Making Lemonade: Dealing with Tardy Workers

lemonWhat do I do with an otherwise good employee who just doesn’t get to work on time?

There are occasions when there is a traffic accident, tree across the road, a sick child, family emergency, etc., which are those uncontrollable reasons that make a person late for work.  It happens. Just not three times a week or nine times a month.  Most managers eventually get the nerve to talk to an employee who is frequently late, but the manager is often more nervous than the employee about the conversation.  And, if the manager doesn’t talk to the employee the first several times they are late, then the employee often asks themselves, “Why is she talking to me now I’ve been late six times already?”  This reinforces a potential grudge by the employee and a disappointment for the manager. Further, the employee who is later disciplined or terminated will say they don’t recall the previous conversations and worse, that the employer had established a practice of overlooking tardiness. Ouch!

Making Your Action Plan:  Assume every employee who doesn’t come to work on time can change their behavior, with a little guidance.

Managers should not ever overlook tardiness because it communicates the work is not important and neither is the person who is tardy. Say what? If I don’t show up on time, aren’t you concerned about me, maybe I am hurt, dead, laying alongside the road in a ditch somewhere—you didn’t even notice I wasn’t here? Get the picture?  Also, is the work so unimportant that it doesn’t require a full workday?

What’s the plan?  Play nice. Express a genuine  interest in the employee’s welfare. Even if you cannot be sincere about your interest in the employee, the fact that you asked about their welfare will play well in front of a third party administrative law judge, judge, or jury if it comes to that. So, play nice.  For example:

First time employee is tardy:

John, I noticed that you were fifteen minutes late for work today. Are you alright? (followed by a long pause for the explanation). Wow. I’m sorry to hear that, but these things come up from time to time. I appreciate you telling me and in the future please call, if at all possible, and let me know you will be late, I won’t worry about you then.”

Follow with a nice note.



Thanks for filling me in on why you were delayed this morning (include the explanation he gave). Thank you too for agreeing to let me know, when possible, that you are going to be delayed getting to work. It will keep me from worrying about you. Our ( work/customers, is/are) important and so are you and having you here to start the day is vital.

(If the employee expresses a condition or event that may qualify for protected leave, be sure and include in your note, “Here is some information for you on the company policy for Family Medical Leave, etc. Please read it carefully and fill it out if you need the time. See me if you have any questions.)



For good employees who are rarely late, this is enough to prevent it from occurring again. Good employees are conscientious about being to work on time, and a simple reminder of their personal worth to the company alleviates future tardiness.  However, for a Lemon, it is just a matter of time till the next tardy or next three tardies. When the pattern develops, here are your next steps:

Pattern of Tardiness Developing:



It appears that you have been having a very difficult time getting in to work on time having been five or more minutes late to work on September 7, 11, 13, and 15th.  I recommend that you develop a plan to (leave for work fifteen minutes earlier each day, arrange to have backup child care, consult with our employee assistance program counselors to develop solutions, etc.) I would like to meet with you on (date) at (time) to allow you to share your plan with me that will insure you make it to work on time.

Having a clear and workable plan will allow me to avoid taking serious disciplinary action, possibly even terminating your employment. Our ( work/customers, is/are) important and so are you, and having you here to start the day is vital. I believe you can turn this problem around with some extra effort and determination.  Also if there is something I am not aware of, or some extenuating circumstances I will be glad to discuss it at our meeting. See you on _________(insert date, time of meeting).



Tardy Meeting:

Wow John, I’m looking at this list of recent tardies and note that this is a recent set of occurrences given that you have worked for us for _____ years and this seems to be new. Is there something going on that we can help you with to help you get to work on time?  (Listen carefully for legally protected issues which vary based on jurisdictions and whether you are public or private sector employers.) If you hear something related to medical issues, child care, family trauma or turmoil, be sensitive in asking questions to elicit what the employee needs to change that circumstance or to accommodate it.  Asking what you can do doesn’t mean that you are committing to do what is asked, it is simply engaging the person in an interactive process to try to solve a problem. Make sure that you keep your focus and gently but firmly hold the employee accountable to find a solution where they need to be responsible for the solution.  If they bring up a statutorily protected condition that requires a workplace accommodation, you need to gather as much information as possible before deciding. If such a request is made don’t agree to or reject the request in the meeting. Take the time to consider your options seriously.

Two questions to be sure to ask: (1) What can you do to make sure that you will not be tardy again? and (2) Will you commit to doing that knowing that if you are tardy again. absent a legitimate reason, we will likely have to terminate your employment?  Don’t let them weasel,  get firm answers to both questions.

Follow Up Note



Thank you for meeting with me and _______ on ________(Date) to share your plan with us on what you are committed to doing to avoid being tardy to work again.  You shared with us (detail his plan as he committed it to you).

I believe in you and believe you have developed a workable plan. It is important that you do your best and commit to your plan, because as we discussed in the meeting another tardy in the next twelve months will likely result in your being terminated. I have included a copy of our policy on attendance for you to review again. It would be unfortunate to have worked so hard to improve and then fall short.  I am pulling for you; however, if you fail, I will have no choice but to move forward with finding a person who can be here on time for our (work/customers).



Avoiding Litigation Strategies:  Play nice while holding a person accountable for their actions.

Each of the above strategies holds the employee accountable for their conduct and documents each event or violation of workplace rules. The supervisor’s demeanor in holding the employee accountable by emphasizing the importance of the work and customers and their concern about the welfare of the employee who isn’t at their station when work begins, humanizes the difficult task of holding employees accountable. Using this process in my years as a Human Resources Director and manager proved to be very successful. Often times it resulted in the employee thanking me for giving them the opportunity to correct their behavior and an admission that they had failed. I have actually had employees thank me for trying to help them when I was firing them.

It is important that you keep your eyes and ears open and listen for any excuse given by an employee that  may indicate a protected leave or protected condition.  If an employee is hinting about these areas as an excuse you want to flush it out in the open. For example, “I was late this morning because I am the sole source of care for my wife who is (insert serious medical condition).”  Make sure to show empathy and then provide the employee with necessary Family Medical Leave paperwork if you are a covered employer.  Cover your bases and demonstrate your sincere interest in attempting to help the employee resolve their problem with your help.

These are some examples of dealing with tardy employees.  In the private sector if you do not have a labor contract in both Oregon and California, which are at-will employment states, you can terminate an employee for any reason or no reason, just not an illegal reason.  The majority of terminated employees who sue do so because of how the employer made them feel, rather than if they have a case. Save yourself some trouble, take your time, play nice and document what and why you are doing what you are doing.  If you are in the public sector you likely have employees that are entitled to due process and just cause (Look for future articles on these two topics), so your trail of paperwork is even more important.  If you have a collective bargaining agreement you will need to review the discipline discharge provisions.  In some cases the notes referred to above may be considered by the union representative to be disciplinary in nature. You will need to be aware of your contract language. Further, in many public sector situations any evidence  for discipline or discharge has to be incorporated into the employee’s personnel file before it can be used as evidence in a termination. Check out your contract and or talk with your contract specialist. You need to know the requirements of your particular situation.


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