One day, it’s 10 minutes. The next, it’s 30 or 50.

Whether it’s bad traffic, oversleeping or caring for a sick pet, employees offer up lots of different excuses when they show up late for work. As the manager, you may overlook it the first time. But what if it becomes a pattern?

Employee lateness is a widespread problem that managers and business owners often have to deal with. A survey by CareerBuilder found that one in four employees admits to showing up late for work once a month, whereas 13% of employees say it’s a weekly occurrence. Managers say they hear all sorts of excuses: “A black bear entered my carport and decided to take a nap on the hood of my car.” “I was detained by Homeland Security.” “My hair caught on fire from my blow dryer.”

Employees who rarely arrive late to work should probably be given the benefit of the doubt—as there are valid reasons for being late. (Tires really do go flat!) But it’s generally in a manager’s best interest to confront employees who are frequently or always late.

Late employees can reduce business productivity, especially if they aren’t making up for lost work time at the end of their shifts. Moreover, employee tardiness hurts the morale and work ethic of other employees who might resent that the late arrivers aren’t getting called out or disciplined for their lateness. It might even encourage other employees to start showing up late to work if they see no consequence for the bad behavior.

But don’t despair. Businesses have many opportunities to boost the odds that employees will show up when they’re supposed to. So if you want to learn more about how to deal with employee tardiness in the workplace and discourage employees from arriving late, keep reading. 

Use a time clock.

Wondering how to motivate employees to come to work on time? It may seem old-fashioned or like you’re micromanaging, but a time clock holds people accountable. Employees will feel more compelled to show up on time if they know they’re being monitored with a time-tracking system or time clock. Time-tracking with a time clock or virtual program can help serve as a tool to record when employees check in and out for the workday. Time clocks can also help inform your employees about when they come and go.

Companies can buy a physical time clock that requires employees to punch in and out each day or, if the employees work at computers, time-tracking software can be installed that records when employees log in and out of their workstation.

how to address tardiness in the workplace

Schedule a staff meeting first thing in the day.

Even if it’s a quick five-minute “check-in,” if employees know they are required to attend an all-hands-on-deck meeting with the boss first thing in the workday, they will have good reason to show up on time—or face questions about why they were absent.

labor laws on being late for work

Be clear and consistent about the rules.

If you’re not actively communicating that you expect employees to show up on time, they may think you don’t care if they’re late.

Make sure your employee handbook spells out the expectations about work hours and arriving on time and remind employees of those expectations on a regular basis, such as in staff meetings. Also, make sure the time expectations are enforced consistently across all employees—or you could be accused of favoritism or unfair treatment.

Having an established process for time tracking—such as using a time clock— will help ensure consistency.

how to address tardiness in the workplace

Require phone calls.

Make it a requirement that employees who are more than 15 minutes late must call into the office. Employees are less likely to show up late if they know they have to discuss it with someone.

email to employees about being late

Institute penalties for being late to work.

Depending on your workplace culture and Federal and state employment laws, you may want to create penalties for employees who show up late to work more than, say, once per month. If you’re wondering how to write up an employee for being late, start with a warning letter or email. But if that doesn’t work, you might require them to make up for missed work time at the end of their shifts.

You might consider docking employees’ pay for tardiness but you’ll want to consider labor laws on being late for work. Many states allow employers to dock the pay of employees classified as nonexempt—those who qualify for overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours per week—as long as those employees are given advance written notice of penalties. Salaried employees classified as exempt—meaning they do not qualify for overtime pay—cannot generally have their pay docked under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act rules.

Also, an employee’s paycheck cannot generally be docked if their hourly wage would effectively drop below their state’s minimum wage by doing so.

Of course, any time you create penalties, there can be concerns of unfair treatment. Make sure the consequences of tardiness are spelled out clearly in advance in writing, such as in the employee handbook. Then carefully and consistently enforce those rules as required by law.

penalties for being late to work

Make punctuality part of the employee performance review and compensation.

If you’re not sure how to reprimand an employee for tardiness, you may want to consider discussing it in their annual performance review. Perhaps even make it a performance goal for employees who frequently have trouble showing up on time.

By formalizing it as part of the review process, there should be no question that it’s an important part of their performance evaluation.

Timeliness can also be factored into their compensation. Consider tying punctuality to the raises or bonuses. For example, employees who are never late may receive an extra bonus amount, whereas those who are late more than once per month or week receive little or no bonus.

penalties for being late to work

Create a reward program for punctual employees.

Offer rewards—whether an extra day off or a $50 gift certificate to a popular restaurant—for employees who show up on time to work every day for, say, six months straight. Those who are chronically late will not be rewarded in this program. This could help reinforce that being punctual is a key workplace goal.

However, you will need to track punctuality carefully if you’re offering such rewards to avoid being accused of errors or favoritism.

how to motivate employees to come to work on time

Talk directly to the chronically late employee.

Wondering how to handle tardy employees? Once you’ve tried hands-off approaches to encouraging punctuality, you may still have an employee or two who pushes the envelope on punctuality. In these situations, you’ll need a more direct approach.

Sit down privately with the employee. Let them know you’ve noticed they’ve been regularly late to work and ask them to explain why. (It’s possible they have a personal reason, such as caring for a child before the school day—in which case it may make sense to discuss setting a different work schedule for that employee or creating another workaround.)

Stress to the employee the importance of punctuality to the business’ success and to being part of the team. Remind them that employees are required to arrive to work on time.

Ask them to come up with an action plan for arriving to work on time. Rather than enforcing penalties, it can be more effective to make the employee responsible for correcting their behaviors. They know better than you do why they are persistently late to work, so they are better positioned to find a solution.

Ultimately—if all other strategies fail—you may have to consider taking more severe measures with a chronically late employee who doesn’t respect your punctuality rules. If the employee underperforms due to their lateness and continues to show up late, you might consider whether that employee is worth keeping around altogether.

Remember that a manager’s job is keeping employees motivated to work hard—and an employee who consistently breaks the rules is only going to hurt morale.

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