November 5, 2007

Reliability is the Most Important Employee Habit

By Paul Bieber

I was in a conversation with a business owner the other day, and he asked me what was my biggest employee headache, and how did I turn it around.

An easy answer—employee reliability—was number one. Simply defined as “Did the employee show up, ready for work, when she/he was supposed to?”

In my thirty years of leadership responsibility this is the one thing that got under my skin the most. If an employee can’t do an assigned task, then it was my fault for not teaching well. If an employee was injured, it was my fault for not having the proper guards and protective equipment in place. If glass was delivered broken, it is my fault for not having the correct trucks or packing supplies available.

The only thing my employees ever had to do was show up on time, ready to work. Everything else can be taught.

This was my hot button. Come in late to work and you would not be on my good side. (Prejudices do come in to play here…A late night Mets game was a good excuse for being late!)

And this is definitely a case of do what I say, not what I do. I kept an abominable schedule, but we won’t go into that here.

We allowed a five minute late period for punch-in. After that, the employee was tardy. Even if they worked the extra time at the end of the day, it didn’t make up for the fact that a crew was one person short and had to scramble to get started. Three tardys earned an employee a written warning about the importance of being at work timely. Two written warnings earned a one day suspension with out pay or benefits. Three suspensions lost the person a good job.

As an employer you must set and monitor your standards. Having a mechanical or even a computerized time clock is absolutely mandatory. If you leave it to a sign in sheet, you will not get good results. A supervisor who doesn’t want to seem like a hard case will adjust the time to keep from getting into an argument. And, it is a matter of whose watch is correct.

At work on time and READY TO WORK are two separate concepts. A worker who stumbles in at 7:00, but needs five minutes to put on their hard hat, safety glasses and steel-toed shoes, and is ready to work at 7:06 is late. Make sure you use this as a standard. There have been some recent Supreme Court decisions that say if an employee has to come to work early to be ready for a shift, they have to be paid for that time. So if you have a heavy dress code, consider this. But if a man has to punch in, walk to his locker to hang up his coat, put on safety glasses and he’s ready to work, than a simple act like this does not qualify for the exclusion.

If an employee comes to work at 7:00, and needs a bathroom break at 7:15, you have a right to be upset. You should be. If an employee clocks in and then takes ten minutes to walk to their work station, be upset.

What can employers do? For a chronically late employee, buy them an alarm clock. They are three or four dollars for a little digital one. Wipe out the excuse. Explain that they are part of a team, and if the whole team is not efficient because of one member being late, it is a problem. Another tool to use is the pocketbook. Allow every employee to make up one or two lates per year, by working past the normal ending time. After that, they should be docked for a quarter hour, or whatever your timekeeping standard is.

People will react better when the penalty is real.

We had a program, that with the blessing of our union, helped us. One year we were due to give a fifty cent raise. Instead of giving the raise in the hourly rate, we created an attendance bonus system. Each employee was given a sixty cent per hour bonus, if they worked 40 hours per week. So, a man who didn’t miss any time was paid an extra $24 per week. The employee who was late once, earned their regular wages, but lost out on the $24. This really helped with the chronic come-in-lates or leaves-early crowd. If an employee had pre-scheduled a late, then we were OK with it, for we could move people around the day before and not leave a crew short one man. This seems so simple, come to work every day, on time, and earn a bonus. Come in late, and loose big time. There were a few people who didn’t earn their bonus. People realized the old excuses didn’t apply and their paycheck now ruled all.

It used to be, on a snowy day, we would hear, “you know what the roads are like, so some people would be late. Under our bonus program, even with the weather excuse, people were not paid the bonus. Amazingly, people woke up earlier, and left their homes earlier to get to work on time.

People used to make doctors appointments at any time, and would just leave work early. Now, one early leave cost $24. It worked. We didn’t do it not to pay our workers…we kept track…we paid out just as much as before, but with greater efficiency among our workers. This was a win-win for all of us.

As a follow-up, it worked for six years. There was a little bit of extra bookkeeping along with this, and some exceptions were made, but it was a great success. When our firm was purchased by Oldcastle Glass, they discontinued this policy as it didn’t fit with their corporate plans.

I don’t know if there has been any backsliding, but I doubt it.

Next week we’ll talk more about what you can do to encourage reliability of your employees, so you can be reliable to your customers.