Why Some Employees Are Always Late

Many years ago, a coworker and I decided to walk across the street to the deli to grab a quick lunch. It was a hectic day and we both planned to eat at our desks.

”We'll be back in three minutes," she told her assistant.

"No, we won't." I replied. There was no way we were going to be back from the deli that quickly. My colleague insisted we were just walking across the street, ordering sandwiches, and coming right back.

"It will still take longer than that," I replied. She relented a bit and told her assistant we'd be back in five minutes rather than three. 

Being the kind of person who would time that sort of thing, I started my watch. From start to finish, the entire errand took us 15 minutes. This was three times longer than my coworker had promised.

Chances are, you routinely make similar promises or you know someone who does. 

Tardiness can be dangerous in a customer service setting. We might promise to get something done for a customer and then fall short of expectations when we're late. Or employees might be chronically late to work, which puts pressure on coworkers to pick up the slack until they finally arrive.

Here are some reasons why it happens.

 Woman holding up a clock, accusing someone of being late.

We're Unrealistic About Time

There are numerous studies showing that people are generally bad at estimating how long a task will take. Here are just a few examples:

  • People underestimated how long it takes to get gas by 51% (Konecni & Ebbesen,1976)

  • Students underestimated how long it would take to complete their honors thesis by 39% (Buehler, Griffin, and Ross, 1994)

  • People underestimated how long it would take to complete their Christmas shopping by 12% (Buehler and Griffin, 2003)

Put these results in everyday customer service contexts and you can see a recipe for disaster. Chronically late employees underestimate:

  • How long it will take to get to work.

  • How long it will take to finish a project for their boss.

  • How long it will take to complete a task for a customer.


Type Bs Are Overly Optimistic

You may have heard of Type A and Type B personalities. Here are the definitions from the American Psychological Association:

Type A: a personality pattern characterized by chronic competitiveness, high levels of achievement motivation, impatience and a distorted sense of time urgency, polyphasic activity [i.e. multitasking], and aggressiveness and hostility.

Type B: a personality pattern characterized by low levels of competitiveness and frustration, an easygoing approach, and a lack of aggressiveness and hostility.

It's easy to imagine that many customer service employees fall closer to Type B on the personality spectrum. There's just one small problem—those people are much more likely to be late.

Studies conducted by psychologist Jeff Conte compared how Type A and B personality types perceived how long it took for one minute to elapse. Type As were pretty spot-on, guessing on average 58 seconds. Type Bs, on average, let 77 seconds go by before they felt one minute was up—33 percent more time than Type As.

This suggests it can take coaching, planning, and a great deal of patience to help some of your customer service employees develop a more realistic sense of time.

We Don’t Plan for the Unexpected

The way we structure our work day often becomes a recipe for tardiness.

Some people are unrealistic about their commute. They might leave their home 30 minutes before work starts because it takes 30 minutes to drive there. But that doesn't take into account a stop at the coffee shop, time spent looking for a parking space, and time walking into the building and to their workstation. 

Back-to-back meetings put pressure on our calendar, especially if the first meeting runs late or we must inevitably answer the call of nature. Most people don’t start dialing into a phone or web conference until the meeting start time, even though it can sometimes take a few minutes to get connected.

Many customer service employees have work schedules that don't allow enough time for essential tasks. For example, a contact center employee might need to document notes after speaking to a customer, but they'll struggle to keep up if they're expected to be immediately available to take another call.

Overcoming Tardiness

There are a few things you can do to overcome chronic tardiness.

Perhaps the biggest change is to decide that being on time is important. People who are chronically late often have a more laid-back approach to deadlines. So there's no incentive to change until they adopt a different attitude about being on time.

I’m a stickler for starting on time whenever I facilitate a meeting or a workshop. This quickly sends the signal that the start time is the start time, and I’ve noticed that people generally arrive on time after that expectation is set.

Another way to improve timeliness is to measure how long tasks actually take, and use that information to plan more realistically in the future. So if you think it takes just five minutes to walk across the street to get a sandwich, but each time you do it actually takes 15 minutes, you can adjust your planning.

You can also avoid disappointing customers by using the right language to set realistic expectations about how long something might take. For example, I like to pad my promised delivery date a bit just in case something unexpected comes up. This provides a bonus of frequently allowing me to get things done earlier than my customers expect.