Withdrawal Behavior: Lateness

In organizational research employee lateness can be considered the orphan of behavioral outcomes. Compared with absence and turnover, the two other commonly studied withdrawal behaviors in the field, investigations of lateness and its correlates are much fewer in number; and perhaps more important, they are not anywhere as rich in theoretical explanations of the underlying construct. In organizations with set time schedules, lateness has traditionally been defined as arrival after the beginning of the workday. Both the individual and the organization suffer from employee lateness. An individual coming late may be docked some pay or, if it continues at an unabated rate, may be asked to leave. Because time can be translated into money, an employee, such as a worker on an assembly line or a salesperson in a department store, who does not arrive at work at the scheduled time may have a negative impact on the firm’s performance. At the simplest level, this can be seen in the loss of work hours. A late arrival, particularly if the function performed at work is critical, may disrupt an organization’s production schedule. Even when the employee is part of a service-oriented organization, the individual’s lateness may affect the quality or quantity of service offered, especially when fellow workers or consumers depend directly or indirectly on the latecomer’s presence.

Characteristics of Lateness

In common with absenteeism and other organizational behaviors such as poor performance, employee lateness may have an element of neglect and disrespect toward work associated with it. In most cases its psychological message to others is negative. When some employees are tardy, morale and work motivation within the organization are likely to deteriorate. Thus a coworker who sees a colleague constantly arriving late, particularly if sanctions are not clearly defined or apparent, may start to think along the same lines and begin to change behavior.

Nevertheless, lateness differs from most other organizational behaviors in that it is often partially or entirely invisible from view. As compared with absence and turnover, lateness is less apparent and more readily hidden. Absences are relatively prominent as both supervisors and coworkers are aware when they have occurred. Similarly, turnover, an employee leaving one job and going to work somewhere else, is difficult to hide. Moreover, depending on the employee’s position in the organization and the relevant policy, a late arrival may or may not be noted in personnel files. Absences, however, are nearly always recorded in an individual’s file. This difference between the quality of the data collected may largely explain the fact that the literature contains many more empirical studies of absence and turnover than lateness.

Conceptualizing Employee Lateness

Although there are some suggestions in the literature that absence and tardiness are unrelated or even negatively related, the weight of the empirical evidence indicates that at least a moderate positive association should be expected. One popular notion in the field is that lateness is the first stage of a withdrawal sequence. In such a scenario, lateness is perceived as a more moderate response, which may continue until a stage of voluntary leaving, the most extreme expression of withdrawal, is attained. The assumption here is that an underlying mechanism exists, gradually leading a person to engage in more severe forms of withdrawal. Accordingly, an increase in perceived work problems will lead to more extreme behaviors. Attitudes such as dissatisfaction with the job or with the working conditions may very well serve as the underlying cause or so-called problem leading employees to arrive late.

Antecedents of Lateness

If one assumes that the outcome measure of lateness is a volitional act chosen by an employee, it is possible to posit three levels of variables that play a role here: personal, group or organizational, and extraorganizational. The first type of variable includes attitudinal measures and personality. Without a doubt, the two attitudinal indicators, job satisfaction and organizational commitment, have been the focus of a majority of the studies in the field. Findings have generally shown a moderately negative correlation between these antecedents and lateness. Recently, organizational researchers have started to consider variables other than attitudes and, in particular, personality indicators as possible predictors. The latter had been neglected or rejected for decades; but because of new instruments such as the Big Five dimensions (in particular, conscientiousness and emotional stability), moderate personality-lateness associations have been observed. Some investigators have argued that the role of personality is more likely to be seen as a moderator than as a direct predictor.

One particular personality measure, punctuality, has been found in some cases to be associated with lateness. Interestingly, this measure has wider applications than just work-related lateness. Unlike the other common withdrawal behaviors, lateness has clear counterparts in non-work-related activities. An individual chronically late for work may also be tardy when meeting friends, getting to a wedding or other celebration, or starting out on a vacation.

The group and organizational variables are said to exist within a specific work environment where common policies, norms, and work values differ significantly from those held among other groups or in other organizations. The basis for many of these antecedents is management policy, leadership style, organizational culture, organizational learning, reward, and formal or informal intraorganizational communication. Such policy may include the type of sanctions meted out for lateness or the degree of tolerance for some type of lateness behavior conveyed by management. It is very likely that within-group homogeneity will be accompanied by other shared attitudes and behaviors.

The next level of antecedents includes extraorganizational variables. The variables of interest here are those that neither the individual nor the organization can control. The most blatant examples in the literature include national culture, values, environment, and even international considerations. In the larger society, values, common beliefs, and assumptions help form certain norms that influence attitudes and behavior. The concepts of work time, leisure time, and lateness behavior vary considerably across nations. More specifically, time perceptions have been shown to be at least partially related to cultural contexts. In some societies arriving one minute after the start of a meeting would be frowned on, whereas in others, lateness of as much as one hour would not be considered inappropriate behavior.

In conclusion, a few words about a relatively new and promising variable seem in order here. By broadening the whole notion of organizational antecedents, job embeddedness provides a construct that is actually composed of personal-, organizational-, and extraorganizational-level variables. It includes three major dimensions:

  1. Perceptions of fit with job, organization, and community
  2. Links with job, organization, and community
  3. Sacrifices entailed by leaving the job

An individual who is high on this measure may very well find it difficult to manifest any type of organizational withdrawal behavior.

Lateness and the New Work Environment

At this point a word or two about recent changes in the work environment and their impact on withdrawal research, in general, and lateness, in particular, is warranted. Definitions and pertinent measures may need to be revised. For example, is lateness or absence still a legitimate concept in an organization that allows employees to work at home rather than at the office or headquarters (i.e., telecommuting)? Similarly, does flextime allow the manager to calculate lateness for each employee? Perhaps most important, an expansion and consideration of other forms of lateness or work withdrawal are needed. One broad change might include missing work any time of the day, not only at the beginning. Workers who do not put in a full day of work even though they arrived on time can be placed into this new category. This expansion of the lateness concept allows us to study many situations that occur frequently in the modern organization. Thus workers who spend an inordinate amount of time surfing the Internet for personal reasons, leave the office for long lunch breaks, or leave early would all be subsumed in the new and broader category of lateness.

Future Directions

Again, it will be important, theoretically and practically, to understand the relationship between the classical definitions of lateness, the new concept of hours missed any time during the workday, and the new work environments. At present, the various types of missed work hours are just too difficult to gage, and employers do not have any objective or systematic way of recording such behavior. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that organizations, although becoming more open to different types of working environments, must consider the various forms of lateness and develop policies for monitoring and, if need be, sanctioning such misbehaviors.


Management has a clear and present need to control all types of lateness, classical as well as the new kind. Through an understanding of the process, controlling or at least minimizing the negative effects of withdrawal may be attainable. Moreover, if there is a sequential component involved here, it may be more effective to deal with lateness at the beginning of the process rather than at a later stage when the costs become greater. Employee lateness is not unidimensional, in its antecedents or its outcome, and the awareness of this fact allows for a greater understanding of the whole phenomenon.


  1. Adler, S., and Golan, J. (1981). Lateness as a withdrawal behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 5, 544-554.
  2. Blau, G. J. (1994). Developing and testing a taxonomy of lateness behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 959-970.
  3. Furnham, A. (1992). Personality at work. London: Routledge.
  4. Koslowsky, M., Sagie, A., Krausz, M., & Dolman, A. (1997). Correlates of employee lateness: Some theoretical considerations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 79-88.
  5. Landy, F. J., Rastegary, H., Thayer, J., & Colvin, C. (1991). Time urgency: The construct and its measurement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76, 644-657.
  6. Mobley, W. H., Griffeth, R. W., Hand, H. H., & Meglino, B. M. (1979). Review and conceptual analysis of the employee turnover process. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 493-522.

See also: