What’s Legal? Employer’s Guide to Labor Laws on Lateness

By Katherine Muniz
January 27, 2017

We recently wrote an article detailing actionable steps to take to reform habitually late employees. In this article, we mentioned a staggering statistic — that 40 percent of employers have actually fired an employee for being late. Today, we’ll examine the legal recourse on firing employees for lateness — when it’s illegal, how the law works, and the circumstances that may or may not permit you to fire an employee for tardiness.

At-will employment

In most circumstances, employers reserve the right to dismiss employees at any time, for any reason, assuming that the reason is not discriminatory or otherwise illegal. In the U.S., employment relationships are presumed to be “at-will” with the exception of the state of Montana. The “at-will” nature of the employment relationships allows employers to change the terms of the employment relationship with no notice. Interestingly, most countries around the world allow employers to dismiss employees only for just cause.


Speaking generally, since employment relationships are classified as “at-will,”  employers can dismiss employees for lateness without fear of consequence. However, if a disgruntled worker incites legal action, the employer must be able to prove that their choice was made without prejudice or discrimination.

Make a point to document the transgressions so that you have them on-record, should you need to reference the incidents at a future date. Collective bargaining agreements or employment contracts may also affect the conditions and circumstances under which employees can be let go. It isn’t likely that such agreements would specifically touch upon tardiness, though.

How to do it right

There are cases in which disgruntled employees take legal action against employers for termination due to lateness. According to Employment Attorney J Bryan Wood, Founder of The Wood Law Office LLC, “Employers terminating employees who violate punctuality or attendance policies are typically on safe ground, provided they are enforcing those policies in an even-handed, consistent manner. That’s especially true where progressive discipline is used prior to termination; however, employees with medical issues or caregiver responsibilities may be entitled to exceptions.”

Address the issue once it’s apparent that there is a pattern, and if the frequent lateness continues, escalate the matter. “After you’ve given the employee a series of warnings followed by a final warning, and he comes late again, convene a formal disciplinary hearing which will decide if he is guilty of the most recent alleged late-coming incident, and dismissal or some other corrective measure is appropriate,” says Labor Law Expert Ivan Israelstam of Labor Law Management Consulting.

In the interest of being forthcoming and fair, it’s important to establish a firm, consistent line when your employee starts showing up late. If the situation reaches the point of no return, make sure to use the sound advice expressed in this guide.

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