Peer-to-Peer: Reversing a culture of tardiness

Written by ProfitGuide Staff


“I don’t quite know how this happened, but there seems to be a culture of lateness in my company. Many employees are late for work, late for meetings and late with projects more often than not. I’ve already sent an e-mail around explaining that I want things to change, and things did change-for about a month. I’m now thinking I need to provide incentives to be on time… or perhaps punishments or ultimatums for the late people. Any advice?”

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Reader responses

Gordon Sylvester, Airdrie Hobby & Cycle:

When I worked in the sales department of a Canadian appliance retailer, fewer and fewer staff were showing up on time when the head-office store opened in the morning. I was sitting at my desk one day when the store’s owners and management lined up at the front door to greet the staff who arrived late. They had locked all the other entrances so employees couldn’t sneak in another door. As the tardy employees arrived, each was greeted with a handshake and a welcome to the store as if they were customers.

The staff got the message that the management knew they were late and by how much. It was amazing to watch their reactions as they walked through the door. That act curbed the constant tardiness because staff realized their actions were being noticed.

For those who still didn’t get the message, a policy was put in place that if you didn’t arrive on time or didn’t have a valid reason for being late you were sent home for a day off. A company cannot run without personnel. As for meetings, make sure they start on time regardless of who is late and arrange it so anyone entering late does so in full view of all those who were on time. People don’t like to stand out, so they will change their habits to blend in.

You must recognize that there are times when being late can’t be helped and make allowances for that. But after a pattern of repeated lateness is documented, give a verbal warning at a first meeting. If it continues, follow up with a second meeting and a written warning placed in the employee’s personnel file. If the behaviour continues, hold a third meeting with either a written warning detailing the consequences, such as a three-day suspension without pay or termination. You must follow through.

Taleathahh Livingstone, Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs:

It sounds to me as though there is an underlying frustration within the company and that this is a passive way of employees taking control. I noticed that you said you dealt with this in an e-mail. My suggestion is a round-table discussion, in a safe, no-consequence setting, to find out what they are feeling. E-mail is a great tool for fast communication, but it misses the mark when dealing with core issues of employee motivation and job satisfaction.

Some questions to ask yourself: How are you rewarding staff now? If they work long hours to produce a project, what recognition do they receive? Do you bring in lunch for them during crunch times? Do you give them a Friday afternoon off after a particularly high-pressure project is completed? Small investments like these, for the entire team, encourage staff to feel valued.

Words are cheap — especially words in an e-mail. Real, tangible and unexpected rewards promote motivation and satisfaction in the workplace.

Cheryl Borg:

At my company, late attendees at meetings are logged in minutes and required to pay fines. The more senior the staff, the larger the fine. At the most senior levels, the fines are $10, and for junior staff usually a loonie or toonie. The money is donated to charity at the end of the year or used to buy pizzas and/or drinks. It seems to help.

Todd Pratt, The Frogstone Grill:

It’s your fault if you let this happen. The solution is a process of natural consequences, which I learned from my daughter. She took a band class at school on Wednesday mornings, which meant we had to leave early to pick up another band student on the way and get there on time. Every Wednesday was the same. I would stand at the door, asking her to get going and into the car. My daughter would wander around in no particular hurry, while I nagged and chastised. Not the best recipe for a father-daughter relationship.

I decided on a simple solution, which I shared with her. If she wasn’t in the car at exactly 7:20, I would leave. I would not shout, scream, give a guilt trip or nag. I explained that I had a responsibility to the other student to get them to band on time. If my daughter was late, I would be already gone to pick up the other student, and she would have to walk. That was the natural consequence.

The next week my daughter got down to the car at 7:30 and I was already gone. My wife later told me my daughter was very angry. Yet when we met that evening she was quiet and apologetic — and she was never late again.

Natural consequences are the best way, and I feel the only way, to discipline someone. The employee makes the choice whether to be on time, and if they are late there is a consequence. It could be missing out on something special for everyone at the beginning of the meeting (we sometimes have free movie tickets or choose a few employees to go out for dinner at a new restaurant), or as extreme as a warning letter that goes in their file.

Sometimes I change the location at the start of the meeting. Late employees don’t know where we moved to and miss the meeting. This embarrasses them, which is a huge motivator. Everyone needs to have someone hold them accountable — it’s healthy for us.

Laurie Walker, Knowledge Base Consulting Services:

There are a couple of things going on here. One is that we live in a maxed-out world for time, so people do not think in terms of getting there early. Everyone pushes the limit, which leads to lateness. We create this stress and indirectly do not reward those who arrive a few minutes early. We may even comment when people take off early to attend a meeting, for example saying, ‘You have plenty of time, why are you leaving so early?’ The second thing is that it really is all about me. People just do not see their tardiness as having a negative impact on those around them.

You need to remedy lateness by rewarding those few who are always on time, or arrive 15 minutes early every day, such as a Friday off a month with pay. If you can verify they have been coming in early, they have most likely put in the time anyway.

You also have to make people want to be on time by showing them they are part of the bigger picture and that lateness affects the whole team. Start with posters in the staff room, move to discussions in meetings, outline over the past year how much the company has lost due to lateness (e.g., 15 minutes a day by four employees adds up to 260 hours per year). More importantly, show them how being on time will benefit them, that being early reduces stress and that staying on schedule helps everyone. And take employees aside who are regularly late and let them know that they are important, that you need them to be there.

Offer time-management training, or make it compulsory. Yet another tactic is that if people are consistently late, explain that you will not be paying them for that time or that they’ll have to stay later to make it up. This is, of course, a last resort.

Debra Hamilton, Wing Creek Cabins Resort:

A culture of lateness develops from the top down. Leaders of the company lead by example. If they are always on time and demand flawless on-time performance, they will get it. If they arrive late and breathless but with apologies, that is the culture they will create. If they saunter into meetings whenever, that is the culture they will create.

Good luck with the turnaround. It is easier to create the culture from the beginning, but never too late to start over.

Nancie Evans, Culture-Strategy Fit Inc.:

As this president has discovered, telling people that they need to change their lateness behaviours, especially using impersonal methods such as e-mail, is rarely successful. A personal approach such as speaking directly with the person who is late immediately when it happens is more effective, but difficult to sustain and implement consistently. This needs to be supported by other approaches to ensure that the desired change is achieved and sustained.

Some organizations have used consequences with some success, such as making anyone who is late to meetings pay a pre-determined amount that is donated to charity at the end of the year. Another approach is to lock the meeting room door at the appointed start time and not allow latecomers in. The first time this happens, especially if it involves people in senior positions, the word will get out fast.

A.T. (Al) Laalo, Alliance Management Consultants:

Before you start looking at your employees for the answer, look at whether you are expecting too much from them. Are they frequently coming in late because they worked late the last few evenings to meet a deadline? Do you acknowledge the extra work and time? Do you need more staff? Are people telling you they are overworked or short-handed? These days most companies are working at the minimum staff levels needed to do the job.

How is overall morale? Is there a feeling among your staff that you don’t listen or that you’re not willing to adjust things to suit their needs? If morale is poor, the lateness issue may only be a symptom, not the root issue.

Would flex hours work and help? If staff have more control over their work and the work schedule, they are often more productive.

Are they meeting deadlines and other expectations? Are customers pleased with your company and its staff? If things are going well otherwise, loosen up. You may be trying to force people to live up to your expectations rather than focusing on the job at hand. Morale could suffer if you press the issue. Does it really matter that they’re late? Or is this something that simply bothers you?

Grant Robertson:

I have been in your shoes, and it was one of the hardest things I have had to deal with as a manager. I had fostered a very flexible work environment in our company since the day I founded it. The rule was simple: as long as the work got done and everyone did what they were expected to do, we would have a very flexible workday. If you showed up a little late for work, you’d stay later and get the work done. Want Friday off? Okay, work Saturday.

Employees, of course, had to be on time for meetings, especially with clients. For most of our employees, this created a work environment that matched their lifestyle and they never abused the structure, which was an incentive for them. However, some of our younger staff with less developed work ethics and less maturity started to abuse the open policy. No matter how hard I put my foot down through ‘state of the union’ e-mails, their behaviour always reverted to the status quo after a few days or weeks of improvement. Over time, projects started becoming delayed, and it began to impact our growth.

I realize now that the solution was obvious, but perhaps a little harsh. Sit down and meet with the whole staff. Be firm, to command their respect for the seriousness of the matter. Tell them that that the current structure is not working and must change. Don’t point fingers at specific employees in front of their peers, but provide explicit details regarding the company’s new expectations for all employees. Warn them of the consequences. One verbal warning, then a written warning in their HR file, then a third strike and they’re out. After the first person strikes out and you follow through on your word, the rest should fall in line. If they don’t, they are deadweight and need to go anyway.

After the meeting, privately talk to employees with good attendance and punctuality and let them know that you are putting your foot down because you respect them and the work they are doing and that others must pull their weight too.

I put up with this for too long and I really regret it. In the end, I terminated one employee. That sent a signal to the others that I had it in me to fire someone. The other employees with problematic attendance saw the writing on the wall and resigned to take positions at other companies. Boy, do I feel bad for their new employers!

For his answer, Grant Robertson will receive a copy of The Source of Success, by Peter Georgescu.

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Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com