Workplace Doctor: Dubai employee turns up late three times a week

A member of my team is late to work at least three times a week. Punctuality is key in our office as we are a small team and to get the job done effectively, we all need to be there. I have chatted to him about his tardiness – we start at 9am and he invariably turns up after 10am – but he comes up with different excuses such as the traffic, an alarm clock not going off or not feeling well. How can I tackle this issue more effectively? VC, Dubai

One of my own personal derailers is persistent lateness. A repeat offender on the punctuality scale leaves behind a negative chain of missed appointments, unmet deadlines and frustrated colleagues waiting around in meeting rooms. The fact he decides to show up at around 10am on at least three occasions a week means that as a small interconnected team you are experiencing almost half a day a week of missed productivity.

As this has been going on a long time, simply chatting to him about tardiness is evidently not enough to motivate this difficult person into action. The excuses he comes up with such as traffic or an alarm clock failure are, in my opinion, a cover up for the real issue. The rest of your team are probably using the same roads and experiencing the same traffic, but they still arrive at work on time. We all have to set alarms, and we all have days where we do not want to get out of bed, but we do. Why can’t he?

By now most employees would have got their act together out of sheer social embarrassment, suggesting to me that this individual’s issues are more deeply rooted in his “psychological contract” with you, his colleagues and the organisation. Our psychological contract is the unwritten rules that guide our organisational behaviour, the invisible ink that implicitly says “you can rely on me – I won’t let you down” or “there is no point of me arriving on time”. In a business where to deliver requires collective responsibility and someone who consistently shuns this responsibility, leaves me thinking that his relationship with the organisation and his motivation to support colleagues is at an all-time low. Something is just not right.

Let’s explore why this might have occurred. It could be the case that this individual has been let down previously: maybe his career aspirations have not been met, his colleagues have not treated him well, or he might perceive you, his manager, as having let him down in some way. I used to work in the UK Prison Service as a psychologist, and my experience working with prison officers and inmates made me realise that an aggressive or challenging manner from a prison officer could create more problems as the two personalities clash. Without comparing yourself to the prison officer – after all, this employee certainly comes and goes freely – perhaps it is worth searching below the surface and exploring the motives behind your colleagues’ symptoms rather than the behaviour you are experiencing. Is there anything you can do to change them?

On the other hand, it may be that your colleague has ‘checked out’ of the role. He may have lost interest in his work, or it could be that he is putting in the time while he looks for more exciting opportunities. Perhaps he is a bad apple, pushing you to see how much he can get away with, but his lateness and lack of concern could equally be attributed to health problems and depression, so tread carefully as you ascertain what is wrong. Taking the time to get this team member excited about his role, or even just to let him know that you care, might restore to you a happy team at full strength. The difficulty is balancing your inquiries with a more stringent policy on punctuality.

Doctor’s prescription:

Often organisational rules and regulations force us to fall into the patterns of parent and child: if an employee is late you are encouraged to slap his wrist while he provides childlike excuses, and a week down the line the whole thing happens again. Think about how can you both meet like adults and really understand each other, reminding him of his responsibilities rather than relating it back to your personal relationship with him. Explain to him why punctuality matters to the team rather than just telling him you want him in on time, and point out the cumulative effect his absence has on your team’s productivity. Perhaps then he will accord you all the respect he is currently failing to give.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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