Travel disruption: how to deal with staff who are late for work

Hundreds of commuters were affected by signalling problems at London Victoria on 5 July

As emergency timetable revisions and signalling problems continue to cause chaos for rail commuters, Nicholas Le Riche and Zoe MacQueen at Bircham Dyson Bell discuss how employers can deal with issues caused by major travel disruption.

Even on a good day, few would ever describe commuting as a joy. But in the wake of recent chaos across the rail network, these problems have become increasingly acute.

Staff absences can have expensive consequences for businesses. So what steps can employers take if staff show up to work late, or even fail to turn up at all, due to travel disruption?

When managing any type of lateness or unauthorised absence, employers should have appropriate policies and procedures in place.

Under normal circumstances, persistent lateness or failure to turn up for work could warrant disciplinary action for misconduct or poor performance. But where staff work prescribed shifts, make client visits or transport goods, lateness can be extremely harmful for the business. It is likely that these types of businesses will put stricter policies in place than those who are able to support more flexible working patterns.

However, where staff are penalised for not getting to work on time due to circumstances genuinely beyond their control, taking a “no exceptions” approach is unlikely to foster loyalty and positive morale.

Employers are encouraged to set out the circumstances they would accept as beyond staff members’ control, such as scenarios where it would be impossible or dangerous for staff to travel into work. This allows them to differentiate between what they view as acceptable reasons for lateness versus what they would categorise as poor planning on the part of the staff member. It will also provide a clear reference point for line managers when determining whether circumstances warrant a particular course of action.

Events that employers may wish to include as circumstances where it is impossible or dangerous for staff to travel into work could be:

  • industrial action affecting transport networks;
  • major incidents that affect travel or public safety; or
  • extreme adverse weather, such as heavy snow.

Where these events occur, employers should set out the steps they will take to minimise disruption.
In some cases the business might require a certain number of staff to operate within appropriate health and safety parameters and will have to accept that it will be unable to open on such days.

For businesses where staff travel to clients, have production lines or make deliveries, it is advisable to consult a commercial lawyer to ensure that contracts incorporate suitable protection for the organisation where it is unable to satisfy its obligations to customers. 

Where staff are penalised for not getting to work on time due to circumstances genuinely beyond their control, taking a ‘no exceptions’ approach is unlikely to foster loyalty and positive morale.”

In more desk-based professions, employers should assess whether they are happy for those unable to travel to work remotely and, if so, they should ensure their systems are set up to support this.

Once these policies are in place, line managers should be familiar with the appropriate procedures. They should also keep note of which employees are more likely to be affected by major travel disruption and should try to provide appropriate information to their staff where they have advance notice of such events.

As with dealing with most unexpected events, ensuring that contingency measures are in place can help to dramatically reduce their impact on the business as a whole.

Recommended follow-up steps:

  • develop a strategy to improve business resilience to both minor and major disruptions;
  • review company policies and procedures on major travel disruption and consider taking preventative measures for the services which will be most acutely impacted, for example assessing whether alternative means of working could be adopted;
  • ensure that staff are familiar with the circumstances in which these policies apply; and
  • ensure that the appropriate people in the business are aware of planned disruptions and provide staff with information as early as possible.

About Nicholas Le Riche and Zoe McQueen

Nicholas Le Riche is a partner and Zoe MacQueen is a trainee solicitor at employment law firm Bircham Dyson Bell.
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