What to do when a good performer is often late or absent!

Q: I’m a supervisor in manufacturing and my problem is I have a good guy who works for me but his attendance is not the greatest. It’s not that he always calls in sick but he’s late coming back from lunches and brakes. He’s a good worker, does things without always being told, and he gets along with everybody. I count on him a lot. He’s like my eyes and ears in the department. I talked to him about a month ago about this and it got better for a couple of weeks but now it’s starting again. I’m really not sure what to do. My boss says to write him up and if things don’t change I should fire him but I don’t want to write him up because I don’t want his performance to go down, and I really need this guy on my team. Can you help me? Any suggestions on how I can save this? Thanks. Steve

A: Hi Steve. These types of situations come up often in our training sessions. First, I commend you on discussing the lateness problem with him. Many supervisors avoid dealing with these types of conflicts because they don’t want to be seen as the “bad guy”, in the hopes the situation will solve itself or, as you mentioned, not wanting to risk retaliation in the form of a reduction in performance value and involvement in the department. So well done!

Secondly, you mentioned that this employee is a good worker, takes initiative, gets along well with other team members, and seems to have a good attitude about his work. Those are real positives that need to be taken into account and communicated during the second chat you now need to have with him. Steve, what you are dealing with here is an attitudinal/behavioural issue, which is considerably more challenging than attempting to resolve a situation that is performance based or “job specifics”. Performance is concrete and objective while behaviour is more subjective or up to one’s interpretation of what appropriate behaviour is, but what we are dealing with here is an attendance/lateness issue, a breach of corporate policy, which surely impacts on this employee’s performance as well.

My suggestion is as follows; speak with this employee a second time about his lateness and attendance. Although you may be annoyed, disappointed, or even angry, it’s important that you don’t allow those negative emotions interfere or guide the way you will be communicating with him. Remain calm, listen attentively, and focus your energy on reaching your objective, which is “to have this employee come in on time from now on”.

You can begin your conversation in the following way; “Do you remember us having a talk about your attendance and lateness a couple of weeks ago?” (Wait for, and listen to an answer.) “After we spoke about it, I noticed that it got much better, and that’s great. It’s exactly what I was expecting, but now I noticed that the problem is back and seems to be getting worse. Do you understand the impact that your lack of attendance and lateness coming back from brakes and lunch is having on the team, the department, and myself?” (Wait for, and listen to an answer.) If he doesn’t know the consequences, then tell him!

Steve, I’m sure this employee knows he’s a good performer so in his mind, what’s the big deal? It is also possible that he is not aware of the consequences of his actions. Focus your attention on helping this employee understand the big picture because only understanding promotes people to process genuine change. It is your responsibility as his supervisor to make him aware of the negative fall-out from all of this as well as the consequences should he choose to continue in this direction, which is progressive discipline. It’s also really important to communicate his strengths, as you see them. This is called positive recognition and when used properly, in the right context, can prove to be an extremely powerful motivator.

Adding something like; “Look, you’re a good worker, you get along with everybody on the team, you take initiative, and you know that I count on you to help out in the department, so it’s baffling to me how you can be late and absent so many times. I don’t want all that talent to be wasted by an absenteeism and lateness issue that can be solved in an instant”. The last question should be; “Can I count on you to do what is needed for you to be here on time from now on?” (Wait for, and listen to an answer, which should be positive.) In these situations, it is important to always ask for the individual’s commitment to mitigate or fix the issue so that a third and less comfortable discussion is avoided. Also, remember to communicate the consequences (fall-out) should he chose to continue going against company policies. Steve, I am curious to know the result of your discussion with this employee so please keep in touch and I hope you are comfortable using the strategy I propose. Good luck!

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