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Is It Worth Making An Issue Over An Employee’s Lateness?

When should you sweat the small stuff?

Is It Worth Making An Issue Over An Employee’s Lateness?
[Photo: Flickr user desbyrnephotos]

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” may be classic management advice, but when an employee is chronically late, does it become worth speaking up about?

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Career expert Alison Green (aka Ask A Manager) helps us decide when it’s worth making an issue of, and when we should just let it be.

I manage an exempt employee who is 15-20 minutes late at least once a week. He has a long commute that can be unpredictable when it comes to traffic, but after a year working here I don’t consider traffic a valid excuse. When I mentioned the lateness, he said that he stays late, which he does, only because he works slowly and can’t always finish his work within regular hours. I’ve started documenting these late arrivals and I offered him the opportunity to change his start time, to which he gave a noncommittal answer. This employee is not a top performer and I’ve recently talked to him about performance issues.

My question is whether it is worth making an issue over 15-20 minutes when an employee is exempt. There are no time-sensitive tasks that require him to be at his desk at a specific time, but I find lateness annoying. In the context of other performance issues, small things that annoy me seem magnified, so I wonder if I am making this into a bigger deal than it should be.

Does it impact his work or other people, or does your office have a cultural value around showing up and being available at a certain time? Any of those are reasons to say, “Look, you need to reliably be here on time because of X.”

But is this something that wouldn’t be a big deal if he were otherwise doing a good job? Is it something you’d let go if someone else were doing it?

In some jobs, time of arrival matters for valid, work-related reasons (like clients needing to reach someone then, or morning meetings you need to be present for, or colleagues who have to cover for you until you arrive). In plenty of other jobs, it really doesn’t matter, other than perhaps triggering the lateness antennae of people who care for no reason other than, “You Are Supposed To Be On Time.”

If you determine that it does matter in this situation, say this: “I do need you to be here reliably on time in the mornings. I need you to either commit to that going forward, or we can talk about changing your start time–which one makes sense?” And then if it continues after that, you address that as part of the overall work issues he’s having.

But it sounds like there are much bigger issues here, and that’s where I’d keep your spotlight. Paint a clear picture of the bar that he needs to meet performance-wise, and give him a timeline to show that he can meet it. Punctuality may or may not be part of that, but that’s the place to keep both of you focused.

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This article originally appeared on Ask A Manager and is reprinted with permission.

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