HR clinic: Changing a culture of lateness

Q: How do I as a new manager tackle a widespread culture of people arriving late for work?

It's often the case that a new manager arrives to find that his or her predecessor has let things slip: staff arrive when it suits them, not you. You can't afford to allow matters to carry on in the same vein, especially if you've been appointed to do things differently in future.

First, just take stock. However detailed a briefing you've been given, and however clear your targets are, you need to understand the situation for yourself. So become familiar with the organisation's real requirements - mission statements, policies and performance targets - before you start to make changes.

Quickly evaluate the extent of the concern around the lateness, what is happening on the ground and how far this is from expectations. You then need to act promptly, or there's a risk you'll be seen to be condoning what's gone on before and will lose any authority to make changes.

Get your message across in whatever way is most appropriate for your team and your organisation. State clearly what the new expectations are, and, even more importantly, why, relating performance to the employer's reasonable requirements. Lay out clear targets and say when you want them to be met. Don't expect changes to happen immediately and irrevocably - people need time to adjust to change. But don't set the targets too far in the future either, or they won't be taken seriously.

Be prepared to face resistance. There will be those who argue that things have always been fine, so there's no need to change. These are the easiest to deal with because, as the new manager, you can simply put your foot down, even at the risk of courting short-term unpopularity. You have every right to make your mark in this way; in the long run, you will be respected for it.

Then there are those with special circumstances, which mean they have personal reasons for erratic attendance. Treat each of these individually - if their cases are genuine, you'll find a way of accommodating them without upsetting their colleagues.

Finally, there are the passive resisters who don't take you seriously and just ignore your strictures. This is the most dangerous group, and you can deal effectively with them only by monitoring the situation closely and taking tough action if needed. They'll soon fall into line.

 - John Burnell is director of Personnel Solutions

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