Systematic Review: Occupational Lateness
The Lateness-Avoidance Connection – M.S. Thesis / UX Project – Role: Academic Researcher & UX Designer
- Client: Universidad de Sevilla
- Timeframe: 12 weeks
- My Role: UX Researcher
- Methods: Survey Design (Google Forms), Storyboards, Personas
After a chaotic journey to Spain, frought with delays, I arrived to my first day of class a few minuts late. I was criticized for my tardiness, sparking my interest in the topic of lateness in the workplace.
I wanted to investigate the topic further, since the research regarding lateness in the occupational domain was quite slim. Specifically, I wanted to review whether the criticism or punishment of those who arrive late would lead to undesirable consequences that end up hurting the business far worse than the bout of tardiness would cause.
Lateness behavior is known to be a problem in organizations, increasing monetary costs and rousing feelings of anger and hostility in co-workers and supervisors (Blau, 1994).
However, as this review posits, there may be unintended consequences (e.g. decreased engagement, work performance, productivity) to disciplining late-coming employees.
While no existing studies measure this occurrence, fragments of previous studies suggest the existence of undesired consequences of disciplining late employees.
Further, the literature on late employees often cites withdrawal behavior as the primary antecedent, however, these findings suggest avoidance behavior may be an additional, and underidentified antecedent of lateness.
A variety of workplace conditions contribute to avoidance behavior, including:
- interpersonal conflict,
- high work demands,
- tight deadlines,
- job insecurity,
- and stress.
By redefining lateness as a manifestation of avoidance behavior, and taking into account the costs associated with disciplining late-coming employees, corporate organizations and human resources managers, in particular, can better understand employees and generate solutions that support and better integrate the late-coming employee.
Preliminary Research: Storyboarding
Before scouring academic databases, I wanted to storyboard a scenario that visually demonstrated why some individuals may show up late to work. In this specific example, I showcase a figure, Sara, who finds it hard to get out of bed due to depression, causing her to arrive late occasionally.
Since tardiness is frowned upon in the collegiate setting in Spain, I created a storyboard to convince my academic advisor the topic’s investigation was worthwhile, and to visually story tell a scenario in which someone can find themselves late, perhaps fomenting a sense of empathy in those who’ve already made their minds up on the topic.
Preliminary Research: Persona Creation
Sara Barbara is not just a user persona; she’s a living embodiment of the countless individuals who face unique challenges in their lives. Through the creation of this persona, we aim to exemplify how real people, such as Sara, a single mother, may occasionally arrive late to work due to their dynamic and demanding lives.
Sara Barbara, Occasionally Late Single Mother.
Objective 1: Determine, if any, the collateral effects of disciplinary action on late workers and rigid punctuality requirements.
In other words, I hypothesized stringent employee punctuality policies decrease:
- company citizenship,
- physical health
Meanwhile, such policies and supervisor criticisms or disciplinary actions are hypothesized to increase withdrawal behavior and rotation (and likely other undesirable outcomes that are beyond the scope of this study).
Objective 2: Identify potential avoidance behaviors and co-occuring behaviors that may contribute to avoidance (e.g. inadequate sleep, high perception of stress, anxiety, frequent deadlines, interpersonal conflict) that may be associated with occupational lateness behavior.
That is, expanding upon the broad withdrawal behavior, and seeing if, within that perspective of lateness, avoidance behavior more accurately describes employee lateness behavior in certain contexts.
Conditions that haven’t been accounted for in the scientific literature sources that I’ve consulted in my exhaustive search that may explain lateness behavior in the workplace include:
- sleep loss
- high perception of stress
While previous literature has commonly identified withdrawal behavior as an antecedent to lateness, I propose avoidance behavior to be an alternative, and perhaps underidentified, determinant of lateness.
This objective was sparked when I noticed incongruities in the literature or claims that seemed improbable, such as the issue with Blau’s 1994 prominent study on lateness where he classifies sleeping as a “leisure-related behavior” (“…some employees may consciously choose to be a relatively fixed amount of time late on a regular basis because of their preference for some “leisure-related” activity (e.g., reading the morning paper or sleeping).
My thoughts were, given that one-third of Americans are sleep-deprived (Sheehan et al, 2019), and quality sleep is greatly connected to well-being, positive affect, concentration, and a slew of other important positive attributes, could it not be that his classification is flawed?
Could it be, perhaps, that sleep deprivation in part mediates the desire to avoid—but not withdraw from—work?
To find the most fitting articles on lateness, I used the University of Seville’s access to PsychINFO to source scientific studies and selected a few to evaluate each of the hypotheses previously presented. All of the findings were recorded in a Google Sheet with the following sections: Database, Search Keywords, Exclude, Must Include, Total Results, and Selected Results.
Alternatively, to keep track of findings and the contents of the selected studies, I created a separate tab on the Google Sheet that included the following sections:
- In-text Citation
- Independent Variables
- Dependent Variables
- Key Findings
- Other Key Information
- Sample Size
For the first objective, involving lateness and undesired long-term consequences in the workplace, the following method was used to filter through the database and find the most adequate pieces of literature:
Utilized PsychINFO’s Advanced Search function with the following search query: “lateness (title) OR tardiness (title) AND consequences AND punishment AND repercussion”. This way, I obtained results that contained lateness and tardiness (the independent variables) along with the mediating variables (e.g. consequences, punishment, repercussions, etc.).
Excluded the following topics: Children, school (many results were on lateness in school, which did not pertain to the occupational setting theme of this systematic review).
To assure higher-quality studies, I selected articles that were peer-reviewed, and only empirical studies. While I found no studies that measured the response to employee discipline when late, I decided to include foundational frameworks that may help propel the desire to study the consequences of disciplining late employees, and whether it can lead to a slew of negative consequences as I hypothesize
Using PsychINFO, I submited the following search queries to gather fitting studies. I only selected peer-reviewed studies in the Personnel Attitudes & Satisfaction category.
Data Collection of Academic Research
According to the findings from the review, there is variation not only pertaining to the types of lateness (e.g. Blau, 1994) but also in the objective criteria used to measure lateness in previous studies. While the differences in the definition of lateness and methodology among the literature may be akin to comparing apples to oranges, meaningful commonalities have emerged among the studies on lateness, as limited in number as they may be.
Now that we’ve established that within the construct of lateness, there are different criteria, and therefore differing definitions, it’s important to review pre-existing categories that have been defined by researchers.
The two most influential pieces that define lateness I’ll be covering, include:
- Blau’s 1994 work along with
- Dishon-Berkovitz and Koslowsky’s 2001.
Through these studies, I gleaned important categories of lateness and extracted the predominant perspectives on the antecedents of lateness.
Connecting Blau’s classifications to the perspectives delineated by Dishon-Berkovitz and Koslowsky (2001), Increasing Chronic Lateness falls under the withdrawal behavior perspective, which includes absenteeism (e.g. Dalton & Mesch, 1991) and turnover (e.g. Abelson, 1987; Campion, 1991).
The second perspective identified by Dishon-Berkovitz and Kolowsky in existing employee lateness literature is conflicting work-life demands, which encompasses Blau’s Stable Periodic Lateness and Unavoidable Lateness.
While Blau’s taxonomy of lateness is paramount in understanding the construct of lateness, Dishon-Berkovitz and Koslowsky (2001) deepen the literature by adding a new perspective: Specific personality constructs (time urgency, in particular) as an antecedent to lateness.
Their findings indicate a relationship between personality traits, time urgency, and punctuality. In summary of their findings, lateness behavior is negatively associated with time urgency.
To add context, time urgency is a multidimensional state that urges one to feel hurried when performing multiple tasks simultaneously, managing deadlines, and scheduling tasks (Conte et al, 1995) and is correlated with the need for achievement, irritability, impatience, and tend to consider time a scarce resource that requires attentive planning (Baker et al, 1984; Heilbrun & Freidberg, 1988; Burman et al, 1975).
CRITICIZING LATENESS: ITS ANTECEDENTS AND ITS OUTCOMES
As cited by Blau, lateness is associated with the following costs (Blau, 1994):
- the time required by the administration to discipline a late employee,
- the late employee’s productivity,
- and other workers who must make up and account for the late employee
My research seeks not to bury the costs associated with lateness, but to evaluate them in conjunction with the potential costs associated with disciplining late employees (e.g. reduced output, reduced productivity, ‘quiet quitting’, diminished company citizenship) and enacting stringent punctuality policies that may be stress-inducing.
As the literature on stress in the workplace establishes, stress, defined as “a psychological and physical state that results when the resources of the individual are not sufficient to cope with the demands and pressures of the situation” (Ratnawat & Jha, 2014), while not always bad (Hon & Chan, 2013), can have a slew of negative effects on employees.
These negative effects of stress range from:
- lowered performance,
- high error rate,
- poor quality of work,
- high turnover of staff,
- poor work-life balance
- and can even lead to psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, and in extreme cases obesity and cardiac arrests
The world has changed drastically since Blau’s influential 1994 study; we now live in a digital world where 41 percent of jobs in Canada can be performed remotely (Gallacher & Houssain, 2020) and where, per Gallup, 39% of Americans worked fully remotely in February 2022, with 42% working hybrid (i.e. a combination of remote working and in-person, in-office working) (2022).
With such changes, perhaps it’s time to rethink stress-inducing disciplinary actions over lateness and dismiss enforcing stringent punctuality in a digitalized world where punctuality is of decreasing importance across many domains.
Referring back to my initial broad Google search on “employee lateness” and “employee tardiness” numerous blog posts emerged from my Google search, in addition to my scientific search on Google Scholar and PsycINFO, espousing worries over employee productivity.
And while there are valid concerns about the costs of employee lateness and engagement, it seems fears over lost productivity due to employee lateness may be misguided. That is, the costs of chronic stress and resentment (which may arise in response to stringent punctuality policies and criticism received over arriving late) may lead to losses in productivity that far exceed mere minutes lost to lateness behavior (e.g. Dewa et al, 2016).
Considering that we live in a world where the tempo of life has increasingly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution (McGrath & Kelly, 1986) and workers are experiencing high levels of stress, minimizing stress in the workplace should be prioritized.
Indeed, the American Psychology Association has found that “76% of US workers say their workplace stress has had a negative impact on their personal relationships” (2022).
To elaborate, chronic stress can have effects that are far from benign, including the tendency to make habitual choices rather than goal-oriented choices and rely on intuition rather than analytics (Yu, 2015), with depleted self-control, mental passivity, and impulsivity being other effects (Vonasch et al, 2017).
When stress is not managed in the workout, it can lead to burnout syndrome, characterized by feelings of depleted energy, feelings of negativism or cynicism toward one’s job, and diminished professional efficiency (WHO, 2019).
Just as concerning, many workers define their life by feelings of “time squeeze” or “time famine” (Schor, 1991). What’s more, the most recent European Working Conditions Survey found that 22% of workers report working during their free time several times a month to meet work demands (Parent-Thirion et al., 2017).
Since employees are already underreporting worked hours, and feel overworked and stressed, it’s counterproductive to add to their burdens. With so many citing the workplace as a source of stress, it seems a new paradigm is needed.
One effective way in reducing employee stress may be the adoption of more lax punctuality policies.
Punctuality policies and employee disciple in response to lateness behavior can be “lax” or “strict” and are contextual and vary among nations, cultures, and companies (e.g. Levine, 1998; Mandcuff, 2006; Levine et al, 1980)
An example of a lax employee punctuality policy would be one that does not require employees to be on time and allows workers to fully manage their own working schedule.
A strict employee punctuality policy or disciplinary response may be one that’s hostile or threatening to late employees, without offering them sympathy, empathy, or support when lateness arises. For example, a “strict” punctuality policy may allot one warning in the event an employee is late, followed by firing upon the second incidence of lateness within a given time frame e.g. one year.
LATENESS: AN AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOR?
Regarding Objective 2 on burnout, anxiety, work-related stress, and job insecurity (e.g. job stress) contributing to the development of avoidance behavior, thus leading to lateness, there was more, in terms of academic literature, to formulate and operationalize this likely underacknowledged and under-explored antecedent to lateness.
There are a variety of contributors to job stress (Jacob & Tende, 2022), including:
- excessive workload,
- fewer possibilities for development and advancement,
- a bad wage scale,
- delayed salaries,
- competing for work demands,
- imprecise performance goals
- lack of social support
Jacob and Tende (2022) also found that “Stressed people are more likely to engage in hazardous behaviors such as withdrawal or sabotage to deal with work-related stress;” one of these behaviors may include arriving late to work.
While Jacob and Tende cite lateness as a withdrawal behavior, it may fall under the umbrella of avoidance behavior better in this context. Next, and in a similar vein, researchers found that “job anxiety is related to work avoidance” (Muschalla & Linden, 2012) and may lead to serious psychosomatic symptoms, requiring inpatient care.
The cause of job anxieties are many, and it’s important to highlight that while individuals can be prone to anxiety, there are features of the workplace that are inherently anxiety-provoking, including:
“achievement aspirations, evaluation by superiors, rivalries between colleagues, offensive customers or dangers to health from working conditions” (Muschalla & Linden, 2012).
As such, these job anxieties can contribute to the development of avoidance behavior directed at the organization, either conscious or unconscious.
Since withdrawal behavior in the workplace is defined as a framework of behaviors such as lateness, absenteeism and turnover that imply disengagement (Zimmerman et al, 2016), while avoidance behavior can be defined as engaging in actions to prevent uncomfortable situations or emotions (Coll et al, 2022), it seems that avoidance behavior may be an antecedent that better describes lateness behavior.
Lastly, it’s worthwhile to mention the solutions to avoidance behavior that can help resolve avoidance behavior. One such solution inlcudes the integration of a ‘caring component’ into the work culture, which:
“tends to encourage employee commitment to organizational activities that will assist them in achieving established process and result-focused organizational goals, especially through behavioural, cognitive, humanistic, and integrative or holistic therapies” (Jacob & Tende, 2022).
The literature on lateness behavior almost exclusively casts latecomers in a negative light, as if they’re defective or undesirable. It may be time to reassess these judgments since new developments on lateness, and the way it’s approached, and responded to, can emerge, such as the distinction between withdrawal behavior and avoidance behavior in this systematic review.
Tardiness in the workplace is commonly viewed as negligence (i.e. disrespectful) toward the organization and its values (Bolin & Heatherly, 2001). While late employees can result in lowered productivity and may be interpreted as rude, there may be some underexplored positive attributes connected to their lateness behavior. Investigating lateness in a new light is needed.
One that focuses on the strengths associated with those who have a predisposition towards lateness, as it seems there are environmental and personality effects on lateness behavior. As established by Dishon-Berkovits & Koslowsky, (2002) there is a dimension of personality, particularly time urgency, that influences the degree to which one is timely, or conversely, late.
As such, lateness behavior may not be entirely in one’s control, and it may yield better organizational and individual outcomes to accommodate the working environment to the worker, rather than obligating the worker to change their chronic lateness behavior.
Furthering the influence of personality on one’s lateness behavior, it seems there are other dimensions of personality that can influence one’s lateness behavior, mediated by their perception of time: optimism.
Optimism, defined as the tendency to hope for or expect the best outcome, or dwell on positive outcomes, may be connected to lateness behavior. Optimism and lateness are already connected when it comes to planning (especially when it comes to large-scale projects e.g. Siemiatycki, 2008), thus the advent of the term “optimism bias”. Optimism bias, sometimes referred to as “The Illusion of Invulnerability” is the belief that we are more likely to achieve success than reality would dictate. In other words, and in the context of punctuality, one may believe he’s able to cram in a work meeting before a doctor’s appointment.
Another overlooked positive attribute associated with lateness behavior is flow state. As for flow state propensity, which leads to positive outcomes including enhanced psychological well-being in employees (Debus et al, 2014) and increased job performance.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, considered the founding father of flow, there are eight characteristics of flow (Oppland, 2016):
- “Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.”
As discussed, there may be personality traits such as optimism and flow state propensity that are associated with lateness behavior. As such, in fields that require such traits, it may be worth sacrificing punctuality in exchange for those desirable traits.
While promptness is commonly viewed as a positive attribute, those who frequently experience time urgency, which frequently accompanies punctualness, may develop undesired somatic consequences, particularly hypertension, with which time urgency was significantly associated at a 15-year follow-up (Lijing et al, 2003).
Additionally, those with a high sense of time urgency may suffer from a dose-response increase in experiencing a myocardial infarction (Cole et al, 2021). Beyond potential adverse health outcomes, it should be mentioned punctuality has some notable and possibly undesirable associations.
Specifically, “more conscientious, agreeable, and neurotic participants showed a higher overpromptness” (Back et al, 2006). While conscientiousness and agreeableness may be desirable in the workplace, those with high degrees of neuroticism may experience difficulties.
Similarly, time management has been identified as a domain in which individuals can exhibit trait perfectionism (Stoeber & Stoeber, 2009). Perfectionism may be problematic (i.e. it may lead to burnout and strain) in the workplace when discrepancies are perceived between high standards and perceived performance (Ozbilir et al, 2014).
While valid monetary concerns over the costs of tardiness are raised frequently, what’s commonly neglected are the costs of arriving early, an occurrence that often precedes punctuality. The adage: “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable” is indicative of the common practice of not arriving punctually, but early. While arriving on time and arriving early are often conflated, the two have different implications and organizational costs.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM, 2020) highlights that “An employee who is late 10 minutes each day has, by the end of the year, taken the equivalent of a week’s paid vacation,” however, nowhere on this article, or even their entire website, does the organization express similar concerns over employee earliness. The employee who arrives 10 minutes early would similarly lose a week of their personal time. Unfortunately, their view neglects the perspective of the employee and favors business interests.
Put differently, the anticipation that employees be early may amplify their sense of “time squeeze” or “time famine” and further strain their work-life balance.
It should be noted that while I discuss the potential advantages of chronic lateness and the potential disadvantages of chronic punctuality and their relation to constructs of personality, I am not suggesting one or the other is better or more desirable in the workplace.
Rather, my goal is to add a layer of nuance to lateness and present counter-viewpoints to those who deem latecomers as bad, or other black-and-white terms, without fully understanding, and empathizing with, their individual lateness antecedents.
Lastly, the degree to which one is expected to be punctual is likely situation-dependent, and therefore, response to lateness should also be contextual.
The following situations may modulate the importance of punctuality:
- One’s leadership status (the importance to be punctual may be higher for those occupying leadership positions)
- Tardiness severity (e.g. arriving ten minutes late is less severe than thirty minutes)
- Contingency situations (e.g. if others’ functioning depends upon the punctuality of a certain individual, the individual punctuality becomes more important)
- Matters involving money (e.g. a boss should always pay employees on time, and when you have borrowed money you should always pay it back on time).
As has been previously discussed by Dishon-Berkovits & Koslowsky (2002):
“…in many organizations, the whole concept of lateness may not be particularly relevant. For example, high-technology firms all around the world appear to have a similar, informal, hard-working, and independent spirit. Requiring a creative person in the computer industry to punch a clock or structure the workday so that it ‘fits’ into some set pattern may be counterproductive.”
Throughout the review of the limited literature on occupational lateness, it became clear that lateness is often punished, and seen negatively, however, these actions and assumptions may stand on shaky ground.
I close by stating further research is needed on lateness; research that challenges the dogmas imposed by societal and cultural norms. Some topics to explore further include the contexts in which lateness is important or unimportant, shifting perspectives on lateness with the advent and accessibility of modern technology, the potential negative relationships with being too punctuality-obsessed, and empirical research on the effects of criticizing or disciplining late-coming employees.
In conclusion, while it’s true there are costs to being late, there may be underexplored positive associations with those who are chronically late. In other words, not having a watch glued to one’s hand may increase concentration, elicit a flow state, and perhaps foster creativity.
Meanwhile, those who are frequently or always punctual may be better suited for positions that involve logistics, scrupulousness, and planning. It seems there are positives and negatives to most things in life, including punctuality and tardiness.
While there were no studies that support the hypothesis that criticism or punishment of late-coming employees leads to negative consequences, particularly in the long-run, future studies may confirm this, suggesting employers and supervisors should pick their battles carefully with employees. Regarding avoidance behavior and lateness, it seems there is enough evidence to support this hypothesis being viable, but additional research is needed to further operationalize this connection.
1. More research is merited to determine the negative consequences of criticizing latecomers, and more leeway may be warranted in roles where timeliness is not as crucial
2. It was a challenge to disseminate the survey since it spanned two countries, plus there were additional time constraints that made it unfeasible. Further, I was required to use academically-reliable surveys included in past research; there were few in the literature, and they didn’t capture the scope of this project
3. Overall, I would have started the project much sooner. Most students take 6 months to one year to complete their theses; I did it in only three. It did burn me out quite a bit, and it ultimately led to me choosing a “tighter” exclusion process, resulting in, perhaps, less robust results.