to have an impact, which made me wonder if something was going on with her—either in the office or at home. The next time she was late, I approached her right when she got into the office, and asked her to join me for a coffee run. I asked her how things were going, and by the time she was halfway through her latte, she revealed she was dealing with an illness in the family and hadn’t been sleeping. We worked out a temporary flexible schedule until things settled down for her, and she was never late again after that.

By taking the time to check in, you give both the employee—and yourself—a chance to explain. While people may not always have a good excuse, they will appreciate you giving them the benefit of the doubt, rather than just a slap on the wrist.

Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline

If you’ve exhausted all the above, then it’s time to take some action. No manager—or employee—likes this part, but the truth is, sometimes you’ll have to discipline an employee to get the point across.

Several years back, I had to do this. Nothing I’d tried seemed to work with this employee—I just wasn’t getting through to him. So, after numerous attempts with more diplomatic approaches, I pulled him aside and informed him that if he was late again, I’d have to write him up. I documented our conversation for HR and sent him a copy via email for his records as well. And, when he was late, yet again, the next day, it was no surprise to anyone that I had to write him up. Unpleasant as it might have been for both of us, it got his attention, and thankfully, he got his alarm clock working before things had to go any further.

Every employee has a different learning curve when it comes to the job, and the same goes for work ethic. Some may need just a subtle reminder, while others require more clearly defined consequences to get the point. We’re all late from time to time, so start at the softer end of the scale, and take stronger measures only when nothing else seems to get through. You’ll be working in time with your employees in a New York minute.

Photo of clock courtesy of Shutterstock.