How to handle habitually late workers

Chronic latenessEmployers expect employees to get to work on time. Occasional problems with traffic or family issues sometimes make employees late. But chronic tardiness is another thing altogether.

While most employers track tardiness occurrences, they should do more. How? By issuing a consistent series of oral and written warnings (see below) and documenting each admonishment. Then follow up to see if the behavior improves.

Often it does improve, temporarily. Then it’s back to the same old problem—late arrivals and all the disruption that follows.

Your documentation will be worth its weight in gold if you fire the employee and he or she sues for some kind of discrimination. If you can show you let the employee know about your concerns and the consequences, she would have a hard time winning her case. 

Recent case: Allison Jeffrey was often late for work. Her bosses warned her repeatedly and kept good notes on those rebukes. After each warning, Jeffrey began arriving promptly … for a while. Then it was back to the same old pattern.

Then Jeffrey announced she was pregnant. Soon after—you guessed it—she was tardy again. She was given a pink slip for excessive tardiness.

Jeffrey then sued, alleging the real reason was her pregnancy.

But the company was loaded with evidence to show that it would have fired Jeffrey—and any other employee with a similar attendance record—whether she was pregnant or not. It had plenty of documentation to back up its contention that Jeffrey had been warned and counseled about her behavior long before she announced her pregnancy.

Result: The court dismissed the case. (Jeffrey v. Met Logistics, No. 07-CV-3301, ND IL, 2009)

To rein in chronically late employees, follow these four steps. The key is making sure employees understand that you expect timely attendance—and the consequences if absenteeism or tardiness continues to be a problem.

Set a clear policy
Frequently, absenteeism problems arise because a company has no clear policy on the issue. A company policy statement should be distributed to all employees, indicating when and under what conditions an employee will be paid (or not paid) for absences.

Always document absences
Documentation is a cardinal rule in any activity for which an employee may be disciplined. You should keep attendance/absence records for all employees. An absence rate can be figured by dividing the number of days an employee was scheduled to work for a given period into the number of absences. You can also calculate average absence rates for each department and for the company as a whole.

Be consistent
No company policy is going to remain effective unless it is applied consistently and fairly to all employees. For this reason, supervisory personnel should be clear on their responsibilities for recording data and for counseling and disciplining employees. Note: Keep your absenteeism policy flexible enough to allow for special problems and situations that might arise.

Use progressive discipline
When you’re faced with an employee who is chronically absent, it’s best to have a progressive discipline program in effect. For example, assume that a worker has an absenteeism problem resulting in lower productivity. Because absenteeism typically comes under the “minor problem” category, the first step is a precounseling session between the individual and his supervisor. Follow these steps:

  1. Oral reminder. This stage follows the counseling session and lasts three months or however long seems to be in the company’s best interest. But the period has to be uniform for all employees. If you resolve the problem, the slate is wiped clean and so is the documentation of the incident.
  2. Written warning. If the problem persists, schedule a second counseling session between employee and supervisor. This time, however, the supervisor writes a memo to the individual spelling out the problem, the worker’s acknowledgment of it and his or her agreement to work toward its resolution. A copy goes in the employee’s personnel file. The written reminder stage lasts six months, or however long you think is best for the company. If the problem is resolved within this time, the memo is considered inactive and there are no repercussions for the worker. However, don’t discard the memo—keep it in the employee’s personnel file.
  3. Decision-making. If the absenteeism problem still exists after the written reminder stage, the supervisor has a final meeting with the employee, during which he spells out the company’s policies again. Then the employee is given a one-day leave of absence to decide if he wants to continue working for the company on the condition that he agrees to abide by its rules.

Online resource: How to Solve Your Employee Absentee Problem

Subscribers and Premium Plus members can access our white paper, How to Solve Your Employee Absentee Problem, which includes a step-by-step system for handling attendance-challenged workers, at