But for small businesses in particular, staff lateness and absence can seriously affect productivity, efficiency and profitability. Often employers notice that their least effective and motivated staff seem to be worst affected by commuting problems.
Here we examine the steps that small employers can take to manage the problem from an employment law perspective.
The introduction of a lateness policy is a good first step. This will spell out the required standards of timekeeping, as well as the consequences of persistent lateness, which will include disciplinary action under the disciplinary procedure. The policy should be properly communicated to employees, and enforced in a consistent fashion. If employees know that lateness will be noticed and investigated by management, they are much more likely to observe good time keeping.
In sufficiently serious cases, use of the disciplinary procedure will be necessary, but persistent lateness is the sort of issue which can often be resolved informally, rather than in formal disciplinary proceedings. Informal action is sometimes a more effective way of resolving minor issues at an early stage, without the need for an investigation and disciplinary meeting. Having said that, small employers should avoid falling into the trap of over-reliance on informal action rather than formal procedures, particularly when dismissal is in prospect.
At that stage, a formal procedure is necessary. It will need to be compliant with the statutory disciplinary and dismissal procedures, which apply to all employers. Most employers should be familiar with them by now (they came into force in October 2004), although cases in which they are not followed (leading to liability for automatically unfair dismissal) remain common. Although the government is looking at repealing the procedures, for the moment at least they remain legally binding.
In addition, employers should also remember that when employees are dismissed in cases involving persistent lateness and the like, a Tribunal will almost always expect to see evidence of prior written warnings, as well as compliance with the statutory procedure, which must be followed.
Even where there has been a full disciplinary process involving previous warnings, and the employee’s time keeping has not improved to the extent required, the employer will usually have to give the employee notice (or possibly pay in lieu). Employers can only dismiss employees without notice in cases of gross misconduct. Lateness itself is almost certainly not serious enough to be gross misconduct, although lying about the reasons could be.
Finally, employers need to be realistic about the occasional unavoidable commuting problem. Disciplining staff with good reasons for being late will be counter-productive. But often commuting problems can be anticipated and planned for (for example when there are strikes). Usually there are practical solutions available, for example temporary home-working, a change in working hours, the use of annual leave on strike days, accommodation with friends, family or hotels, and so on. Plan in advance to ensure that client/customer service is not disrupted.