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Kenneth W. Keller: Why Johnny is late to work

Inside Business

Posted: June 9, 2009 8:07 p.m.
Updated: June 10, 2009 4:55 a.m.

When an employee is tardy more than a few times to work, the reason is not traffic, car trouble or an alarm that didn’t go off. The real reason is that Johnny never learned it was unacceptable to be late to work.

I still remember, vividly, the two afternoons I sat in detention for being late to class. Detention was the dreaded “seventh period.”

I found myself sitting in a classroom long after all my friends had departed school, bored out of my mind, waiting for the 50-minute class period to come to end.  

I earned this punishment once in junior high and once in high school; the reasons for me sitting there are unimportant and not relevant. The point is I was late, being tardy was inexcusable, and I was punished for the infraction.

What did I learn from this experience? I learned that it was unacceptable to be late to work. In junior high and high school my work — my job really — was going to school.

Some of my classmates apparently didn’t learn the lesson and “seventh period” became an ongoing part of their class schedules. Unfortunately, they did not get credits for this extra class on their schedule; otherwise, they might have graduated early.  

In a nutshell, school policy was clear about what constitutes “tardiness” and what the punishment was. The policy was communicated and consistently enforced.   

It could be argued this mentality doesn’t fit in a business environment that is no longer driven by manufacturing, where production lines can’t be shut down and people need to arrive on time, if not early, so that when the production shift changes, the line won’t stop.

To the contrary, being on time to work is probably more important now than ever before. For Johnny, being late to work sends a signal to his boss that he is a problem employee. With high unemployment and many potential applicants for a paid position, Johnny’s boss is not going to think very long or very hard about keeping Johnny on the payroll when there are more punctual workers ready, willing and able to take his place.

In Johnny’s defense, it might never have been communicated to him what company policy is regarding being late to work. In fact, there might not even be a written policy about tardiness. Johnny might simply be following the company culture as to what is acceptable in terms of arriving to work.

The organizational culture might include not enforcing existing company policy about arriving late to work. Managers and supervisors might have decided it is simply too much trouble to verbally remind or warn employees in writing about arriving late to work. This perpetuates an organization that accepts tardiness as part of the accepted culture.

One of the reasons a supervisor might take this course of nonaction is they are often late themselves and their direct manager might be looking the other way at this violation of company policy.  

Another reason is that leaders and managers want to interpret the policy as they see the need on any given day to meet the needs of employees.  
Or the company as a whole might want to be seen as a professional, progressive organization that allows employees the flexibility to arrive and leave work when they need to, so despite an official policy about work hours and tardiness, everyone looks the other way.

Three things should dissuade an organization from continuing to permit Johnny to arrive late to work.

The first is the longer Johnny is permitted to show up late, the more his coworkers who arrive on time are going to resent him and those responsible for supervising him. They will feel, and rightly so, as if a double standard exists. Productivity will fall among workers who see something wrong going unpunished and unresolved. Respect for management will fall.

The second is that inconsistent enforcement of policies such as tardiness will start a trend that permits a less disciplined, less focused work effort at every level.

An organization doesn’t have to emulate the U.S. Marine Corps, but a lax organization is less efficient, less professional and less profitable.

The third reason relates to your clients. Clients won’t stay with an organization that is not reasonably well organized, disciplined and efficient.

When an employee doesn’t show up to work on time and ready to work, it impacts the delivery of service to paying clients, those same people who provide the money for Johnny’s paycheck.  

Kenneth Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.



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