When employees start slipping into work later and later, the negative ripple effect can be far-reaching. Star players have to pick up their coworkers’ slack. Decreased productivity hurts your bottom line, and loyal customers are kept waiting.

Though we’ve all been there — the alarm didn’t go off, the oatmeal exploded in the microwave, the car battery died — there’s a difference between a one-time occurrence and several employees clocking in late every day. Here’s how to handle chronic lateness to sculpt a stronger, more functional business.

Act fast

Talking directly to your employees about tardiness is tough. Waiting until your customers are upset and you’re steaming from the ears is much, much tougher. As soon as you notice a problem, take your employee aside and talk honestly. Focus on the behavior rather than critiquing the person. Instead of “you’re not very punctual,” try “my records show you’ve been clocking in fifteen minutes after your scheduled shift the last few days. What’s going on?”

Another hazard of waiting until the last minute to broach the subject is that lateness can be contagious. If you let one employee clock in five minutes late every day, their coworkers may assume you won’t mind (or notice) if they do the same.

Work together to develop a plan

Chronic tardiness is often a result of one of two things: a lack of motivation, or a lack of ability, each of which requires a different gameplan.

If it’s a lack of motivation, appeal to your employee’s emotions by expressing your disappointment. Mention how their behavior has negatively impacted the business. If the issue is related to ability, identify the challenge. Are parking options limited? Is there a problem with the employee’s childcare provider?

Finally, put the employee in the driver’s seat by asking them to develop their own short-term and long-term solutions. For instance, if you’re working with a night owl, a good long-term goal might be to transition the person to all night shifts. A short-term goal may be to swap their remaining shifts for the week with another employee who doesn’t mind showing up at sunrise.

Announce (and distribute) your attendance policy

Having a solid policy will deter most employees from clocking in late. If you already have a policy but your employees aren’t adhering to it, now’s the time to figure out why. A strong attendance policy has three main components:

  • Expectations. If you’re a shift-based business that relies on employees arriving on time for busy mornings or the dinner rush, your expectations should be pretty straightforward. State it simply, so there’s no room for interpretation: “If the schedule says your shift begins at 4:00, an employee should arrive no later than 4:00.”
  • Disciplinary process. This is where you outline the consequences for showing up late. Most policies begin with an oral reminder for the first offense, followed by a written warning for the second offense, and then a decision-making process if it happens again (will the employee be suspended? Fired? Have their pay reduced for the missed time? Have their number of shifts reduced?) Clear repercussions will motivate workers who may not value company time as much as you do. For more guidance, here’s a detailed example of a course of discipline for dealing with attendance problems.
  • Flexibility for unusual circumstances. It may seem counterintuitive, but more flexibility can lead to reduced lateness, fewer absences, and higher morale. Choose your no-tolerance policies wisely. Perhaps on-time arrival is a must for the opening shift, but clock-in times are more flexible for bookkeeping or other independent tasks. It’s also important that you allow employees the freedom to take occasional time off to run errands that can only happen during regular business hours.

Keep meticulous records

Maintain an updated log of tardiness and absences, and note any patterns. It might raise a red flag if an employee is only calling in for holidays and weekends. If keeping track manually is too tedious, consider using time and attendance tracking software like Planday. In addition to automating your records, a tracking system can drastically improve your employees’ accountability for their tardiness. Rather than getting defensive when you sit down to talk, an employee may see the problem from your perspective when confronted with the facts.

Another reason to maintain your records: if you have to terminate a chronically late employee and they put up a legal fight, you’ll have documentation to prove you followed a fair process and offered warnings.

Use positive reinforcement

It’s a familiar concept in psychology that humans respond better to rewards than punishment, so why not leverage that fact in the work environment? Allow your punctual employees to lead by example by offering rewards for perfect attendance and early arrival. It could be something simple, like company-wide recognition or a free meal, or something more elaborate, like a cash prize or paid time off.

And when tardy employees show improvement, don’t forget to acknowledge it. They’ll be happy you noticed, and more likely to keep up the good behavior.

Keep an open mind

Set your assumptions aside and connect, on a human level, to the reasons for your employees’ tardiness. While some workers may struggle with planning, others may have more legitimate reasons for being late, like back-to-back closing and opening shifts, a change in mode of transportation, or mental illness. One manager didn’t discover that late nights caring for a sick family member was the underlying cause of her star employee’s lateness until she took her employee out for coffee.

One final note about working with late employees is to keep the big picture in mind. As with all aspects of management, it’s crucial to your sanity and success to sort the major problems from the petty ones. A stellar employee who occasionally clocks in five minutes late may not be a big deal. Similarly, in a company where it’s more important that the work gets done well rather than between specific hours, you may be better off focusing your energy elsewhere. However, if your employees’ lateness is hurting daily operations and team morale, it’s time to make a change.

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