Dealing with Employees Who Struggle to Manage Their Time

Time is precious. Everybody gets just 168 hours in a week. Employees almost always want more free time and more control over their own schedules. Managers typically see employees’ time as a business resource to be optimized. Thus an incessant tug-of-war over time is always being played out.

What is to be done with employees who simply cannot live by a schedule? Tardiness, leaving early, and taking too many breaks. Why do these problems nag away at managers?

In some cases, managers are right to attribute these problems to an employee’s blasé attitude or a lack of care, consideration, or diligence. When that’s the source of the problem, there is no substitute for constant reminders in your regular one-on-ones. Just by focusing on it, you are likely to make it better, at least for a little while:

Manager: You’re late.

Employee: I know. I’m sorry. I overslept.

Manager: You are supposed to be on time.

Employee: I know. I’m sorry. There was bad traffic.

Manager: You need to be on time.

Employee: Yes. I’ll try to do better.

The employee is probably going to be on time the next day. Maybe they will be on time for a while. Until the next time they’re late. Do you have the same conversation again? How many times? You have to be the judge of when too much is too much. When somebody does actually get fired for coming late (or leaving early, or taking too many breaks), everybody else usually gets the message. At least for a little while.

Believe it or not, you’ll find that some people have never really mastered the fundamentals of living by a schedule. You may be the first person to hold them accountable for being on time. In the process, you might end up doing this person a huge favor.

Sometimes managers ask me, “Is it appropriate to help an employee plan out details for their after-work schedule? Or details as personal as what time they go to sleep and what time they get out of bed?” My answer: Only if the employee can’t figure that stuff out on their own, sufficient to get to work on time and not leave early.

Are some employees insulted or annoyed by the explicit focus on the petty details of living by a schedule? Perhaps they are. But almost always they start coming on time, staying all day, and taking fewer breaks, at least for a while. Many employees will be genuinely grateful for your helping them get better at managing their time.

What About Employees Who Sneak Out Early?

Sometimes they are just helping themselves to a little free time. Others may have obligations after work that leave them pressed for time. You may have to talk them through their after-work schedule so they make sure they push back on any obligations to a time that does not require them to leave work early. Talk through what it is going to take for that person to stay all the way until the end of their scheduled work obligations. Spell it out. Break it down. Follow up. One technique I’ve seen managers use is to schedule some very concrete to-do items for the employee during the last hour of their work time in order to help them stay focused up to the last minute.

What About Those Who Take Too Many Breaks?

The answer is the same. Talk about it, in no uncertain terms. Spell out what’s required: at work you are expected to be focused on getting work done very well, very efficiently, all day long. Everyone has time wasters, but nobody can afford them. Help people identify their big time wasters and eliminate them altogether.

Most employees have more to do at work than they can fit into their schedules and more they want to do outside of work in their limited free time. Many are chronically overtired and seriously overscheduled. If they are chronically late, leave early, or take too many breaks, there is a good chance they would benefit greatly from some coaching on time management.

Setting priorities is usually step one in most time-management programs and seminars. If you have limited time and too much to do, then you need to set priorities, so that you control what gets done first, second, third, and so on. It is obvious to most professionals that setting priorities is the key to time management. The hard part is teaching employees how to set their priorities.

When it comes to the big picture, help them set clear priorities; then communicate with them relentlessly about those priorities. Make sure your direct reports are devoting the lion’s share of their time to first and second priorities at work. Teach them how to set day-to-day priorities by setting them together. Over time, you hope they learn.

With some employees, that kind of intensive, granular, step-by-step coaching can make the difference between success and failure. Plus, once you’ve drilled down to that minute level of coaching, if the employee still doesn’t succeed, at least you know you’ve done everything you possibly can to help.