Keeping Time

If a company wishes to get professional work from its employees, then it needs to treat them as professionals. An over-focus on marking attendance and keeping time often results in employees playing the “time-at-work game” in which simply being at their desk for the requisite eight hours is more important than being productive.

If you wish to get professional work from your employees, then they must be treated as professionals. The definition of a professional is someone who demonstrates near-impeccable work behavior. They have great concern for their work output, they focus on being productive, and they think about how to accomplish their goals when they are not at work. If we dig deeper into what makes a professional, we would conclude that they have an attitude of poised competence and friendly collaboration; they exemplify high ethical standards, and demonstrate integrity to the values of their organization; they look, sound, and smell attractive; they show courtesy, promptness, and good-faith to their company and their clients; and they resist the urge to engage in behavior that would be questioned as anything but professional. You may have your own additional criterion for the behaviors and standards of professionals.

One of the frustrations of expecting professional work from professionals is that some people have a different orientation to timeliness than others. For instance, sometimes professionals “come in late to the office” or “stretch out the lunch hour,” or “leave the office early.” These time-problems may occur for each and every professional, with reasonable justification. If these behaviors only occur occasionally and the employee’s performance otherwise lives up to expectations, then it should not be a concern. But when it becomes a pattern, and it actually harms their ability to perform their job (such as when others need to speak with them but they are unavailable), then the issue must be addressed by their direct manager.

Prevention is always a better tactic than dealing with a problem once it has occurred, so let’s think about that ANGLE first.

Make sure that the expectations are clearly understood. While policies may be written in an employee handbook, it is much more important that these sorts of things be expressed directly in a face-to-face meeting by the manager. Managers may have different explicit expectations from what is in an employee policy, but the manager must know the effect that these different standards have on the organization. To the degree that the employee hears their manager emphasize the standards directly, the more they know how important they are, and why.

Explain to your employee what exceptions-to-the-rule are allowable. You will need to define these exceptions, such as unusual traffic situations that delay getting to work, the need for a long lunch to accomplish the occasional errand, or the need to leave work early for special situations outside of work, such as celebrating a child’s graduation, attending to a family-member in the hospital, etc.

If an employee is not abiding by the expectations, or seem to be exploiting (bending, not breaking) the rules, then it is time to move to the next step.

Have a crucial conversation. Ask the employee to your office. Explain that you need to talk to them about what may be going on with their time habits. Ask them for their perspective on their pattern of behavior. Explain your concerns. Be compassionate, yet firm. Despite their rational excuses, clarify the standards that you hold and let them know that you expect a different behavior. Ask them what they need to do to achieve those standards. Let them know that they will be under additional, but not micro-managing scrutiny for some period of time (say, 3-6 months) until it is demonstrated that they can abide by the performance standards.

Make a plan with the employee for the time problem including consequences if they relapse. Have the employee agree to the plan, making sure that it is not a plan that they believe sets them up to fail.

Verify compliance. On occasion, ask them to self-report on their behavior. At random intervals, call them during periods when they have had a time problem with a question that is relevant in the context of your performance-relationship with them so that you are not simply viewed as “checking up on them,” which will be seen as intrusive and demeaning. You will not be able to check all the time, so do not worry about that. Just check randomly, and let it go at that. If it is a problem, you are likely to hear about it from other employees or notice it yourself.

Exercise consequences if you have done the above steps and the employee slips back into the old pattern. Ideally this will not involve termination, because time-problems are not often that egregious. However, note that the need to exercise consequences suggests that you have an employee that is unable or unwilling to modify their behavior to fit in to the expected standards. This is not s good sign for long-term match between the employee and the employer. In any case, the employee is likely to be angry or upset. So the conversation may turn towards the employee’s overall attitude about working for the company.

If a termination is appropriate, realize that others may be angry that the employee was let go, while others may be relieved that a slacker got what they deserved. Remember, that you cannot disclose information about such occurrences, even though the standard announcement email should always be sent out: “John Doe will be leaving the company effective X date. We wish him the best in his future pursuits.” Whatever you say, some will second-guess your decision, but it is unlikely that your integrity to company standards and your expectations will have gone unnoticed. If leaders do not maintain high standards, no one else will.

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