How to Deal With an Employee Who is Habitually Late

Operations & Training

Setting ground rules, documenting violations, using a formal discipline process and recognizing larger workplace issues can go a long way toward fixing issues with tardiness.

By Tracy Morley

Employers expect their employees to come to work on time and to understand that being punctual and reliable is important to the employment relationship. Problems with excessive traffic, late trains or buses or family issues can sometimes make employees late, and when employees occasionally arrive a couple of minutes late it is not generally a big issue. Chronic lateness, on the other hand, is different, and for small-business owners, staff coming in late can have significant time and cost implications. It can negatively affect a small business’ productivity and profitability.

Repeated instances of lateness should be dealt with firmly and professionally. It is important for small-business owners to set clear expectations with their employees so they understand and comply with this important workplace rule, and have a full understanding of what the consequences are if lateness continues to be a problem.

Below are some steps small-business owners can take to better manage lateness problems before they turn into a bigger issue.

Step 1: Set the Ground Rules

It is important for employees to know what is expected of them. This can be done by establishing and communicating a lateness policy. Some things to include in the policy are:

•    The employer’s expectations for coming in to work on time. For example, employees are expected to report to work as scheduled, be on time and prepared to start work. Non-approved late arrivals are disruptive and should be avoided.

•    The consequences for arriving late to work.

•    How time will be tracked (e.g., swipe cards, punching a time clock or signing an attendance sheet).

•    A procedure for reporting lateness, including who the employee should notify if he is going to be late, and by when.

•    How employees will be required to make up missed time (if applicable).

•    An outline of the disciplinary actions that will be taken for employees who do not follow the policy.

Additionally, the policy should be flexible enough to allow for special situations that might arise.

Keep in mind that in order for a policy to be effective it should be applied fairly and consistently throughout the workplace, and employees should be disciplined in an even-handed manner. Specific employees should not be targeted. Inconsistent application of policies leave the employer open to employee complaints of unfair treatment. 


It is important to ensure that an employer’s policy on lateness complies and coordinates with applicable state and federal laws such as workers’ compensation, the Family and Medical Leave Act  and the Americans with Disabilities Act.


In keeping with communicating expectations, it is important for employees to know their schedules. Predicable work schedules should be set well in advance so that employees can prepare accordingly.

Step 2: Document and Counsel

It is important to have appropriate documentation for violations of workplace rules that might lead to an employee being disciplined. When an employee arrives to work late, that arrival should be recorded by the supervisor on duty. Supervisory training can help to ensure that supervisors know their roles and responsibilities when it comes to documenting lateness and counseling and disciplining employees.

Often, chronic lateness can be resolved informally. Once a pattern of lateness is identified, remind the employee why it is important to be on time to work and ensure that he understands the difference between the employer’s expectations and his actual behavior. Give the employee an opportunity to explain why he is regularly late and encourage him to develop a solution that works for both the employee and the employer, with the end result being that the employee arrives to work on time.

Approaching the problem in this manner will help to ensure that the employee comes up with a solution that he buys into, and can help resolve the issue without the need for further disciplinary action.


Have the counseling conversation with an employee before the lateness becomes excessive. Helping the employee uncover the reason he is late and providing support and guidance can make a big difference. Demonstrating a caring attitude may help improve employee engagement.

Step 3: Use Formal Disciplinary Measures

If lateness continues, it may be necessary to take more formal disciplinary measures. It is important to signal to employees the importance of arriving to work on time and to clearly state the consequences if they continually arrive late.

Some employers choose to adopt a system of progressive discipline which uses increasing disciplinary measures to try to correct an employee’s conduct. The progressive measures depend on the nature and frequency of the problem and the steps typically range from counseling through termination of employment.

If the documentation and counseling discussed in Step Two does not achieve the desired results, the employee should be made clearly aware of the consequences for continued lateness. For example:

•    The first instance of lateness after the counseling session could result in a reminder as to what the employee agreed to in the counseling session.

•    The second instance would be a verbal warning.

•    The third instance would warrant another counseling session with a written warning clearly stating the problem. The employee should be asked to read and sign the warning. During this session, ensure that the employee understands that if the situation continues, more severe consequences, up to and including termination of employment, may result.


It is important to remember that employees should not be disciplined or retaliated against if the reason for their lateness is legally protected. For example, arriving later than other employees because of an accommodation protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.


Preserve discretion and flexibility in any policy regarding employee conduct and discipline. These policies should be drafted in a way that allows the employer to respond appropriately and effectively under all circumstances. It is important to reserve the right to combine, skip or add steps in any disciplinary process and to retain the right and discretion to terminate immediately.

Step 4: Recognize a Larger Workplace Problem

If an employer has many employees consistently arriving late to work, it might be time to take additional measures. Consider conducting some training sessions on the importance of workplace punctuality. Reinforcing supervisory roles and responsibilities and periodically re-communicating the policy will help to keep things top of mind. 

Lead by example. If supervisors are frequently late, this will send a message to employees that this is acceptable behavior. Supervisory personnel should ensure that they arrive to work on time and demonstrate that they understand the importance of being on time.

Overall, keep in mind that employees coming into work late can have a negative impact on the employer’s bottom line and on co-worker morale. Effectively managing this issue in the workplace may result in significant cost savings as well as having a more effective, efficient and engaged workforce.

Employee Dress Codes

An employer has the right to expect its employees to maintain certain standards of employee dress and personal appearance. Having a dress code in place, and requiring employees to dress in a professional manner, helps to convey a positive image to the public, and provides employees with guidelines of what is, and is not, considered acceptable workplace attire.

Dress codes can differ based on an employee’s job or the industry in which the employer operates, and should take into consideration the employer’s business needs, job specific needs, and safety and health considerations. Different types of dress code policies an employer may have include:

•  Business dress code – Generally appropriate for a professional atmosphere in which there is significant interaction with customers and clients.

•    Business casual dress code - Typically implemented when an employer wants employees to dress comfortably while still projecting a professional image to clients. An employer usually sets clear guidelines on what clothing is and is not permissible under the policy.

•    Summer dress code – May be implemented when wearing a suit to work in the summer is extremely uncomfortable for employees.

•    Casual Friday dress code - Can be used by employers that want to maintain a professional image at work, but also understand employees’ desire to dress down. Can be used to boost employee morale while avoiding changing the overall policy.

The policy should be flexible enough to allow any accommodations due to an employee’s religious beliefs or observance (including religious dress and grooming practices), medical condition or disability.

Many employers require a uniformed workforce in order to present a certain image to the public. An employer that requires uniforms should make sure the uniforms are affordable and practical and that they are made available in all sizes. The benefits that come from having all employees dressed uniformly will be lost if employees feel uncomfortable in what they are wearing.

An employer should ensure fair and consistent application of policies throughout the workplace so as not to give rise to employee complaints of unfair treatment. 

Tracy Morley is XpertHR’s legal editor. Find him at