Thursday, December 18, 2008

Deconstructing 'Time Theft'

Are you stealing your employer's time when you take your spouse's call at your office and remain on the line longer than, oh, 30 seconds?

That seems to be the premise behind "time theft," a phrase that crops up in HR circles now and then. A recent post on george's employment blawg discusses "time theft" in the same breath as embezzlement, stealing office equipment and pilfering an employer's products. Ominously, that post also defines time theft to include "employees fearful of layoffs play(ing) it safe by looking for their next job while at their current position."

Employees who have survived layoffs and are required to work longer hours still have to take care of the personal business they used to take care of on their off time. And the more pressure people feel, the more enticing an Internet break can become,

writes the blog's author, St. Louis attorney George Lenard – indicating that many employers view such actions as forms of employee theft.

The whole concept of time theft by employees has always struck me as somewhere between insulting and deluded. Employers – pretty much all of them, from what I can tell – routinely steal such huge quantities of personal time from employees of all levels, that it's hard to imagine anyone seriously asserting that a worker commits an infraction of any sort (let alone a crime) by conducting some Christmas shopping while not on an official "lunch break." (Not that anyone working in an office gets official time off to have lunch, anyway. If you're not one of those talented producers who usually lunches with clients, you very likely eat at your desk, working all the while.) If the employee will be working until 8 or 9 in the evening, isn't it the boss who benefits if they shop at their desk rather than bolt while it's still light out to hit the stores?

I relayed these thoughts to George Lenard, and here's his response. First, he drew a vital distinction between hourly and salaried workers. With the former, "it is entirely reasonable for employers to expect full attention to job duties." Courts and contract arbitrators, he adds, are "highly likely" to uphold decisions to fire an hourly worker caught violating company policy on what's permitted during work time.

With salaried workers, Lenard says it's more a question of "whether they are properly performing their job duties to expectations." However, many salaried jobs do require personal presence and/or unbroken attention to specific work functions during set working hours. A teacher in a classroom is an obvious example.

Addressing the more typical white-collar role, in which the employee's responsibilities extend far beyond what an earlier era defined as business hours, Lenard states:

It (the potentially 24-7 nature of the work) is not a matter of employers "stealing time" from employees, unless the expectations were not made clear at the time of hiring or promotion. It is simply part of the bargain for which the employer pays the salary.

I'm not sure I buy that. "Continuous improvement" has long been the norm for most workplaces – factories and offices alike. Ideally, that means working smarter by the day, generating ever greater output thanks to continually rising productivity. In reality, though, it often translates into ever-longer workdays for increasingly stressed employees. That goes double in times like today, when mass-layoff survivors get the workloads of their ejected colleagues piled on top of their own.

However, Lenard does offer this consolation:

Managers who do not learn to give salaried employees more freedom (how to allocate their time), while also learning how to carefully monitor their performance and productivity, will have great difficulty managing younger employees who are used to multitasking and 24-7 communications that blend personal and business time….In the medium-to-long-term, companies that don't "get" this will suffer a talent loss that will substantially affect the bottom line, IMHO.

The Recession and Increasing Employee Theft: Understanding and Preventing Employee Theft [george's employment blawg]

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