How to discipline employees who are late – and whether you should

Published on July 16, 2019 by Gemma Dale
    Absence · HR · Resources

How to discipline employees who are late – and whether you should

Is it frequently the case that an employee is late for work? Learning how to respond to employee lateness promptly and considerately is key. Here HR expert Gemma Dale shares her management tips on how to discipline employees who are late – and if employee discipline is the right way to approach the issue.

Lateness at work matters – in some jobs more so than others. Where a shop needs to open, phones need to be answered or people need to be cared for, then punctuality is critical; it is the role of the manager to ensure that this is monitored and managed accordingly.

How should organisations address those times when employees are regularly late to work?

Before you discipline employees for being late...

Before considering your response to an individual’s lateness, you first need to understand why they are late. It is all too easy to assume that the employee is at fault or just needs to try harder to get to work on time. Sometimes this can be the case, but equally there may be issues out of their control impacting upon their punctuality. Public transport reliability or caring responsibilities are just two examples of circumstances that could impact someone being able to get to work on time and that your employees might not be able to influence.

Starting the conversation about lateness

Dealing with lateness (and most performance related issues!) should always begin with a judgement-free conversation. Take the individual to one side for a private discussion. Share your observations about their punctuality using specific examples (such as instances of lateness you've recorded using absence management software, so everyone's on the same page). Ask them straightforwardly why they aren’t getting to work on time; their answer should inform the rest of your approach.

It’s also worth reflecting on the employee’s overall punctuality throughout their employment. Has there been a sudden deterioration when they are normally a high performer? Check if anything could be causing of this changed behaviour.

In your conversation, make sure to ask the individual if there is anything you can do to support them in getting to work on time. However, at the end of that conversation ensure that they know the standards that you expect in the future and what the consequences of not meeting them could be.

Formal disciplinary action for late employees

Formal employee discipline is an option but should always be your last resort. This is true not just for lateness but for any day-to-day employee issues. Over-use of disciplinary procedures can lead to damaged relationships, reduced employee engagement and have a long-term negative impact on your culture. Where you have exhausted all the informal and supportive options and feel that this is now necessary, always ensure that you follow your own internal processes and procedures. But remember: if the lateness is genuinely out of the control of the individual, a formal warning isn’t likely to improve the situation.

In every performance management situation, the decision about when to deal with the issue informally or formally requires careful consideration. The outcome will depend on the specific circumstances of the case and the role – and individual - in question. What is important is dealing with issues promptly, reasonably and factually.

As we discussed at the start of this blog post, there are some jobs where punctuality is critical. But more and more of us are what are now known as knowledge workers. Knowledge workers can work anywhere with an internet connection and often at any time of day too. In this context, fixed working patterns aren’t always essential. Empowering people to organise their own work is a significant driver of motivation and reduces work related stressors. So it is worth reflecting – just how important is it that your employees stick to a fixed contractual start time?

Related article: How to reduce employee stress

Key questions when disciplining an employee who is late

As a reminder, here are some questions to consider before deciding how to discipline employees who are late:

  • why is the employee late?
  • what can you do to support them in improving their punctuality?
  • can you be flexible on your start times, where the role allows?
  • how serious is the situation and how big is the impact on the business?

When it comes to using disciplinary processes to deal with minor issues, the best employers know that just because they can, it doesn’t mean they should. When disciplinary processes are required, if you are fair and reasonable in your approach and follow your own policy, you won’t go far wrong.

Related article: How to discuss absenteeism with an employee

Picture of Gemma Dale

Written by Gemma Dale

Gemma Dale is an experienced HR Director and CIPD Chartered Fellow. She is a regular speaker and writer on HR topics like employee engagement and social media.

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