Industrial Relations Advisory: Absenteeism and Latecoming

An entrepreneur wrote in to ask about legal ways to deal with employee latecoming and absenteeism in order to suspend or dismiss.


PMSL’s Response:

To begin, we do not ever set out to suspend or dismiss employees guilty of either. What we advise is that you set out to change their behaviour first. And there are ways to do that legally.

In fact, the Industrial Court is very specific about employers acting legally and in accordance with good industrial relations when dealing with both these problems, and believe me, you want to do that in order to keep the problems from ending up in the court as that can become very expensive and very time consuming which no sensible employer wants!

Rather than quote from a lengthy court award I will just summarize:

First, have a written policy that says what time people are expected to check in to work. It should state how the check in is to be done. It should specify what the company’s allowance for flexibility is, for example, what are the allowable minutes in case of traffic, fire, flood or acts of God before the employee will be marked as late. It should also state what the penalties are for latecoming: how many times late before deductions are made from wages and why. It is important that the policy say why being on time is important.

There are some companies with a production line where if one employee is late the whole line is down. In other companies, there may be a production quota that has to be met each day, or it may be when customer service starts or when phones start ringing. In a medical clinic, the reception people have to be there when the doctors are available to start seeing patients. If we are talking about security officers in a school there can be no minutes when the school is left unguarded. Why is it important in your company?

You have to specify what you mean by excessive absenteeism or excessive latecoming. Is being absent or coming late once excessive? Five times in a month? Ten times?

The penalty clause must be clear. The actual words the Court used are: “If the policy on discipline for repeated and excessive latecoming is a warning notice followed by suspension then a discharge, this should be followed in every case and there should be no discrimination.” But dismissal should only be done once the employee has been given a chance to explain why he was absent or late so often (no one dismisses an employee on a first offence unless it is a criminal action) and mitigating circumstances must be taken into consideration. Mitigating circumstances would be an injury in the case of absenteeism or a series of  accidents on the road or police  blockades  in case of latecoming or  circumstances  honestly beyond the employee’s control, for example, in which case you  can specify that the employee should  have called ahead in each instance and explained what the problem was and  estimated how long it would take for him/her to arrive, with updates if the problems…and honest and believable problems at that, are continuing. Efforts to get young children to the care-giver on time, for example.

We have to be realistic. Everyone knows that traffic can be beyond an employee’s control, except if they have their own form of transport and can leave home earlier and earlier to reach on time.

Whatever the ostensible cause, the court advises that you sit down with the employee and try to help him/her find a way to avoid the problem in future. If it can be shown that you, as the employer really have tried to help and the latecoming or absenteeism continues, then you can go ahead with the warning then the suspension. If after that, the timekeeping or attendance still persists, then you are justified in dismissal.

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