Keeping track of the hours employees work is a major part of workforce management in most businesses -- without a record of hours worked, it is hard for the human resources and accounting departments to verify how much you should be paid. Employees sometimes make mistakes and forget to clock in when they should. This requires discipline, but employers must be careful not to violate the employee's rights during the disciplinary process.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, is a federal law that regulates compensation for employees. You must take FLSA into account when you are considering how to discipline your employees. FLSA requires that you pay your employees for all hours they worked, even if the time clock doesn't necessarily reflect those hours. This means it is your responsibility as an employer to keep close tabs on what your employees are doing; you can't assume an employee shouldn't get paid for the hours he forgot to clock.
Knowledge of Violation
Aside from FLSA, the next big concern you should have as an employer is whether the employee even knows he is supposed to clock in, or what procedures to follow. If your policy on clocking in isn't in your formal employee handbook, take the time to draft an addendum. The addendum should note that failure to comply with the clocking in procedure will be addressed under your normal disciplinary procedures, which in most companies goes up to termination.
In some instances, actions by an employee are severe enough to warrant immediate termination, such as bringing a gun into the work environment without authorization with intent to harm. In most cases, however, you can use a progressive discipline scheme, where you increase the severity of your penalties for each violation. Failure to clock in is an excellent example of when progressive discipline is appropriate.
The Discipline Procedure
Progressive disciplinary policies can vary by company. The first step in disciplining an employee who forgets to clock in is to meet with the employee and review the policies and procedures for clocking in. Have the employee sign and date a statement indicating he has read the procedures, and put a copy of the statement in his employee file. At the first infraction, the next step is usually to provide a verbal warning. At the second infraction, provide a written warning. Companies often provide up to three written warnings before moving forward. When your employee has accumulated the maximum number of written warnings for failure to clock in, initiate a consequence, such as docking pay. Suspend the employee if another violation occurs. If the employee still doesn't clock in properly after that, terminate him. Most employees who forget to clock in don't reach the point of suspension or termination, but your disciplinary policy should reflect your authority to use these actions.
When you are trying to enforce discipline, it is imperative that you do not play favorites. You must apply the policy in the same way to every employee, regardless of their job titles or history with the company. Doing this sends a clear message that you will not tolerate noncompliance, which is necessary for employees to take you seriously. Furthermore, following what you have in writing in your handbook to the letter is the only real way to prevent a lawsuit for unfair practices.