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Taming Tardiness

A group of people sitting at a table.

Tardiness costs U.S. businesses billions of dollars 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.

Most chronically late people aren't purposefully tardy but tend to have difficulty with time management. 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.

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.

Take Action

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. 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. 

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Are You the Culprit?

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. 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.
  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.
  5. 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.

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).



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