How to Talk to a Chronically Late Employee

This manager needs to address tardiness — without tears.

Editor’s note: columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues — everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

I have a new salaried staff member who is a manager-in-training for a new location we are opening up. She has worked for us for a week now, and is having child-care issues causing her to be tardy or have to leave earlier than expected. I would like your advice on the most professional way to handle this.

The nature of our business doesn’t allow for flextime, and we are a semi-warehouse environment, so we don’t allow children inside the location. Location managers are also expected to be the last one out the door at night, which means sometimes you are going to be working 10 to 20 minutes later than you expected. She knew all of this when she accepted the position.

The past four days, she has either been late (because the sitter was late) or she’s had to leave before other non-managerial employees in the evening to pick her child up. She’s a single mom, so I understand that she’s in a tough spot. The first time I had a conversation with her about her tardiness, she burst into tears. My boss spoke with her the next day, just to reinforce what I had said, and she burst into tears.

What’s the best way to have a crying-free conversation with her about tardiness and that as a manager, her schedule is firm, and that she needs to understand that some evenings she’ll be expected to work a little later?

I don’t want to scare her off or to think she’s not capable of doing this job, but I also can’t risk a phone call from the client complaining that she hasn’t been there when they expected her to be, or from other employees saying she wasn’t there to unlock the door, making them late.

Alison Green responds:

Well, if your goal is a crying-free conversation, you might not get it. Instead, your goal should be to have a kind but direct conversation with her about the requirements of the job, so that you’re both on the same page about your expectations.

She’s a crier — some people are — so she might cry during this. You can’t prevent that, and you don’t want your worries about that to lead you to avoid or delay the conversation or to soft-pedal the message. You can and should certainly be kind about it, and if she cries, you can offer her a tissue and time to compose herself, but the conversation has to happen, crying or no crying.

Sit down with her and say something like this: “I know that you’re in a tough spot with child care, and I empathize. I wish I could give you more flexibility on your start time and leaving time, but unfortunately, this position requires that you be here no later than 9 a.m. and sometimes requires you to stay a little later than normal to close up. I know that that’s been hard for you to do in your first week, and I want to talk about whether the schedule is something you can commit to going forward. If it’s not, we’re better off figuring that out now.”

If she cries, you can be sympathetic, but you should still bring the conversation back to: “Understanding that we can’t be flexible on the hours, is this schedule the right fit for you?” Use a kind tone but direct words.

If she says that she will be able to work the schedule that you need, then let her know that you’re glad to hear that and move forward. If the problems happen again after that, then you’d need to warn her that you’ll need to replace her if she can’t meet the schedule requirements of the role, just like you would anyone else who wasn’t able to work the hours you need.

On the other hand, if she says that she can’t commit to the schedule you need, then you thank her for being candid with you and say that you’re sorry it didn’t end up being the right fit.

In other words, be compassionate about her situation but realistic and forthright about what the job requires. Good luck!