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Worried the law may not be on your side for firing late staff? This court case shows it is

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A common problem that managers often have to address is having employees come in late to work. 

“Employers know that alarms don’t always work and cars break down on occasion,” said Scott Helmes, manager director of CareerBuilder UK, in response to a 2013 report – which pointed out that 21 per cent of employers have fired an employee for being late. “As long as you’re honest and don’t make a habit of being late, your boss will most likely be understanding.”

But while once or twice can be easily explained and accepted, coming in late on a regular basis should not be tolerated in the same respect. 

This was highlighted in the employment tribunal decision in Ghartey v Royal Museums Greenwich, which concerned a long-serving employee who was dismissed for persistent lateness following an accumulation of warnings.

The claimant was warned a number of times about arriving late at work and was advised that his timekeeping would be monitored and that disciplinary proceedings could ensue if there was no improvement. And after a series of discussions and warnings, he was issued with a final written warning. 

Around the same time, the museum began a drive to improve museum workers’ attendance and timekeeping. This included disciplinary meetings and warnings for staff who had reached a certain level of absence or lateness.

As he was already in receipt of a final written warning, the claimant was dismissed. This was despite his protestations that he had a difficult bus journey to work, his previous warnings were unfair, and the timing of the attendance drive was dubious.

The tribunal claimed: “Ultimately, it is an employee’s responsibility to take whatever reasonable steps are needed to get to work on time. It is clear that it was a requirement that he attend work on time and that if he did not it could cause operational difficulties for the respondent and could lead to disciplinary action.”

Most crucial to winning such a court case, however, is documentation – it will be worth its weight in gold if you fire the employee and he or she sues for some kind of discrimination. 

Take for example, the 2009 case of Jeffrey v. Met Logistics.

Allison Jeffrey was often late for work and was repeatedly warned that it would not be tolerated if it persisted. After each warning, Jeffrey allegedly arrived on time for a while before falling back to the same old pattern.

Then Jeffrey announced she was pregnant and was soon after fired for her tardiness. Jeffrey then sued, claiming the real reason was her pregnancy. 

But the company was loaded with evidence to show that it would have fired any employee with a similar attendance record whether she was pregnant or not – and that she had been warned long before she announced her pregnancy. Of course, the court dismissed the case.

Another way to ensure that you’re ready to fight at court is to have a clear company policy statement indicating when and under what conditions an employee will be paid (or not paid) for absences.

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