My Thoughts On Zero Tolerance Tardy Policy
With very few exceptions, I am not a fan of zero-tolerance policies. They remove all discretion from those that operate under them and they do not allow for exceptions that may be required by a state or federal statute (reasonable accommodation, for instance). When you do make exceptions, it then waters down the meaning of zero-tolerance and the policy is then inconsistent – just what you are trying to avoid.
I understand the importance of firefighters being on-time. The fire service is a continuous operation and someone not being there impacts our service delivery. When someone is late, we either have to run short or pay someone overtime to stay, both of which are not ideal. That said, I think it is safe to say that employees don’t think to themselves “I’m going to purposely be late tomorrow.” Stuff happens that is out of our control – a sick kid, a traffic accident blocking the way to work, snow…you get the idea. When there is a zero-tolerance tardy policy, it makes an already stressful situation more stressful and we don’t need to add unnecessary stress to our firefighters.
There is not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to attendance and tardy policies. But there are some basics that I think are important. First, your policy should define what being tardy is and, in my opinion, that should be defined as arriving after the scheduled start time. Period. Second, an employee should be required to notify the supervisor when they will not be on-time or as soon as they realize they are tardy. Finally, most* instances of tardiness should be documented. Now, documentation does not mean discipline, but it does help to identify patterns that may lead to discipline. When documenting, the Fire Officer should meet with the employee to discuss the reason for the tardiness, discuss preventing it from becoming a regular occurrence, and make sure they know it is being documented. As I mentioned above, most employees are not intentionally or maliciously late, but there are times when Firefighter Miller has a hard time getting to bed at a reasonable hour and frequently oversleeps. In those cases, discipline is warranted to correct the behavior.
From there, how an agency handles tardiness will vary. I’ve seen some policies that will allow a certain number per year. I’ve seen some that deduct PTO for the time the person wasn’t there or others that mandate an off-going firefighter to cover every tardiness (this definitely helps with self-policing amongst the ranks but increases overtime costs). Some agencies charge the shift officer with identifying patterns and give discretion or require them to refer it to a higher level when it becomes more than one occurrence in a certain amount of time. Whichever way you go here, it is important that it is consistently applied and that the officer knows to be cognizant of situations that could require accommodation or qualify for protected leave under the FMLA. Be sure to train your officers on these topics so they know how to report it. If you have officers that are not consistently applying the policy, that should be handled through performance management and is another topic.
* I purposely did not discuss zero-notice trades because I know how controversial of a topic that is for some agencies (I just envisioned the heads of Fire Chiefs across the country spinning in circles at the mere mention of it). If your agency allows these types of trades, it does greatly reduce the involvement of the Fire Officer in the situation and is many times self-regulated by the ranks. If Firefighter Miller is calling in three times a month looking for someone to hang over for them, it’s going to get old quickly and will be addressed or elevated. I have heard of some departments that only allow zero-notice trades at shift change with the intent being to reduce the need for overtime and minimizing the need to deal with the infrequent tardiness.