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How Did It Get Late So Soon?

One way to manage the chronically late employee.

How Did It Get Late So Soon?

A recent survey by Inc. magazine estimates that more than 20 percent of all U.S. workers are late to the job on a regular basis, costing employers over $4 billion annually.

Undoubtedly there’s someone in your workplace (maybe it’s you) who is “punctually challenged.” That’s a phrase coined by Diana DeLonzo, author of Never Be Late Again, a self-help guide for the tardy and those who have to live with (and work with) chronic latecomers.

Under Minnesota employment law rules, specifically those statutes and judicial opinions dealing with the issue of who is entitled to unemployment benefits, excessive tardiness may be defined as “employee misconduct.” In a 2011 Minnesota Supreme Court opinion authored by now-retired Justice Alan Page, the court held that an employee fired from a group home for troubled youth was not entitled to unemployment benefits after being late to work or absent without notice five times in a two-and-a-half-month period.

The group home had specific policies explaining why tardiness and absenteeism “hinder[s] resident care and creates extra burdens to all the other staff.” While the Supreme Court noted that the group home had not followed all of its own progressive discipline policies before it fired the worker, it was nonetheless “reasonable” for the employer to expect compliance with its standard of behavior.

What makes a person chronically late? Common stereotypes, ranging from lazy, to selfish, to absent-minded, don’t offer much guidance to managers seeking to transform a tardy-prone worker into a punctual go-getter. One starting point, however, is to realize that someone who is habitually late to meetings and appointments has often spent a lifetime apologizing and feeling embarrassed. The tardy do not wish to be so, but they lack the skills, and especially the right kind of commitment, to change.

In her book, DeLonzo identifies a range of personality types (the “Rebel,” the “Deadline/Adrenaline Junkie”) who may actually experience some benefit from being late, perhaps secretly enjoying the attention a late arrival musters from others in the room. At work, however, the thrill dissipates rapidly, as the eye-rolling and sighing from co-workers quickly alienates the group from the tardy one, a process guaranteed to stall any meeting agenda.

Unfortunately, eye-rolling does not convey what the latecomer really needs to hear: Your co-workers think you are unreliable and untrustworthy because you are habitually late. Co-workers rarely say this out loud, however. They just unhappily pick up the slack. And it is thus up to the manager to let the tardy-prone know how the workplace is affected, time and again, by those who, as DeLonzo puts it, “march to their own clock.”

Helping a worker change his or her tardiness problem entails more than warnings and threats, although consistently applied attendance rules provide a baseline. Understanding why a person habitually underestimates commute times, and then creating a new start time for that individual, is a practical way to solve the problem, and save the person’s job.

Latecomers dream of getting to work exactly on time. The concept of “being early” to work seems, to them, fantastical, or actually repugnant. What would they do with that extra time? What a waste, when they could spend that extra 15 minutes in bed, or having an extra cup of coffee, or gassing up their car that’s entered the empty zone.

Perhaps the most powerful antidote for tardy workers is to adopt the maxim of getting to work, or any other commitment, 15 minutes early. DeLonzo cites that old authoritarian standby, Vince Lombardi, for his famous “Lombardi Time” rule: Always be 15 minutes early and you’ll be on time.

More helpful is the notion of “welcoming,” or preparing for, that wait. Explaining to an errant worker, perhaps on probation for tardiness, that you will be tracking his arrival time each day for two weeks, and that time is 15 minutes earlier than everyone else’s start time, including for meetings, will at first seem overwhelming. “I can’t get here on time anyway, and now you’re adding to my burden?” he cries.

Your task as a manager is to pique his imagination with all the things he can do while waiting for others to show up. You are not asking him to tackle any particular work-related task. He can scroll through his phone, read a newspaper, or stare out the window. But he’s at his place of employment, where he’s supposed to be, and he’s not late. He’s complied with your new rule, but best of all, he’s learning a new habit.

Tardiness, or the inability to control one’s own time, is a very bad habit, one that’s extremely difficult to break. Trying to manage or resuscitate an employee with tardiness problems may well seem a fruitless endeavor, not worth the effort. But when a chronically late employee does improve, the entire team or business unit will experience a morale lift, and the manager can move on to the next problem, hopefully having nothing to do with punctuality.

Perhaps unlike Dr. Seuss, the author of the phrase, “[h]ow did it get late so soon?” the tardy-fighting manager will be able to say with authority, like Benjamin Franklin observed, “you may delay, but time will not.” And the chronically late employee, now redeemed, may finally be ahead of time.

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney with her own law firm, Holstein Law Group. She helps individuals and businesses, including MSP Communications, with workplace issues.

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