Late to Work?

Does age or gender determine what time employees arrive at work?

I was invited on air on Tuesday morning to discuss lateness at work with Jonathan Vernon Smith (JVS) of BBC Three Counties Radio. You can listen to the interview here.

His topics of discussion are always prompted by reports or items in the news and this was no exception. In this instance, it was as a result of a report by software company Deputy, who had carried out research into the differences in time keeping habits between workers from different generations. 

Now, I was very refrained and avoided pulling the survey itself apart, but will note here, that a software company which develops time and attendance systems will have a vested interest in proving that a lot of people are late for work and that this needs to be monitored using software.

The two key findings of the UK results were:

  1. Millennial males are most likely to be late for work
  2. Female baby-boomers are least likely to be late for work

I was asked for my ‘expert opinion’ on this and thought it would make a great blog!

“5 Minutes early is on-time; On-time is late; late is unacceptable.”

There’s no excuse for regular late attendance at work. There may be a situation where someone is late for work as a one off episode, perhaps caused by an emergency at home or a major accident on the way to work, or perhaps all of the trains being delayed due to a major incident, but lateness should be due to something which is really major and a one off. There is absolutely no reason why people should be late for work every day, and it shouldn’t be tolerated.

My first piece of expert advice is that, where somebody is late for work, it should be picked up on by their line manager immediately, on the day, make a thing of it (privately) and ask them why they’re late. Make sure they know that each and every time they come into work late, they are going to have to eyeball you and tell you why they’re late for work.

In that meeting (not in an open plan office), you need to make clear that lateness is not acceptable. You need to make sure that there is no underlying issue bubbling away such as a medical problem, perhaps a childcare problem that needs addressing or perhaps an elder care issue that might need some extra support. But, once you’ve done that, that should be the end of the lateness.

Having ruled out any issues which require support, if you find that there is a recurring pattern and you have already sat with the same person once a week, once every couple of weeks, or even more frequently than that, then there is a problem that actively needs managing. That active management could well go down a disciplinary route, where, if you do not see a significant and sustained improvement in their timekeeping, then their employment is at risk. If you do end up going down the disciplinary route, it is absolutely essential that you follow your own internal disciplinary procedures and issue warnings etc. before terminating someone’s employment.

In 99% of cases, once somebody knows that they’re going to have to account for themselves every single time that they’re late, and you’ve given them ways of improving their timekeeping then you will see an improvement in attendance. If they don’t make, can’t make or won’t make the changes needed, then actually, that person needs to go, regardless of how fantastic an employee he or she is.

That said, is it important to your business that they are there at 9:00 every day and stay at their desks until 5:00 every day? This is where my second piece of expert advice comes into play.

There’s an increasing number of employers who will look at a more flexible arrangement whereby, as long as the work is done and the person isn’t taking liberties with the company, whether they come in at 9:00 or 9:10 is irrelevant. People with more flexibility with their hours are sometimes the people who will work through their lunch hours and are the people who are working late at their desk at night. And, if they get work done (and that is the key here), then does it matter if they’re late?

That answer is going to be different for every business because it will depend on who the staff are, what role they’re in, what sector you’re in, whether they’re a key holder and they should be opening up and whether their lateness is affecting other people. If you’re a High Street shop where people are expecting you to be open at 9:00am because that’s your opening hours, then you need your staff in on time. Perhaps you’re a school and it’s a teacher whose lateness is an issue as you’ve got a classroom of students, then it becomes a safeguarding or operational issue for you.

There are some times where it absolutely is not acceptable to be late, and other times where business owners actually need to take a hard look at their business and say, ‘actually, does it matter?’


Consistency is my 3rd piece of expert advice. Whatever you do for one person needs to be done for everybody as consistently as possible and, if there are variations, you need to be very conscious that those variations may lead to claims of discrimination. If you are going to start treating people differently, you need to make sure that you’ve got a justifiable reason for doing so. Why does one rule apply to some and another rule for others.

Another thing to look at is what happens when people get to work. Are they devoting their working hours to their full duties?

If somebody turns up at work at two minutes to nine, they are technically at work two minutes early. However, what happens next? What you don’t then need, and don’t particularly want, is them going off and making a cup of tea, then drifting back to their desk and booting up their machine, having a chat with colleagues and eventually sitting down to work at 9:15. Perhaps, as came up in my discussion with JVS the other day, the individual sits down at their desk and starts eating breakfast. While, not a massive issue in an office, it’s really important that, if someone is on the shop floor they’re not walking around with a bagel hanging out of their mouth. However, if somebody is sat at their desk, do you really want them there with a bowl of cereal or worse still a flaky chocolate croissant?

If somebody wants to eat their breakfast at work, have a discussion with all your staff and set the rules. Is there a breakout area which could be used for eating? Is there somewhere where people can go to get away from their desks to eat breakfast or lunch? If they do want breakfast at work, perhaps to beat the rush hour, then they have to come in early enough to do so and be at their desk ready to start work on time.


Lateness, in itself, may not be a problem for some organisations, where it is a problem, it needs to be dealt with swiftly. It needs to be dealt with consistently and culture is really, really important here. If the MD or the senior line managers are late for work every day, then it is much harder to discipline staff for being late. It’s about leading from the front. It’s about leading by example. Set the standard which you want your employees to follow.

It may not be just about turning up to work on time, but timekeeping during the day may also be an issue. It may, for example, be about being at external meetings on time by leaving enough time to get from the office to a client. It may be about what time internal meetings start and how long they last. It is about being respectful of people’s time. If an employee is on a break and they come back late their lunch break, what’s the knock-on effect for the rest of the team? What is the impact of the rest of the team if the receptionist or the key holder is late in the morning? Who has to cover? What does it stop them from doing?

It’s all about context and I don’t believe that age has anything to do with the way in which lateness is managed in the workplace. If the statistics show that millennials are most likely to be late and Babyboomers are least likely to be late, then dealing with lateness in a timely and robust manner should equal the statistics out. Don’t let statistics make lateness acceptable, there is another way:

Set the rules! Communicate the rules! Enforce the rules!

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