How to Handle Employees Who Are Chronically Late or Absent

It can be very frustrating when you have an employee who is frequently late or absent, but employee attendance problems aren’t always due to irresponsibility. Here’s help for dealing with the situation.

William Shakespeare said, “Better 3 hours too soon than a minute late.” That might be slightly extreme—who wants to be 3 hours early to work—but the spirit of his words hold true. How about the employee that seems to constantly have a reason to not come in to work and their sick days are used up by February? As a business owner, you probably don’t have enough employees to let even an otherwise good employee get away with even a small amount of behavior like this so what can you do?

How Are Your Employees Wired?

Maybe you’re the type who doesn’t believe in being late. The few times it’s happened to you, it was a trauma that you would rather not see happen again. It’s a truly horrific experience. But those who are late probably aren’t doing it out of spite. It’s not some passive-aggressive ploy to get you back for being such a terrible leader. It’s simply how their brain works.

Scientists found that there’s an area of the brain that handles these executive tasks like organization, planning, impulse restraint, and time management. People with ADHD, for example, tend to have problems in this area of the brain. Others who have no diagnosable illness may also have deficiencies of some sort.

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Be Compassionate to Late or Absent Employees

Compassion doesn’t mean excusing the behavior—it means that you’ll seek to understand it and develop a plan that takes the reason into account. Maybe the employee is a single mom with multiple kids going to multiple places and it all hinges on a carefully orchestrated series of events falling into perfect harmony. Anybody who has kids knows that simply leaving earlier isn’t a possibility when dealing with schools. Or maybe they’re bouncing from bus to bus to get to work.

Maybe they have a child or another family member with a chronic illness and that’s why they so frequently miss work.

Let’s be honest—they may just be irresponsible, but before you figure out how to handle the issue, make sure you understand it. Simply telling somebody to be on time isn’t the answer if there are underlying reasons why they’re always late.

Is It That Big of a Deal?

Maybe you’re a rule follower. The rules say that they’re late at 9:01. If they arrive at 9:01 they might as well be an hour late. There’s no difference. By the rule book you might be right but does it really matter? If they’re in a role that requires them to be in place ready to deal directly with customers at 9:00, you have a point but if it’s an office job that isn’t time sensitive, is it that big of a deal? Could you simply make a rule that they have to work an 8 hour day? If they start work at 9:05, they don’t leave until 5:05? If they come in at 10, they work until 6? Rules should be in place to solve a problem—not to justify setting up a legalistic office environment that makes people feel undervalued.

Offer an Alternate Work Environment

Remember how you’re going to find the cause of the problem before you start putting reports in their file and “having a talk” with them? If there’s a reason for their lateness or if they are calling off regularly, and they’re a valuable employee, maybe it’s time to look into an alternate work environment. Maybe they could work at home if they have to care for a sick child. There are plenty of ways to get creative now that the Internet allows many employees to work from anywhere. And there are numerous ways to monitor their home productivity, too.

RELATED: How to Make Flexible Work Arrangements a Success for Your Business

How to Handle Late and Absent Employees

There are certainly times when you have to be a manager. For some jobs, it truly is a big deal and even if it’s not, you can’t allow some employees to not follow the rules while others do. From an HR perspective, you have to identify the behavior and give the employee a verbal warning. This is where you seek to understand why. If there’s a real reason, you work together to find a plan that works for both of you.

Second, don’t wait until it happens a dozen times before you say something. Talk to them after 2 or 3 instances. After the conversation, document what you said and the plan you came up with. Have them sign the document. During the conference, let them know that this document is coming. Make sure the document outlines any consequences for further problems.

Finally, as you see them correct the behavior, acknowledge the change. Remember, for people who aren’t wired for arriving on time, this is exceedingly hard to do. They deserve a high-five for that.

Bottom Line

Some jobs allow you to be more flexible than others. When you have the opportunity for flexibility, and the employee is a valuable member of the team, it might make more sense to set up an environment that doesn’t rely so heavily on a structured work day. Many companies have successfully implemented a flex-time model, but there are plenty of reasons why you have to put a stop to the problem. Handle it with compassion but from an HR perspective, heavily document in case you have to later let them go.

And by the way, if you’re the type that has issues arriving on time, coming down on your employees for something you do yourself isn’t going to work. Lead by example.

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