Q. You’re late ... again. Why can’t you be on time?
A. Contrary to suspicions, most chronically tardy people are not aiming to annoy those around them, said Diana DeLonzor, author of “Never Be Late Again” (Post Madison Publishing) and a former late person.
People should not take a co-worker’s lateness personally, she said: “It’s not usually about control. It’s not that they don’t value your time. It’s not that they like the attention when they walk into the room.”
She added: “Most late people have been late all their life, and they are late for every type of activity — good or bad.”
Surprisingly little scientific research has been done on tardiness, but some experts subscribe to the theory that certain people are hardwired to be late and that part of the problem may be embedded deep in the lobes of the brain.
Q. Do tardy people tend to have a certain personality type?
A. Ms. DeLonzor says she has found that many late people can be divided into two categories. First there is the deadliner, who, she said, is “subconsciously drawn to the adrenaline rush of the sprint to the finish line.” (That once described herself, she said.) Then there is the producer, “who gets an ego boost from getting as much done in as little time as possible.”
Many late people tend to be both optimistic and unrealistic, she said, and this affects their perception of time. They really believe they can go for a run, pick up their clothes at the dry cleaners, buy groceries and drop off the kids at school in an hour. They remember that single shining day 10 years ago when they really did all those things in 60 minutes flat, and forget all the other times that everything took much, much longer.
Q. How can chronic tardiness affect a business?
A. In schedule-driven jobs, lateness can have a direct effect on a company’s bottom line. Calls go unanswered, deliveries are late or an assembly line can’t operate. In other jobs, the effect is more diffuse but can also be damaging, to both productivity and morale.
For one thing, “unnecessary noise and distraction” occur as other employees discuss and work around a co-worker’s tardiness, said Manny Avramidis, senior vice president for global human resources at the American Management Association.
It can be especially disruptive when a co-worker continually shows up late to meetings, Mr. Avramidis said. The discussion is interrupted and information must be repeated to the tardy newcomer, wasting everyone else’s time.
Q. Can being late all the time hurt a career?
A. Yes. At a place like a manufacturing plant or a call center, it can be grounds for dismissal if it occurs often enough. But it can damage a career even in jobs where schedules are more flexible. Tardy people tend to think that they can make up for their lateness by working extra hours, Ms. DeLonzor said, “but they can never overcome the fact that it makes a very bad impression.” Managers, she found in her research, “are less likely to promote tardy employees.”
Q. What can someone do to try to be more punctual?
A. Lateness is a very difficult habit to overcome, Ms. DeLonzor said, even though it truly hurts the offending person’s life. Telling a late person to be on time is like telling a dieter, “Don’t eat so much,” she said.
Here are some steps she recommends to become more punctual:
HAVE A STRATEGY Make a commitment to work on the problem every day for at least a month.
RELEARN HOW TO TELL TIME Late people tend to underestimate the amount of time their activities take by 25 percent to 30 percent, she said. Write down all your activities and clock how long they actually take.
NEVER PLAN TO BE ON TIME Instead, plan to be early. Punctual people build in extra transit time because they know that unexpected delays can occur. Many tardy people — in their naïve optimism — have never learned to do this.
WELCOME THE WAIT Bring a magazine, a book or some language tapes so that you can entertain yourself and get something done while you wait.
Q. In some cases, shouldn’t a company just appreciate a tardy person’s many other excellent qualities and accept the lateness?
A. “Sometimes more creative individuals live by their own clock and find it more difficult to be on time,” said Phyllis Hartman, owner of PGHR Consulting in Pittsburgh. So an employer accepts a noon arrival time in exchange for brilliance and innovation.
And as technology enables more salaried employees to work from home, and even on their vacations, some employers are becoming more tolerant of lateness, said George Faulkner, a principal with the health and benefits area of Mercer Human Resource Consulting. They will be more likely to measure productivity based on results rather than hours clocked inside a cubicle.
The problem is that if salaried employees are not punctual, but expect their hourly workers to be on time, there is the appearance of a double standard, Mr. Faulkner said. A perception of unfairness can affect morale, so the difference in working patterns needs to be made clear.
Among all workers, employers must be aware of any personal situations that may be causing tardiness, Ms. Hartman and Mr. Faulkner said. A sick spouse or child, a transportation problem or a personal problem may be throwing a worker off schedule and require some accommodation in the workplace.
As Ms. Hartman said: “When possible I do believe that employers should provide flexibility. But you can’t hurt the work of the company either.”
By Phyllis Korkki
June 3, 2007