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Managing Latecomers

Dear Crucial Skills,

I manage a group of more than thirty employees at six different locations, and my office is at yet another location. Needless to say, I do not see or speak to each person every day. I have set the expectation—with multiple reminders—that everyone needs to be in the office by a specific time, but I have heard that some employees don’t meet this expectation. I don’t have someone to report to me when someone is late—chronically or otherwise—and I have no way of knowing when a person arrives at work because these are salaried employees who do not punch a time clock.

 How can I hold my employees accountable to my expected arrival time or any other unmeasurable performance expectations when I manage from afar?

Long-Distance Manager

Dear Manager,

It’s time for you to ask “What do I really want?” More on that in a moment.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume your employees are, in fact, frequently showing up late. Obviously, that’s an open question since you seem to be dealing with rumor here, but let’s just say for the moment it’s true.

I worry that you’re putting yourself into the same position the renowned psychologist Phil Zimbardo put subjects into at Stanford a few decades ago. In Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment,” he randomly assigned subjects to play the role of either guard or prisoner in the basement of the psych building. Within hours, those assigned to be guards were donning dark glasses, carrying pseudo truncheons, and referring to “prisoners” as though they were some lower form of life. Similarly, those assigned the role of prisoner began to act powerless and resentful and plot ways of provoking and rebelling against the “guards.”

Now, I don’t picture you sporting a night stick and wearing shades. But you could be unintentionally putting yourself in the role of “guard” by asking for commitment to a behavior that a) they don’t buy into; and b) you can’t naturally inspect. If you continue down this path, you might get increasingly resentful and they might get increasingly rebellious because, in a sense, you’ve cast yourselves in the roles of guard and prisoners. I worry about that as well because you used the phrase, “I have set the expectation—with multiple reminders—that everyone needs to be in the office by a specific time.” It doesn’t sound like they agree that this is a reasonable requirement, only that you expect it of them. Once again, you’re the guard and they’re the prisoners. The only way out of this mess is dialogue. And dialogue means that they come in open to have their minds changed—and that you do the same.

The conversation you need to have is, “What results are we trying to achieve?” and “How will we measure our success?” Answering these two questions is the first of the three keys to influence we write about in Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. If you don’t have clarity and commitment to the answers to these two questions, you will spend your life herding cats.

So, in anticipation of this crucial conversation, let me play the role of thought partner. What do you really want? What results do these offices really need to achieve? If you want people to be on time because these are customer service locations—and you know customer wait times are unacceptably long from 8-9 a.m., then stop focusing on punctuality and start focusing on customer wait times. If you believe these salaried folks are just not working hard enough, then what is your evidence? Is it that they take longer to produce an engineering drawing than industry standards? If so, then talk with them about productivity or cycle time measures. Punctuality is likely a means to an end—not the end itself that you really want. So clarify that end and how you’ll measure success or failure. Then let go of trying to control the means and hold people accountable for the real goals.

If it turns out that they can saunter in at 9:30 a.m. and achieve everything you say you want—at a stellar level—will you be okay with that? If not, then you have one of two problems. Either you haven’t specified what you really want—i.e. there are some other results you haven’t put into words yet—or you are trying to impose your own idiosyncrasies on others and need to let go of that desire.

If you start dictating methods, you undermine engagement. When people behave badly, it’s often a sign of a deeper problem—such as a lack of commitment to results. Spend some time clarifying the results you care about. Engage others in dialogue to develop a shared commitment to those results. Agree on valid ways of measuring how you’re doing. Then let your people find their own best way to succeed.

Or, you can buy some dark glasses!


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13 thoughts on “Managing Latecomers”

  1. Deb

    I have one chronic late-comer as well. To me, it’s a sign of disrespect to her fellow co-workers who come in on time every day, let alone a sign of disrespect to this company of 700 employees.

    1. Ammon Nelson

      I think you may have missed the point of the article. Why is this sign of respect so important? If it truly is about respect, address the issue of disrespect, not punctuality. Disrespect is often a symptom, rather than a problem. Of what is the disrespect an indication? How do you address that problem?

  2. Lin

    Wow. Good answer Joseph. It mya have hurt to hear the answer, but this has so much to do with the new ‘culture of the workplace’. It’s very difficult to say, but true, that we in the ‘older generation’ tend to be more set with beginning and ending times, but it is an obvious fact. To focus on the outcome and expectations of the day is so much more important. If this person is truly set on arrival and departure times, what is keeping them from a surprise visit to the offsite locations? Phone calls and e-mails can be answered from any location in these days of smart phones, but there’s nothing like walking in a few minutes late and having your boss standing at the door with a cup of coffee and asking if you have time for a chat to get you up and going a little earlier in the morning…..or causing you to have that difficult discussion about reasons (not excuses!) for asking for more flexible work hours. Good luck Long-Distance Manager ~ and to your employees.

    1. josephgrenny

      How honest of you to say so, Lin. I have “control” issues myself and have to check my motives often!

  3. Kyle Tresner

    This is absolutely the perfect answer and really helps clarify several things that I’ve been needing to hear. Thanks Joseph!

  4. Kit

    If there are also hourly people working at these locations, then I will respectfully disagree. True enough that salaried folks are paid to do a job and get results, not directly for the time spent doing it. However, if there are hourly people there too, I think there would be considerable resentment in the ranks when they perceive “the suits” coming and going as they please. I saw that in the military when enlisted often resented officers, and I see the parallel in civilian life. If for no other reason than setting a good example and positive morale, I think that salaried employees should show up on time. (And I realize full well that the wage earners probably don’t notice when the salaried folks have to put in some evening or weekend time. That’s why salaries are higher – we have to do whatever it takes.)
    All that said, if everyone there is salaried, then I agree with Joseph’s answer. Results are the bottom line. I just want people to remember that resentment by the hourly folks detracts from those results.

    1. josephgrenny

      This is a great scenario to add to the consideration, Kit. Thanks for adding it.

  5. Annette Lawler

    This is very well written.

  6. Yvonne

    I understand the point of the response and I agree, but I would like to offer a counterpoint. I work on a similar team. We work in various time zones across the US. We do not punch time clocks. Our efforts are largely project based, not customer-service related. And yet our manager has established core working hours of 9-4 in our local time zone. If for some reason we will not be available by the start of the core hours, we must let him know. Management is very clear about the reason for core hours: In order to schedule meetings he needs to know when people will be around. If he finds out at 10pm that a team meeting is needed the next day, he can schedule a meeting at 9:30am and expect everyone to attend. If an urgent request is received he knows who can be asked to handle it and not worry it will sit in someone’s inbox for hours. By observing core hours, this is possible. Some folks work 7-4, others 9-6. My hours vary from day to day. Occasionally I cannot arrive within the core hours, but in those cases I send an email or make a phone call. Management knows who is available. Employees have flexibility.

  7. Del

    Results focused, wow an outstanding answer. I believe when you have someone “punching the clock” they do what they have to and not very much more. I personally REFUSE to punch the clock. I am on salary; I produce an above par product in a better then reasonable amount of time. My focus is my own output results, my livelihood, my reputation and my happiness depend on it. I know me; and I know if I am tired, frustrated, have a sick kid/personal issue or are otherwise distracted I am not productive. I deal with the distraction (e.g. leave, go home take or even take a nap) then get back to the project. My hours are flexible I work late, come in early. I even have a home office and answer calls and emails on vacation in other words, I do the needful and I meet my targets. I want my people to be professionals also, therefore I know my setting of sensible production goals and allowing them the flexibility to manage their own time to meet those objectives develops them as a professional, and those who can’t seem to “get it”, get the chance to work for someone else…and by the way it’s more fun to work with people, then to have them work for you.

  8. Managing Latecomers | Motivation and inspiratio...

    […] I manage a group of more than thirty employees at six different locations, and my office is at yet another location. Needless to say, I do not see or speak to each person every day. I have set the …  […]

  9. Mike Koselek

    The above response to Managing Latecomers is likely the best response to any question I have read from anyone at VitalSmarts. Bravo. Probably the hardest thing for new leaders to accept is they were not chosen because they were the smartest of the group…including me! The very first lesson I try to teach a new leader is to understand where his/her frustration is coming from before implementing new rules or becoming an enforcer. I ask them, when they feel frustrated with an employee, to stop and ask themselves 3 questions: is what the employee doing unsafe, is what the employee doing adding unnecessary costs/delays or is what the employee doing just plain wrong? If the answer to all three is no, then their issue is with preference so no intervention is required. Negatively reacting to a preference issue (being a boss) is about trying to control people in a manner that suggests a lack of the big-picture-perspective I need from the leader. It limits creativity and more importantly employee ownership in the deliverable. All I require of the leader is to ensure they meet safety, schedule and costs on their deliverables thus making me successful at my job. In the words of Star Trek’s Jean Luc Picard, “Make it so!”

  10. Anton Clark

    Dear Joseph, thanks for an informative and useful article.

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