By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
As a teenager, one of my first jobs was working for the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Disney is the largest single-site employer in the United States, hosting jobs for more than 60,000 people.
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At Disney, my coworkers and I were beholden to a late policy for attendance. The system worked on points; it allowed for about a half-dozen or so late arrivals to work within a rolling 12-month period before formal disciplinary action was taken.
If you have ever worked in a line-level position for a large company, you probably have some familiarity with similar late policies. They usually involve points, strikes or scorekeeping of some kind.
The idea behind these kinds of late policies is that a certain amount of late arrivals to work is acceptable until a threshold is reached. After that, disciplinary action is taken, usually up to and including termination.
I remember racing to punch the clock at Disney on many occasions, but I also remember intentionally ignoring it on others when I knew that I was well within my points limit for the period in question. I was young and had not yet learned how important timeliness would later be for the rest of my career.
Late Policies Are Common in Many Organizations, but Tolerance for Lateness Disappears Further Up the Career Ladder
As I climbed the ladder of my own career path, I eventually entered the world of salaried, professional roles in management and leadership. In doing so, “punching the clock” in a literal sense went away, but so did any tolerance for late arrivals. Suddenly, the expectation that I would be on time for work was no longer subject to points, strikes or error allowances.
Instead, it was simply understood that — barring a serious and unforeseen emergency — I would be where I needed to be when I needed to be there. Period.
Not Tolerating Lateness Encourages Employees to Act More Professionally
In hindsight, I now look back on my early career at Disney and ask the question: Why is it tolerable for line-level employees across industries to be habitually late to work, but absolutely unacceptable in professional roles? Why are these the standards that we’ve established? Do they make sense?
Imagine if police officers, firefighters, emergency room doctors, trial lawyers and other professionals were permitted the leeway to be frequently late for work. What might the consequences be for society and for the people they serve?
Now ask yourself if there is any good reason why the expectation ought to be lower for people in line-level employment roles. Sure, as a Safari Driver at Disney World, the stakes weren’t nearly as high for me as they are for a soldier or a surgeon.
But companies are ostensibly trying to cultivate and develop strong talent within their line-level ranks so that they have people to promote into leadership and professional roles as the opportunities emerge. With that in mind, is there any reason why we would want to encourage line-level employees to behave less professionally? I would argue that the answer is unequivocally “no.”
For this reason, a late policy which is less tolerant of late arrivals does more to encourage professional behavior. It sends a message that being late is not OK sometimes…or even every now and then.
A late arrival to work can be excused or overlooked if and only if a true emergency gets in the way of being on time. Otherwise, it simply shouldn’t happen. And the consequences for being late should reflect this philosophy.
Late Policies in Academia
The philosophy of not tolerating lateness translates quite well into academia, where students are subject to late policies for submitting coursework. I have had the unique experience of working for more than a half-dozen different higher education institutions, and each has their own approach to late policies.
Some institutions allow instructors to craft their own policies, while others create a blanket rule for all faculty to follow. Late policies vary widely in terms of how strict they are concerning late submissions and often involve some scale of escalating penalties over time.
The worst late policy I’ve encountered, by far, is at an online university wherein students are permitted to submit papers up to seven days late with no late penalty whatsoever. In other words, there are zero consequences for being up to an entire week late with an academic paper. After that, a penalty of just 10 percent was deducted from papers submitted between eight and 14 days late. Only after 15 days is a submission no longer eligible for any credit.
What does a bad late policy like this one teach students? It teaches them that being late is totally fine and that those students will not suffer any repercussions within a certain timeframe. And even thereafter, students know that they can still earn a respectable grade by doing their work as much as two weeks late. The message is, “No sweat. Take your time. We will wait for you.”
But we know this late policy would never fly in the professional world. Imagine not turning in your next report or project at work until a week after your boss told you he or she needed it. How do you think that conversation would go? You should probably go ahead and pack up your office ahead of time.
If we higher education instructors are in the business of grooming students to become professionals in their respective fields, why are we actively cultivating bad habits for them? This counterproductive conditioning can seriously hurt their chances for career success.
This is why, in the schools for which I teach that allow instructors to craft their own late policies, my rule regarding lateness has always been extremely simple and clear. If a student isn’t able to submit work on time due to a legitimate emergency, I expect that they will contact me as soon as reasonably possible (preferably before the deadline) so that I can work with them to adjust timelines and parameters for the work to the extent that fairness demands.
Life happens. Everyone deserves understanding and compassion when truly unexpected life-altering events occur.
However, if a student isn’t able to submit work on time for any reason that is not a legitimate, unforeseen emergency (such as forgetting deadlines or failing to organize, schedule, and prioritize obligations), then I advise them up front that no credit shall be awarded for late submissions. I tell them in advance that they needn’t sacrifice any of their time or self-respect in pleading with me for a special exception, because they are best served by owning the consequences of their actions and learning the lesson involved, so that it does not happen again in the future.
Despite the high expectations and strict parameters, readers might be surprised to learn that my students are generally very understanding of this policy. When the good-faith intentions are thoughtfully explained, students usually appreciate that they do not benefit from being conditioned into thinking that the world will accommodate their failure to perform as expected – because it won’t.
Whether in business or academia, sometimes doing what’s best for someone also means raising the bar and demanding more of them; this is the very definition of “tough love.” Of course, it’s done with the aim of building strong, principled professionals that will not just survive but thrive in positions that demand nothing less than 100% reliability.
When I was growing up, my father would say that if you aspire to achieve a goal, you should aim to “look, act, and think” like the person who is needed to reach that goal. If we as a society expect that our students and employees will one day mature into trustworthy, reliable individuals who can handle professional responsibilities, we do them no favors by tricking them into thinking that being late is OK.
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About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director in the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in hospitality/business management. Gary also holds a bachelor’s degree in space studies and is an avid student of the astronomical sciences.
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