columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I manage an exempt employee who is frequently late: 15-20 minutes late at least once a week. He has a long commute that can be unpredictable when it comes to traffic, but after a year working here, I don't consider traffic a valid excuse. When I mentioned the lateness, he said in his defense that he stays late, which he does--but at the same time, he works slowly and cannot always finish his work within regular hours. I've started documenting these late arrivals and I offered him the opportunity to change his start time, to which he gave a noncommittal answer. This employee is not a top performer and I've recently talked to him about performance issues.

My question is whether it is worth making an issue over 15-20 minutes when an employee is exempt. There are no time-sensitive tasks that require him to be at his desk at a specific time, but I find lateness annoying. In the context of other performance issues, small things that annoy me seem magnified, so I wonder if I am making this into a bigger deal than it should be.

Green responds:

In some jobs, time of arrival matters for valid, work-related reasons, like clients needing to reach someone then, or morning meetings you need to be present for, or colleagues who have to cover for you until you arrive. But in plenty of other jobs, it really doesn't matter, other than perhaps triggering the lateness antenna of people who care for no reason other than You Are Supposed To Be On Time.

Generally, you want to be able to point to an actual impact on work or co-workers if you're going to be a stickler about arrival time. Otherwise you risk good employees feeling that you're nickel-and-diming them and focusing on the wrong things. And many good employees highly value flexibility, and may even change jobs to find it.

So, how much does this employee's lateness really impact work? If it affects his work, or his co-workers', or clients', it's reasonable to say, "Look, you need to reliably be here on time because of X." And because of the history here, you probably need to say something like, "I do need you to be here reliably on time in the mornings. I need you to either commit to that going forward or we can talk about changing your start time--which one makes sense?" And then if it continues after that, you address that as part of the overall work issues he's having.

But if this wouldn't be a big deal if he were otherwise doing a good job--if it's something you'd let go if someone else were doing it--then it's the wrong place to focus (and probably won't solve his performance problems anyway).

And frankly, it does sound like there are much bigger issues here, and that's where you should keep your spotlight. Paint a clear picture of the bar that he needs to meet, performance-wise, and give him a timeline to show that he can meet it. That will get you to the crux of whether it makes sense to keep him in the role or not.

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