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The chronically late staff member

Dec. 3, 2019
How can this dentist deal with the chronically late staff member without terminating her employment?
Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, Speaker, author, and consultant

Dear Dianne,

I have been practicing dentistry for 10 years, and I have finally assembled a great staff group. Every one of them is a pleasure to work with, but there is one problem. My chairside assistant is chronically late to work. She is supposed to arrive by 7:45 a.m. to set up and participate in our morning meetings. Most days, she comes in right at 8 a.m., so we are late seating our first patient. I have spoken with her about this, and she is always apologetic, but I really hate starting late. This assistant is a single woman with no children. How can I deal with this problem without terminating her employment? She really is a great assistant.

—Dr. Mike

Dear Dr. Mike,

You mentioned you had spoken to this staff member about the problem, but nothing has changed. I’m just speculating here, but I’d bet a pizza that you are an easy-going, nonconfrontational personality type. Most doctors would rather walk across hot coals barefoot than confront negative behavior with a staff member. 

My opinion is that this staff member is taking advantage of your good nature, and she is communicating some very negative attitudes with her inability to be punctual. These statements seem to express her attitude:

1. The morning meeting is not important and I would be wasting my time attending.

2. There haven’t been any real consequences so the doctor must think I’m special.

3. Our patients’ time is not as important as my time.

4. Who cares what my coworkers think? They can pick up my slack. 

The key point that stands out to me is the fact that this employee’s tardiness causes you to seat your first patient late, thereby putting a strain on being punctual for the rest of the morning. Who needs that? Dentistry is stressful enough without having to fight the clock because of one person’s proclivity for lateness. My belief is that if a person is chronically late, that person really doesn’t want to be there. 

It probably comes down to this: how much of this employee’s rudeness and inconsiderate behavior are you willing to tolerate? In today’s business climate, many businesses try to be flexible in accommodating extenuating circumstances, such as small children and medical appointments. Neither of these apply in this situation.

Most people fall into one of three general categories when it comes to punctuality—always early, right on time, or always late. I’m in the first category. I’m a very busy person with a full schedule, and I do not like to wait. That’s why I often ask for the first appointment of the day when I make an appointment. I feel there’s less likelihood of having to wait if I’m first. If I were a patient in your practice, I would view a wait of more than five minutes as disrespectful of my time, and as laxness on your part. 

Here’s what I suggest. Arrange a conference with the assistant after the last patient of the week. Tell her how much you enjoy working with her. Then tell her that you need her to help with a problem. That problem is her chronic lateness. Tell her that she, just like everyone else, is expected to be at work no later than 7:45 a.m. to get ready for the day and seat the first patient on time. Let her know that anything after 7:45 is considered late. Her arrival time will be closely monitored for the next month. If she is late even one day, her job will be in jeopardy. With this, you are giving her fair warning. If she values her job, she will change her behavior.

Please remember that anyone can be replaced. When a staff member becomes a negative force in the office, either the behavior must change or the staff member should be terminated.  

All the best,


DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, MBA, RDH, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical analysis and teleconsulting. Visit her website at wattersonspeaks.com. For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Watterson at [email protected] or call (336) 472-3515.

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