You've started the workday, but where is your co-worker? Oh, she's running late again, just like yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that. Let's get an early start on solving her tardiness problem, shall we?
Working with someone who is consistently late is one of the most annoying aspects of office life, and also one of the most common, unfortunately. It's a universal theme of the workplace that everyone will get to work on time (give or take a few minutes...) except for the employee who is egregiously late nearly every day. And the excuses can get pretty amazing.
Employees became more punctual as the Great Recession lingered, at least according to surveys. Everyone, that is, except for your able-bodied but habitually-tardy co-worker. It's bad enough dealing with tardiness when you're a manager, but it can be even more frustrating when you're a rank-and-file peer without any magical "shape up or ship out" managerial powers. So you get to watch your consistently-late co-worker slip into the office day after day, hoping that no one will notice the time. Then you get to listen to yet another breathless rundown of everything that made her late for work.
I had to drop my child off at school and the kiss and ride lane was crazy long and the traffic was horrible and I had to park on the top of the parking deck and I'm wearing my new high heels today and I think I'm getting a blister already and the elevator was slow and I haven't even had any breakfast yet and...
Blah, blah, blah. Just stop. The more this employee talks, the angrier you feel. If you can get your butt to work on time, why can't she? Besides, you know she'll just come up with a whole new set of nouns and verbs for tomorrow's edition of Tardiness Mad Libs, which, as you half-way listen while working, will make about as much sense as the typical 8-year-old's Mad Libs, only not nearly as funny. The story's basic plotline will be the same tomorrow, anyway: you'll be on time and she'll be late. Again.
What makes these employees run consistently late, anyway? While it's true that some people have poor time management skills, habitually-tardy employees can also be arrogant individuals. The same rules that apply to everyone else in the office simply don't apply to them, and somehow, they never seem sincerely sorry for being late. In some cases, the tardy employee might be the boss's precious snowflake or the office rainmaker who is allowed to get away with it. In these cases, the boss is willing to overlook 10 minutes late here, 15 minutes behind schedule there.
Too bad no one else in the office can do the same. The buzzer really goes off in co-workers' brains when it happens day after day and they feel like management isn't addressing the problem and they aren't cut any similar slack. It's a giant punch card to the gut, and if left unchecked an employee's tardiness problem could fester and spread, leaving management to wonder why everyone is suddenly getting to work 15 minutes late and taking 35-minute-long breaks. The rules of time and space get bent amid a silent office rebellion.
Constant tardiness can also be a red flag of job burnout, particularly for employees who have been with the company for a long time. Perhaps the employee has grown familiar enough with the daily routine to feel comfortable running noticeably late to the consternation of his less-tenured co-workers. In some cases, the tardy employee is secretly begging to be fired, and showing up late to work becomes an outright dare of dismissal. You and your prompt co-workers become hostage to the employee's passive-aggressive stance.
So how should you handle the always-tardy co-worker who is costing employers an estimated $3 billion a year in lost productivity? How do you keep from losing your mind as this person's very punctual but perturbed work peer? Here are five tips:
1. Don't ignore it
Talking to a co-worker about his or her lateness problem can feel quite tricky, especially if you like the person otherwise. Pull him or her aside and say, nicely and calmly, how tardiness is impacting the team, throwing off break schedules, and so on. Keep your comments focused on the work and productivity matters, and stick to the facts. Don't veer off into I get here on time, so why can't you? territory, which could only cause an argument. Some employees might actually have a somewhat plausible excuse for being late, too. With any luck, the employee will begin to see the impact lateness is having on co-workers and adjust accordingly. If not, at least you're putting the tardy co-worker on notice that you're...noticing.
2. Don't always fill in the blanks
The employee missed the first 5 minutes of something important and wants you to fill her in. Instead, kindly suggest that she ask a manager to fill in the missing details. The manager will love having to repeat things, and it'll force the employee to acknowledge her absence. Sure, going this route might feel a wee bit underhanded or passive-aggressive, but if you're in a workplace that seems to offer little other recourse it might be effective in ringing management's alarm bell about a looming problem.
3. Don't be an enabler
Depending on the job, tardy employees could be counting on you to hold your horses continuously. Don't stop and wait for them, however, unless it simply can't be avoided. Start the meeting, begin the lunch date and keep client calls and workflow on time as much as possible. Don't do their work for them unless it's absolutely necessary, either. Otherwise, you're simply enabling the employee's tardiness.
4. Don't mimic bad behaviour
Your habitually-late co-worker keeps taking extra-long breaks, and so you will too, right? It can be very tempting to get back at these employees (or the employer) by doing the same thing right back to them, but set a good example by continuing to be punctual and limiting your breaks to acceptable time frames. Think of it this way: your other team members are depending on you to help reinforce a sense of punctuality around the office. Don't let them down by slacking off on purpose just because you're frustrated with a late co-worker. Plus, the boss might notice your lateness and that's not going to be good for your own quarterly performance review, is it?
5. Don't let tardiness ruin teamwork
Pointing out an employee's continual lateness to management can feel like a very daunting task. No one likes to look like a tattletale bent on getting others in trouble. (Okay, okay: some employees do live to tattle on everyone else in the office, but that's another post entirely.) A 360-degree review or one-on-one offers a legitimate opportunity to hint at (or to say outright if you're comfortable enough) how a fellow employee's consistent tardiness is affecting the entire team. Or you might say how tardiness is generically "becoming a teamwork issue" if you don't want to call someone out directly. Again, you'll have to assess your own work situation to decide what works best. If enough employees start hinting at a larger productivity and morale problem, however, then the boss will have to address it as a real problem.
Dealing with a habitually-late co-worker takes patience, and a willingness to nip it in the bud earlier rather than later. It's never too late to make things better. Good luck.
This article first appeared in Work Diva.