How to deal with persistently late employees

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Employees who are habitually late can have a negative impact on an organisation’s culture and a detrimental effect on the productivity of a business. This guide provides useful hints and tips to deal with such circumstances going forward.

It is unrealistic to assume that all staff will always be punctual for all of the shifts they are scheduled to work and it is realistic to expect that some staff members will be occasionally late. With this in mind, it may not be appropriate to take disciplinary action on every occasion an individual is late. It is only right and fair that employment practices and policies provide employers with the discretion to fit a particular circumstance.

However, if employees are regularly late for work, then action needs to be taken to protect the company and to improve the work ethic amongst the team.

Ensure that expectations are clear

Employers should be clear on exactly what the expectation level is and one of the key issues to be clear about is what an organisation’s business hours are and what hours the employee is expected to work. This should be clearly set out in the contract of employment and, if necessary, it should be stated that an employee should ensure he or she is ready to start work (as opposed to just arriving on the premises) at the appointed time.

With this in mind, any agreed variation to contractual working hours, for instance through a flexible working request or other agreement, should be clearly documented so both the employee and employer know what is expected.

The question as to whether an organisation should operate a separate lateness policy or deal with lateness under a general disciplinary or other absence management policy divides opinion. It can become confusing operating separate policies, for instance, if an employee has already been issued with a first written warning for a particular conduct issue and is subsequently late, contrary to a lateness policy, should the employee be issued with a further first written warning, in which case they would have two written warnings on their file (which may contradict a disciplinary policy)? Or would a final written warning be an appropriate outcome (which may contradict a lateness policy) as lateness is a further conduct issue? 

It is important that employers have the right to take control of company time but it might be worth exploring, as part of any policies that might be in operation, whether or not adopting a definition or threshold for what constitutes ‘lateness’ is appropriate. This may provide flexibility to recognise that from time to time there will be occasions when, through no fault of their own, an employee may be late to work, and disciplinary action may not be appropriate to take on every occasion. However, it is important for an employer to retain the discretion and power to take action when non-attendance begins to build up and becomes more than an infrequent occurrence.

Whether a separate lateness policy is adopted or whether lateness is dealt with in another way, perhaps through a disciplinary or other absence management policy, policies should be clear on:

  • The standard expected of employees, which, as above, should also include details of the working/ business hours and should be clear as to when employees are expected to be ready and prepared to start work.
  • The procedure for reporting lateness, who the employee should report to, by what means and when to do so.
  • Details of how working time will be tracked, monitored and recorded. This may require some crossover with an organisation’s privacy notice or other data protection policy. Some organisations may be able to trace working hours through IT or other systems but time sheets or physically clocking into work are widely used in certain industries.
  • If applicable, details on how employees can make up the time if they have been late. However, employers should be mindful that such arrangements should not be construed by employees as an alternative to flexible working arrangements. It should be clear that such arrangements require the prior approval of a manager or superior, and will only be granted in exceptional circumstances.
  • The consequences on the organisation and business of frequently arriving late to work.
  • A comment on the potential disciplinary action which could be taken for persistent lateness.
  • A comment that lateness should be avoided as it is disruptive for everyone.

Whatever approach is taken, it is agreed that if an employer operates a separate lateness policy and deals with lateness as a separate conduct issue it is important to have clear guidelines on exactly what disciplinary action may be taken in each particular circumstance, which may require a revision of the disciplinary policy as a whole.

It is also important to ensure the procedures for reporting and dealing with lateness are communicated to all employees and implemented fairly and consistently throughout an organisation. If an organisation has a particular problem with employee lateness or is implementing a separate policy or other policy, it may be worth considering running brief workshops for employees to attend in order to highlight the impact that lateness has on the organisation, the procedures to follow and provide an opportunity for questioning on the same.

Record maintenance

The maintenance of records will be crucial for operating a successful lateness policy and for tackling lateness issues amongst a workforce. By keeping track of employee working hours you may be able to identify those individuals who are late much more often than the remainder of a team and it may be necessary to deal with them accordingly. By keeping accurate records, an organisation will be able to refer to particular instances and use such records as evidence when addressing the issues with particular employees. This helps to add to the objectivity of any investigations and makes it more difficult to challenge an investigatory manager’s decision on the basis it is their opinion (and therefore potentially an avenue for a discriminatory type claim) rather than fact.

‘Proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’ management

If an organisation has appropriate policies in place there is little to gain from both an employee relation and people management perspective in operating a reactive approach to lateness. Managers should not wait until they are angry and annoyed or until the team morale is affected or performance has dipped to deal with a lateness issue. Rather, organisations (and managers in particular) should be proactive and speak to the individual who is late before it becomes an issue.

Subject to whatever approach is set out within a lateness, absence management or disciplinary policy, it would be wise to schedule a meeting with the employee to raise concerns, collate records and discuss the information which has come to light. This stage is important as there may be underlying reasons behind the lateness issues of which an employer may want to be aware, particularly if they may give rise to a potential discrimination claim (e.g. failure to make reasonable adjustments) before a more rigid approach and disciplinary action is taken under a policy.

Monitoring and policy implementation

It may be appropriate for managers to be responsible for monitoring the timekeeping and working hours of their teams to ensure the required contracted hours are being met. One way of addressing lateness may be to set out in a policy the potential outcomes which the employer may take if certain trigger points are met. To avoid certain employees strategically avoiding trigger points it may be a good idea to set potential outcomes based on the number of occasions an employee has been late in the previous rolling period, for instance, 6 or 12 months. An example of such a trigger system might be as follows:

  1. 1st/ 2nd/ 3rd occasion – documented discussion with manager
  2. 4th occasion – referral to a disciplinary hearing which may result in a first written warning
  3. 5th occasion – referral to a disciplinary hearing which may result in a final written warning
  4. 6th occasion – referral to a disciplinary hearing which may result in dismissal

Please note the trigger system as set out above is an example and guideline only and it is important that the circumstance of each individual instance of lateness is fully considered prior to any action being taken (as with any policy implementation, there is the potential for an indirect discrimination or failure to follow reasonable adjustments claim if individual circumstances are not considered).

It is also important to remember that the potential formal outcomes of any trigger point system should be read in line with any live disciplinary warnings which the employee might already have on their file.


Employees should be reminded that they are responsible for ensuring they arrive at work early enough to commence at a specified time and should be reminded that they are expected to attend work punctually and to complete their scheduled contract hours.

The purpose of a lateness policy is to outline the management of employee timekeeping and the consequences of repeated and persistent lateness. If a separate lateness policy is adopted, organisations should ensure it is read in conjunction with any disciplinary policies, and repeated and persistent unsatisfactory timekeeping or a failure to work the required contract hours may be considered misconduct in accordance with the disciplinary policy.

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