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The Real Reasons Employees Are Late to Work

Marisa Sanfilippo
Marisa Sanfilippo

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 many workers are occasionally late, chronic tardiness can become a productivity killer for your company.
  • The only legally protected lateness excuses involve family illness, death and other extreme emergencies.
  • Establish a policy of how employees should notify you when they’re running late and consequences for repeated tardiness to help everyone manage expectations.
  • This article is for employees and managers who want to understand how tardiness affects a business and what to do when unexpected events delay jobholders.

It’s not uncommon for employees to arrive to work late — and depending on the role they play in your company, that’s not always a big deal. However, chronic tardiness sets a bad example and can seriously impact productivity. While you might be willing to let the occasional late arrival slide, repeated lateness or absenteeism is a different matter altogether.

Statistics on employee tardiness

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average absence rate among the nearly 119 million employed workers in the country was 3.6 days in 2022. However, even when employees are present for work, they’re not always on time. An estimated 20 percent of workers are regularly late to work, which can add up to some serious lost productivity.

Missed work has an associated cost estimated to total $3 billion to U.S. businesses each year. Co-workers often cover absent colleagues’ workloads, but some tasks fall between the cracks. But late workers could be costing your business as much as $500 to $600 per employee annually.

Other statistics on employee tardiness shed light on the reasons employees may be late to work, according to a survey conducted by workforce management company WorkYard:

  • 25 percent of late employees were delayed by traffic.
  • 18 percent of employees were late to work due to personal problems.
  • 15 percent of tardy employees overslept.
  • 12 percent of workers were late to work due to child-related issues.
  • 12 percent of workers arrived late due to health issues.
  • 12 percent of workers were tardy because of family-related issues.
  • 6 percent of employees were delayed because they were searching for a lost item.
  • 5 percent of employees arrived to work late because of home-related issues.

“As the survey results show, the top excuses of being late to work are mainly the ones that people don’t have control over,” said WorkYard CEO and co-founder Nic De Bonis in a statement. “As an employer, you probably can’t tell anything when your employee is late to work because of a family issue or traffic.”

While it’s reasonable to accommodate an employee who is usually on time because they couldn’t find their keys or got caught in a traffic jam, you can suspect that the chronically late arrival is simply not managing their time well. When lateness goes from an infrequent anomaly to a predictable habit, it’s time to address the problem with the employee.


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

How employers should address repeated lateness

When lateness or absenteeism becomes a problem with a particular employee, employers should make addressing the issue a priority. But before taking corrective action or imposing consequences, it’s important to review company policy. If your policy doesn’t explicitly define lateness and absenteeism, update it to include these definitions. For example, you may define an employee as officially late if they arrive more than 10 minutes after their scheduled start time. Whatever your policy, be sure it is clearly spelled out and applied equally throughout your organization.

You should also make use of time and attendance software to record employee arrivals, departures and absences. The best time and attendance software serve as a complete record of when an employee is at work. This makes it easy to audit their past behavior and establish whether there is a pattern of tardiness or absenteeism. You can also track approved absences, like paid time off, sick leave, FMLA leave or any other reason an employee has been permitted to call off work.

With an attendance policy in place and a way to track when violations of that policy occur, you can more easily identify a problematic pattern. When you do, the first move should be to warn the employee and explain why their tardiness is problematic. Document this conversation in case future corrective action is needed. 

In many cases, the warning may resolve the issue. However, when it doesn’t you should escalate to a written warning, further establishing that you’ve attempted to correct the problem. If the issue persists, develop a performance improvement plan that identifies specific issues, including tardiness and absenteeism, that the employee must improve upon.

If you need to terminate an employee for lateness or absences, retain the documentation of previous corrective action so you can demonstrate you had cause to dismiss the employee. Even at-will employers, who are allowed to dismiss employees at any time for any reason, should save this sort of documentation to be on the safe side. Before ever terminating an employee, always consult with your HR professionals and legal counsel.

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.

Grace periods for lateness

Whether or not your company has a grace period for being late is entirely up to you. This 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 with specific policies. 

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.


Excessive tardiness may be a symptom of employee burnout.

Chronic lateness costs businesses

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

Tejas Vemparala and Chad Brooks contributed to this article.

Image Credit: Doucefleur / Getty Images
Marisa Sanfilippo
Marisa Sanfilippo
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.