Running Late

Managing chronically late employees will boost productivity for everyone.

By Diana DeLonzor Nov 1, 2005

Vol. 50, No. 11

President Bill Clinton, Robert Redford and Naomi Campbell are all reputed members of the better-late-than-never club that also includes up to 20 percent of the U.S. population. If your employees are card-carrying members as well, they’re not only among esteemed company, they’re also dragging down the business.

Tardiness costs U.S. businesses more than $3 billion each year in lost productivity. The effect on the bottom line of the average business is significant: An employee who is late 10 minutes each day has, by the end of the year, taken the equivalent of a week’s paid vacation. Adding to the total cost is the ripple effect of late-starting meetings as productivity is impacted throughout an entire organization.

During the past several decades, lateness has gradually been on the rise in U.S. businesses. In 2004, while conducting follow-up research for my book, Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged, I conducted a survey of human resource managers and found that 73 percent reported tardiness to be growing worse. Many managers cited decreasing employee morale and increasing work and family responsibilities as causes. With the recent economic turmoil, employees are feeling more stress and pressure to take on extra workloads, according to the survey participants. These factors, coupled with a loosening of societal standards, are causing some real changes in priorities.

But managers beware. Although it’s tempting to say, “Just get here on time,” that’s a little like telling a dieter to simply stop eating so much. Chronic lateness is typically a lifelong habit, and one that’s surprisingly difficult to overcome.

Of course, there are myriad reasons for chronic lateness, such as job dissatisfaction, promotional or salary-related resentments, or a lax company policy. However, my research has also found that most chronically late people aren’t purposefully tardy but instead tend to have difficulty with time management. In a San Francisco State University study investigating chronic lateness and its causes, we found that the punctually challenged often shared certain common personality characteristics such as anxiety, a penchant for thrill-seeking or low levels of self-control. Chronically late subjects also reported greater procrastination tendencies in general compared to the timely subjects.

Taming Tardiness

While managers often accuse tardy types of wanting attention or of needing to be in control, persistent lateness usually has little to do with those factors. The motivations, rather, are often subconscious ones. Some people are drawn to the adrenaline rush of that last-minute sprint to the finish line, and others receive an ego boost from over-scheduling and filling each moment with an activity. Still others have difficulty conforming to rules and structure.

A combination of prevention, penalties, rewards and coaching are often key to dealing with tardiness on an organizational level. The following simple, four-step process can turn a chronically late workforce into a group of right-on-timers, increasing productivity and morale at the same time.

1. Establish a corporate culture that encourages punctuality. Work with HR to create a written punctuality policy with clearly defined penalties. Communicate the policy in all new hire orientations, enlist sign-on from all managers and enforce it consistently. Penalties may include written warnings, suspension, pay docking and termination. Be sure to check your state’s employment codes prior to setting the policy. Time-critical companies such as United Parcel Service attribute their success in part to this type of regular reinforcement of company policy.

2. Discourage late-starting meetings. Send an e-mail reminder a half-hour prior to every meeting asking participants to be on time, or set one up in Microsoft Outlook calendar. Two minutes after the scheduled start time, close the door. Then tackle the most important topics first. Open the door for latecomers, but do not backtrack to fill them in on missed discussions.

3. Establish a system of rewards for employees with perfect attendance and punctuality. Some companies have found that rewards not only incent employees, but also serve as a reminder that punctuality is an important part of company culture. Punctuality incentives are often packaged with attendance records, and rewards can come in the form of anything from free employee parking to department store gift certificates. Managers can use spot bonuses to reward employees who are on time.

4. Deal with lateness on an individual level. Handling lateness on an individual level usually requires some degree of coaching. Although termination is always an option for employees with excessive tardiness, there are times when an otherwise wonderful employee simply needs a nudge in the right direction.

Arrange a meeting with the employee to outline company policies and inquire about extenuating circumstances or logistical problems. Set clear, measurable goals for the future and clarify the consequences for being late. Document your conversation in writing and keep written documentation of future incidents.

Remember that many chronically late people do not act intentionally, and are often perplexed at why they fail to manage their time effectively. The process of change will be more genuine and long lasting if the employee achieves a better understanding of his actions and is equipped with tools for success. These tools can come in the form of books, seminars, counseling or coaching.

During the initial meeting, schedule a follow-up appointment to review the employee’s progress. Scheduling a follow-up meeting helps reinforce to the employee that you are serious about the progress you expect and that you will be monitoring the situation over time.

Late Bosses

What if your boss is the guilty party? Few employees relish the thought of chastising the company president or CEO, so approaching a chronically late manager can be tricky. There are a few alternatives to biting your tongue, however.

If broaching the subject with your manager is too daunting, try enlisting the help of his assistant. Make it a habit to provide a copy of the agenda prior to each meeting and request help in getting the manager to arrive on time.

You also may want to approach the human resource manager and mention that lateness is becoming a problem in general. Mention that you’ve noticed company culture beginning to lag in regard to attendance and punctuality, and that you think productivity may be suffering as a result. Request HR’s help in improving the situation.

Finally, if complete anonymity is the only route with which you feel comfortable, visit my web site at www.neverbelateagain.com and send a free, anonymous lateness citation. The citations can be ordered in either a kind, gentle version or a “get tough” version. Sending the message in this manner can act as a wake-up call for even the most dyed-in-the-wool late person.

While dealing with punctuality problems at work can be challenging, managers often find that when punctuality is under control and meetings start on time, productivity is directly affected. What’s more, employees who conquer chronic lateness often find they’ve become more organized and effective in other areas of their lives as well. Once they learn to analyze their problems and put together a strategy to improve, their new habits often become lifestyle changes.

Are You the Culprit?

If the descriptions of the chronically tardy person sound intimately familiar, there are things you can do to change your ways:

Relearn to tell time. Most late people engage in “magical thinking,” consistently underestimating the time necessary to accomplish everyday tasks. Magical thinking is the unshakable belief that you can drive the 10 miles to work in seven minutes flat, even if day after day you fail to do so. If once five years ago you actually did make it in seven minutes, from that day forward, seven minutes is cemented in your mind. To avoid magical thinking, keep track for one week of how long your daily tasks actually take, then post those new time frames somewhere you’ll see them every day.

Banish your “just-in-time” mentality. Late people tend to embrace the entrenched belief—usually subconscious— that it doesn’t make sense to do anything until it absolutely must be done. This often leads to last-minute rushes and overdue projects. To change the just-in-time mentality, start doing things early. Every morning for one month, write down one task you’ll do early that day—turn in a report before it’s due, fill up your gas tank before it’s empty or go to the ATM while you still have money in your wallet.

Never plan to be on time. Late folks tend to have an aversion to waiting, so they try to time their arrivals to the minute. If the drive to work takes 20 minutes and it’s 22 minutes before 9:00, the late person, rather than leaving the house, will continue reading the paper or cleaning the breakfast dishes until exactly 8:40. This kind of split-second time management rarely works out. Always plan to be 15 minutes early and you’ll probably make it just in time.

Always have a plan. For late people and procrastinators in general, structure is critical. Each morning, using the new time estimates you created when you relearned how to tell time, make a schedule of your daily activities with start and end times next to each item. Having a written plan helps you to see tangibly what you do and don’t have time for.

Create an action statement or mantra. Special words and phrases have a powerful ability to clear our heads and prompt us to make conscious decisions about our actions and schedules. An action statement may take the form of a question such as:

  • Does this really need to be done now?
  • Am I being realistic or optimistic with my time?
  • What are my priorities?

When you’re tempted to do one last thing or to take one last call before leaving for a meeting or an appointment, give yourself a wake-up call by taking a deep breath and repeating your mantra.

Diana DeLonzor is a nationally recognized time management expert who headed a university study investigating chronic lateness, its causes and the psychological characteristics of late people vs. timely people. She is the author of Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged (Post Madison, 2003). She has been featured in numerous national media, including the Chicago Tribune, Good Housekeeping magazine and NBC News. She can be reached through her web site at www.neverbelateagain.com.

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