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Better Late Than Never: A Sure Recipe for Disaster

(August 2005) posted on Wed Sep 14, 2005

Roberts details the situations you may face as you push for punctuality in your employees.


By Gordon Roberts

I recently polled a few supervisors and managers to see if there were any subjects that they would like me to discuss in this column. The one topic that came up over and over again was tardiness. One supervisor told me that he was at his wits' end trying to figure out exactly how he could entice, threaten, or even bribe his team to get to work on time. Does that sound just a little bit familiar to you? Let's look at the ways that we allow ourselves to fall into the tardiness trap and see if we can come up with some solutions that might actually work. Here are some options.

Option 1: Hit the road, Jack

Action This is the way things happen in most shops today. An employee is late on a regular basis but is vital to the smooth operation of the printshop, so the supervisor overlooks the lateness until he or she is overcome with frustration. The employee is called into the office, a written warning is given, and the employee figures it's time to update the résumé. The employee is late twice more, resulting in second written warning followed by the employee's termination. The employee realizes that updating the résumé was not such a bad idea and goes to work for the competition.

Result The supervisor has the satisfaction of knowing that the problem was dealt with decisively (well, sort of), but the vital employee is now working elsewhere and the work still needs to be done. Not much of a solution, really.

Option 2: Let's get creative

Action We've all tried this and have experienced different levels of success. Tardy employees arrive on average 10-15 minutes late with various excuses, mostly to do with the unpredictability of traffic, weather, childcare, etc. The supervisor designates the half hour at the beginning and end of the day as flex time, allowing a grace period for employees against the vagaries of modern commuting. Everyone feels this is a very progressive and open-minded solution to a difficult problem, and employees are delighted to work for such an enlightened company.

Result Most employees arrive at about the same time they always did, except for the tardy ones who are now arriving routinely about 40 minutes late. Print runs are delayed even further, and the employees who arrive on time are stuck making up the time at the end of the day anyway. This leads to more overtime and frustration all around. The supervisor resorts to Option 1 and warnings are written, résumés updated, and terminations are meted out. The supervisor realizes that he or she has added another unproductive hour to the work day, is personally working even longer hours, and achieving very little. Not the best solution after all.

Option 3: Do nothing

Action This is perhaps the most popular option among the tardy population and the one most often resorted to by the supervisor. The supervisor realizes that tardy people are not necessarily lazy people. In fact, some of the tardiest seem to be the most productive workers of all when they are present and working. In order to keep things on an even keel, the supervisor turns a blind eye to the lateness and learns to live with it.

Result Punctual employees resent the fact that they arrive on time and ready to work while the tardy ones appear to do as they wish. Anarchy begins to set in, and the supervisor ultimately finds himself or herself back at Option 1 with pen drawn.

Here are a couple of true stories that show how ridiculous things can get. My first job out of school had me working in a large distribution warehouse. I was a punctual employee, while many around me wandered in almost always late. One week I encountered some unforeseen problems and was late three days in a row. Much to my shock, I was written up for tardiness. When I asked why I was written up and not the other time-challenged and perpetually late employees, I was told that they had come to rely on me to be there on time. It was important that I not develop a complacent attitude about punctuality, whereas the others were basically a lost cause.

Years later I had one of the best printers that I have ever worked with on my staff. He was brilliant at his job, fast, accurate with an eagle-eye ability to spot the misprint or the misregistered image. His problem, of course, was that he could never arrive at work on time. One day I sat him down to tell him that he really needed to work on his tardiness (the prelude to Option 1). He told me that he was always willing to make up his lost time at the end of the day, and I shrugged and grudgingly accepted this. Later on at the end of the day I found him punching out at the usual time and asked him about making up the time. It turns out that it was softball night—he couldn't let the team down, could he? I was so frustrated that I immediately resorted to Option 1, and in no time at all he was working for a major competitor.

There are two kinds of tardy employees: the ones you want to keep and the ones you don't. We all know how Option 1 handles the employees you don't want to keep. If someone is not contributing and they are constantly late, bite the bullet and replace them. It's important to keep a professional atmosphere alive on the shop floor, and these employees are a drain on everyone and everything. Use the system to root these employees out, and utilize the hiring process in a way that maximizes your chance of not hiring more tardy workers. Ask new hires directly about their work habits. Listen closely to their answers. If they joke about being late often (and many of them do when asked), then don't hire them. You are responsible for the people you hire, and you have no excuses if you don't ask these questions.

Tardiness is often a symptom of boredom, especially in an otherwise exemplary employee. If you want to keep these potentially highly productive employees, it's very important that you involve them more and more in the running of the department. Give people responsibility, and you will be amazed what they will give back to you. There's a lot to be said for the employee who can't wait to get to work every day because he or she is engrossed in solving the problems of production along with you. Isn't this the reason you come to work early every day? Be fair and be firm to all your employees. Never allow things to progress to the point of anarchy.

And now for those tardy employees amongst you—and you know who you are. There is an old French proverb that says, "People count the faults of those who keep them waiting." Nothing good comes from your inability to arrive on time every morning. It may seem like a small thing to you now, but if you are ever going to progress into management, the most basic concept that you have to grasp is that of on-time delivery. Businesses that deliver their products on time are successful; those that don't fail. It's as simple as that. Get involved, start figuring out ways to streamline your process to facilitate the on-time delivery of everything that comes through your department, and start where it counts the most—with yourself.

Everyone needs to remember that there is almost no such thing as perfect attendance. Life conspires against us all the time. Build in some time in the morning for punctuality, and no one will notice the odd late arrival here and there. But if you make a habit of arriving late, remember to keep that résumé updated.


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