Stealing time at work

Since time theft can get you into trouble, maybe there are better ways to work

What is time theft? You could be doing it right now as you read this in your lab or your cubicle. And you could be getting caught.

Time theft is the misuse of the employer’s time by an employee, and encompasses coming back late on breaks, pretending to work, whiling away the clock on Facebook, or any other form of loafing around. Time theft is increasingly used as a justification for firing or disciplining employees, and the younger the worker, the higher the risk of offense.

Though time theft has occurred for as long as paid work has existed, companies didn’t realize it was a problem until social scientists started putting numbers on it in the 1980s.

One study suggested that time theft cost $15 billion in Canada in 1982, with figures escalating each subsequent year. Of all lost work, 80 per cent was found to be due to ‘presenteeism’, where people show up for their hours but aren’t productive. Businesses leaped to action, implementing forms of surveillance that make Orwell’s 1984 look unobtrusive. Monitoring of workplace behaviour has reached an all-time high, with everything from Internet use to the length of bathroom breaks being recorded.

Intensive monitoring isn’t confined to any one type of company. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), some professors have been using spyware to monitor their employees’ Internet use. A technician in UBC’s botany department was fired in 2005 for “repeated theft of time,” among other criticisms of his work performance. The employee filed a complaint, and the province’s privacy commission ruled that UBC had violated the Privacy Act by not informing the employee of the surveillance.

Companies didn’t realize time theft was a problem until social scientists started putting numbers on it in the 1980s. One study suggested that time theft cost $15 billion in Canada in 1982, with figures escalating each subsequent year.

In today’s world, how long will rulings like this stand up? UBC petitioned the ruling to B.C.’s Supreme Court in protest. Cases like this have led companies to require ‘voluntary’ consent forms for monitoring, especially of online activities. Yet, surveillance is linked to nervous breakdowns, exhaustion, depression, nausea, anxiety, apathy, and other negative effects. This comes as no surprise, since some companies even consider urinating to be time theft, as exemplified by the disciplining of a United Airlines employee whose bathroom breaks exceeded the allotted 12 minutes over a seven-and-a-half hour shift.

Canadian law isn’t limiting the invasion. Numerous court cases have upheld companies when ruling on employees fighting being fired for time theft. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms only protects government employees from search and seizure. Though Quebec has individual privacy legislation, across the rest of the country legislation is piecemeal and focused largely on the private sector. Yet, stealing goes two ways. How often has your boss asked for unpaid overtime?

Is there a way to break the time theft cycle? Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson think so. They believe that it is ludicrous to expect productivity in designated eight hour blocks a day, and instead proposed the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), which has been implemented in some outlets of The Gap and Best Buy, and even the White House.

ROWE gives employees the freedom to work when, where and how they want, as long as they are achieving results. It means that work is not about the location, but about the way the work is getting done. If they understand exactly what they’re getting paid to do, ROWE allows them the freedom do enjoy their work on their own terms, without stealing time. ROWE could make time theft not only obsolete, but also impossible.

However, it may put slackers worldwide out of a job along the way.

Alana Westwood is an evening and weekend philosopher who wrote this while at work.

Published in Volume 64, Number 26 of The Uniter (May 27, 2010)

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