Punctuality is seen, almost universally, as a virtuous trait. ‘The early bird catches the worm’, as they say. In many settings, that’s fair – I think we can all agree keeping people waiting isn’t something you should strive for. But in other settings, including some types of workplace, maybe lateness isn’t as big a deal as it’s made out to be.

We’re here to discuss how concerned you should be about timekeeping at work, what makes a fair policy, and how you can manage tardiness on a case by case basis.

Does lateness affect your business?

The first question you should ask yourself when thinking about a lateness policy is ‘how important is timekeeping to my business’. You might assume it’s critical – surely you can’t allow (never mind encourage) poor punctuality?

But that’s not always true. One way to think about it is to consider whether input or output is more important in your business. Let’s look at two examples to see what the difference is:

Example 1

You’re a server in a hotel restaurant. At 6pm sharp you’ve got 100+ guests sitting down to eat at a wedding reception. You arrive 30 minutes late. That’s no good to anyone, you can’t catch up on your work, your arrival on time was critical to the service being delivered.

In this example your input was key, you simply have to be there at a certain time to get the work done.

Example 2

You work as a graphic designer for an agency and you’ve got three client projects on the go at once, all with a deadline of this Friday. You’re contracted to work 9-5 in the office every day, but inspiration strikes at midnight on Wednesday and you stay up till 4am nailing your briefs. You arrive an hour late to work the next day, but it doesn’t matter because the work you needed to get done is completed, arguably to a better standard than anyone expected.

In this example, you’re measured on output – as long as the work is done by the deadline, it doesn’t matter how (or when) you got there.

These two very simplistic examples illustrate the point – not all businesses are equal when it comes to the importance of punctuality because performance is measured in completely different ways.

By figuring out what you need from the people who work for you, essentially whether input or output is more important, you’ll get an idea of whether someone being late is a big issue or not.

Creating a lateness policy

If you run the kind of business where timekeeping and punctuality is up there on the list of critical measures for success then you need to set it out clearly and transparently in a lateness policy within your employee handbook.

The purpose of the policy is so that your team understands how important punctuality is to the success of your businesses, and how lateness will be dealt with.

What should an employee lateness policy include?

Just like when you’re creating any other internal HR document, like a sickness absence policy or holiday allowance rules, clarity is key when it comes to writing a lateness policy. Include details about the following points to make sure no one is confused about where they stand:

  • Why punctuality is important to the business
  • What time are people expected to start work?
  • Is there a certain amount of leeway in arrival time?
  • Does an expected late arrival need to be reported in advance, and if so, then to who?
  • If someone is late, do they have to make up the lost time on lunch or after work instead?
  • What are the consequences of being late?

If you use a flexitime model to give people some control over their hours, make sure you also lay out the exact rules of the model in your lateness policy.

How the law applies

There aren’t any laws relating to peoples’ right to be late for work, but the Employment Rights Act 1996 does cover an employer’s right to dismiss a member of staff for failing to meet contractual requirements.

This is part of the reason a lateness policy is so important – the contractual rules around punctuality must be clear and transparent for it to be fair to discipline (or even dismiss) someone for breaking them.

Using compassion to manage people

You must bear in mind you’re managing humans, not robots. We don’t run on clockwork, and sometimes can’t predict the things that delay us. Remembering this and acting with empathy and compassion when people are late for reasons outside of their control is the best way to manage lateness.

As long as you’re being fair overall by not giving anyone special treatment and being consistent, you can decide just how ‘bad’ each specific case is. If someone is 10 minutes late one day because their bus didn’t turn up, it might be unfair to punish them. If they’re 10 minutes late every day because they constantly miss their bus, it’s probably time to have a word.

Put yourself in their shoes to help you decide whether a late arrival was justified. It’s also helpful to track lateness over the long term. That way, you can use someone’s punctuality record to determine whether they’re falling into a bad habit, or just having an off day.