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The Real Reasons Employees Are Late for Work

Marisa Sanfilippo
Marisa Sanfilippo
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Updated Jan 23, 2023

Employee tardiness can affect business productivity and cost money. Learn valid reasons for being late to work, and how workers should communicate lateness with their managers.

  • While most workers are occasionally late, chronic tardiness is a productivity killer for your company.
  • The only legally protected lateness excuses involve family illness, death and other extreme emergencies.
  • When you’re running late for work, notify your employer through the proper channels, and be sure to get straight to work when you arrive.
  • This article is for employees and managers who want to understand how tardiness affects a business, and learn what to do when unexpected events delay jobholders.

Of the 115 million people who are employed in the United States, the average absence rate was 2.9 days per year in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, a 2017 survey sponsored by CareerBuilder revealed that 29% of employees show up late to work at least once a month. With all of these absences and tardiness, it’s clear that U.S. businesses are losing a lot of productivity.

Tardiness is chronic for some workers, with 16% they’re late at least once a week. These associates’ lateness results in lost time that would otherwise be productive morning hours. Individual tardiness policies vary among companies, but it’s fairly common for employees to be marked absent for the day even if they show up for part of the time.

For your organization to be productive and successful, you’ll have to tackle this issue head-on.

The cost of missing workers

Missed work has an associated cost. Co-workers often cover absent colleagues’ workloads, but some tasks fall between the cracks.

Businesses lose more than $84 billion each year to absenteeism, according to the Well-Being Index developed by Gallup and Sharecare. This report accounts for more than 3 million studies regarding the overall well-being of the U.S. population. Professional occupations and management are the hardest hit – accounting for nearly $40 billion of that lost productivity.

Real reasons employees are late for work

There are valid reasons to be late for work, and everyone understands that unexpected emergencies arise. These are the common causes of unpunctuality:

Some tardies are legally protected.

The only legally protected lateness excuses involve family illness, death, and other extreme emergencies. Federal laws do not protect other wide-ranging excuses, but individual employers set their own parameters for what’s acceptable.

TipTip: Familiarize yourself with labor laws and sick leave laws to ensure your business remains compliant.

Traffic is a prime culprit.

Traffic is the most common culprit for lateness, according to CareerBuilder’s data. Nearly half of those surveyed said traffic conditions are why they can’t make it to work on time.

Oversleeping and being too tired delays workers.

Additionally, 32% of workers blamed their tardiness on oversleeping. Because of the hectic nature of life in the U.S., many people are stretched thin and exhausted. For this reason, oversleeping can affect any employee or manager. Being tired was also cited as a common reason employees are detained.

Weather issues are to blame.

According to 26% of respondents, bad weather was to blame for their delayed arrival. Weather can affect traffic, school closures, routes and many other aspects of an already hectic morning.

Procrastination can play a role.

Some employees cited simple procrastination as a reason for their tardiness. This may be an honest assessment, but procrastination isn’t an ideal quality of an employee.

Strange-but-true excuses

Employers say they’ve heard far stranger excuses for not being prompt at work than just weather and oversleeping.

Thinking it was still the weekend, watching a soccer game, having to wait for a late pizza delivery and getting locked in a closet are some of the more outrageous excuses human resources managers say they’ve heard over the years.

Did you know?Did you know? Lateness isn’t the only situation that inspires employee creativity when it comes to excuses. Some of the craziest excuses employees have given to miss work include a sudden adult-onset banana allergy, spoiled toothpaste and a paper cut.

What to do when you’re late for work

The most important thing to do when you’re running late is to remain calm. If you panic, you’re more likely to make bad decisions that could affect both your health and the well-being of others. After you take a deep breath, consider these best practices for when you’re running late:

1. Offer advanced notification, if possible.

It’s essential to be proactive if you know you’ll be late for work. Be aware of how your delayed presence affects your team, and let them know you won’t be on time. There’s a chance that if something is delaying you – such as a road closure – it’s also delaying others.

Choose a notification method that is effective and safe based on your current circumstances. If you work in a company where everyone expects to be updated by email, send an email to the appropriate people. If you have a direct supervisor to whom you report, and it’s more appropriate to call or text them with the update, do that instead.

However, your safety and the safety of those around you are more important than explaining your tardiness ahead of time: Don’t text, call or email while you’re driving.

2. Communicate honestly with your employer.

Apologize for the delay, and don’t lie. Emphasize that you did everything possible to get to work as soon as you could, and that you won’t make lateness a habit. If any tasks need to be covered, delegate them so nothing is missed.

3. Get back to work.

Once you arrive, it can be tempting to review the heroic journey you’ve just undergone to make it to work. Resist this temptation. You’ve already missed valuable time and likely caused others to have to shuffle their responsibilities to cover for you.

Taking more time away from your employer with a story of your epic adventure isn’t the move to make. Fill your co-workers in on all of the details on break, lunch or at dinner later.

TipTip: One way to mitigate the productivity losses that lateness and absenteeism create is to enact a comprehensive employee time-off policy. Ideally, such a policy would include paid time off (PTO) privileges that will boost company morale.

What are the consequences of showing up late to work?

Most employers are typically lenient if a worker is late occasionally, but there can be consequences for chronic attendance problems. Although more than half of employers expect their staff to be on time every day, many organizations understand occasional tardiness is inevitable.

Nearly 30% of the employers surveyed have no problem with a rare late arrival if it doesn’t become a pattern, and 18% don’t care what time their employees arrive if they can still get their work done. Most workers – 70% – are responsible enough to make up for the time when they do show up late.

But some employers have stricter policies. More than 40% of the organizations surveyed have fired someone for being continually late. In fact, it’s the most common reason employees are fired. Another 22% of employers have terminated an employee for calling in sick with a fake excuse, according to CareerBuilder’s 2017 survey.

Did you know?Did you know? Tardiness is connected to perceived poor job performance, which is one of the top reasons to fire employees, along with absenteeism, sexual harassment and unethical behavior.

Is there a grace period for missing work?

Whether or not your company has a grace period for being late is entirely up to you. It can even depend on individual managers within your organization. A typical grace period is five to seven minutes, but keep the employee handbook up to date for specific policies. Time and attendance software can help employers stay on top of employee absenteeism.

In some cases, employees are considered late for a 7 a.m. shift if they’re not at their desks, logged in and ready to work by that time. Arriving at 7 a.m., getting coffee in the break room, settling in and spending five to 10 minutes to start work may not be acceptable. This is especially true for retail businesses that are expected to open with operational staff on time every day.

Did you KnowDid you know? Excessive tardiness may be a symptom of employee burnout.

The cost of being late for work

Missed work means missed productivity. Whether it’s tardiness or absenteeism, chronic attendance problems cost your business money. Employees who are not engaged may be more likely to miss work, which happens to everyone at some point or another. When it becomes a habit, however, it’s a warning sign that something else is going on.

Chad Brooks contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.

Image Credit: Doucefleur / Getty Images
Marisa Sanfilippo
Marisa Sanfilippo
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Marisa is an award-winning marketing professional and contributing writer. She has worked with businesses large and small to help them drive revenue through integrated marketing campaigns and enjoys sharing her expertise with our audience.