Cope Creatively with the Punctually Challenged

By Diana DeLonzor Mar 3, 2008

President Bill Clinton, actor Robert Redford and model Naomi Campbell are all reputed members of the better-late-than-never club—one that covers up to 20 percent of the U.S. population. If your employees are card-carrying members, 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, and adding to the total cost is the ripple effect of late-starting meetings as productivity is affected throughout an entire organization.

Most chronically late people aren't purposefully tardy but 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.

A combination of prevention, penalties, rewards and coaching are often key to dealing with tardiness on an organizational level. The following steps can turn a chronically late workforce into a group of right-on-timers.

1. Discourage late-starting meetings. Send an e-mail reminder a half-hour before every meeting asking participants to be on time, or set one up in a computer 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.

2. Establish a system of rewards for employees with perfect attendance and punctuality. Rewards not only act as an incentive to employees, they 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.

3. Deal with lateness on an individual level. Although termination is always an option for employees with excessive tardiness, sometimes 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. 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.

What if your boss is the guilty party? 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 HR 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.

If you're the one with the tardiness problem, here are steps to change your ways:

  1. Relearn to tell time. Most late people consistently underestimate the time necessary to accomplish everyday tasks. This kind of "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. 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.
  2. Banish your "just-in-time" mentality. Late people tend to embrace the entrenched belief that it doesn't make sense to do anything until it absolutely must be done. To eliminate this 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.
  3. Plan to arrive early. Late folks tend to have an aversion to waiting, so they try to time their arrivals to the minute. 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.
  4. Schedule your time. 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 have time to do.
And if these tricks work for you, share them with your punctually challenged employees.

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 via her web site at

Terms of Use: © 2006 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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