Stealing Time at Work: Time Theft and How It Impacts Companies

Category: Crew | By Liz Allen | 5 minute read | Updated Jun 18, 2024
Stealing Time at Work: Time Theft and How It Impacts Companies

15 minutes here or there might not seem like much, but attitudes like that have ended up costing American businesses over $400 billion in lost productivity. Timesheets are a particular pain point for field service businesses, as crew members travel to different jobs and fill out their own timesheets. 

This has led to various forms of time fraud affecting over 75% of American businesses. But what is stealing time at work, and how does it happen?

Stealing Time at Work and Time Fraud

Stealing time at work, also known as time theft or time fraud, is what it says on the tin: an employee stealing time that they’ve been paid to work for your business. This constitutes any amount of time that they didn’t genuinely work when they were being paid to.

Time theft is an issue across all jobs and industries, but it can be a particular problem for businesses that send their workers out to various job sites. 

Common Methods for Stealing Time at Work

Stealing time at work takes different forms. Some, which employees might not even be aware of, count as time theft. Other forms are more obvious and deliberate: time fraud is a serious issue, no matter the type. 

Buddy punching

Buddy punching is a fairly common method of stealing time at work and one that seems relatively harmless on the surface. Buddy punching is in the name: when an employee gets a coworker/buddy to punch in for them before they are present at the workplace/job site. If they’re running late or not ready to punch in, it can be easy to ask a ‘buddy’ to do it.

Tracking who has clocked in or out can be difficult with physical punch cards.

Personal Tasks During Work Hours

This isn’t as overt as some of the other methods for stealing time at work, but nonetheless, it contributes to the overall cost to businesses in lost time and productivity.

Personal tasks, such as taking personal calls, making appointments or answering non-work emails, count as stealing time at work. They can seem like small interruptions, only a minute here or there, but they can represent a larger pattern of ignoring work tasks for personal time. 

An important thing to remember is that each case is different. If it’s an emergency, there’s not much a team member can do to anticipate it or prevent the event from happening. If it’s a one-off, it’s not an act of purposeful time theft but an unfortunate circumstance.

On the other hand, extenuating circumstances aren’t an excuse to start a pattern of personal tasks, and team members should be made aware that the only exception is emergencies. 

Excessive Breaks

Everyone needs a break during work. Not only is it a legal requirement, but for hardworking field service teams, it’s necessary to have a recharge. 

However, employees may take overly long breaks that cut into their jobs and delay their work. These excessive breaks can result in rushing or not performing up to standard to meet deadlines. 

Ghost Attendance in Fields service

This is a particularly nasty form of stealing time at work. You’ve scheduled a crew member for a job, and their timesheet says they went to it. However, it turns out they never attended the job! 

Ghost attendance hurts productivity, causes financial harm, and damages your business reputation and customer relations. It’s a serious and deliberate form of time theft.

Inaccurate Timesheets

It can be difficult, especially in a field service business, to keep track of exact start and end times for jobs; throw in travel time between them, and many just log the general times or fudge the numbers. Accurate timesheets can fall by the wayside if they’re working all day and getting paid the same. 

But these timesheets aren’t just for accountability; they’re sources of information for your business as a whole, including worker productivity and job timing/scheduling. It might not be actively stealing time at work, but without clarity, your business won’t know either way. 

This also comes to start/end times for the day: team members may forget and tack on extra minutes that they may have worked or may not have. That’s why even small inaccuracies and lax timesheets can add up for your business.

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What’s the impact of time theft on company resources?

As we’ve covered, stealing time at work comes in several different forms. Any one of these types of time theft can have significant  impacts on your business.

Decreased productivity

Regardless of the type of time theft a team member has committed, they are all representative of a loss of productivity. If an employee is on the clock (or pretending to be on the clock) but they aren’t doing the work they were hired for, this work simply isn’t getting done. Productivity is directly affected by stealing time at work.

And it isn’t just the individual crew member this affects: stealing time at work slows down field service jobs and can have a knock-on effect on the rest of your team. Those 15 minutes can make a difference in getting to jobs on time!

Financial losses

This is pretty straightforward! Time is money, so when employees are stealing time at work, they’re essentially taking pay that they haven’t earned. These are financial losses that add up with every pay cycle and timesheet, causing losses that may be mystifying at first. 

Field service businesses deal with plenty of risks; losses can easily add up and hurt your profitability. 

Morale and trust issues

Honesty and transparency are key in field service industries: you’re relying on your crew in the field to do quality and timely work. If there are issues, knowing and trusting your field team to report clearly and honestly is necessary. Stealing time at work might seem ‘harmless’ to your crew, but as a business owner, you know that every minute counts.

This disconnect between your field service team and you can also lead to lowered morale. If everyone is stealing, and the boss doesn’t notice, what else can the team do? 

Legal consequences for employees and employers regarding time theft

It’s vital to have what constitutes time theft and the consequences for employees outlined in an employee handbook and/or as part of the training/onboarding process. Being clear about what stealing time at work is and what workers can expect as consequences cover your business and keep everyone on the same page. 

Termination of employment

Not all time theft situations will warrant firing an employee, but stealing time at work is a serious offense, and sometimes, your business needs to take decisive action. Employees will often straighten up their act with verbal and written warnings, especially for small offenses. However, if stealing time at work becomes a pattern or the worker has committed a large amount of time theft, termination of employment might be the only option.

It’s important to utilize time-tracking tools and security measures to gain evidence of time theft so that your business is protected from retaliatory accusations from ex-employees or legal implications. 

Legal prosecution

Wage theft counts as theft by an employer that they’re required to pay, and it works the opposite way. However, it’s important to note that the legal prosecution process of an employee is challenging, and eyewitness accounts are not enough.

In order to prosecute time theft, there needs to be documented identified theft and records. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay for all hours worked, and if an employee claims to work those hours, you’ll need evidence to avoid countersuits.

Requirements to repay stolen wages

In addition to prosecution of an employee stealing time at work, making a legal case to recoup compensation for time theft is a difficult process and requires the same robust evidence, in addition to being wary of wage theft allegations. 

Broken integrity and trust 

Your crew represents you and your business, and issues such as stealing time at work can be enough to question their integrity as employees. 

People make mistakes, and many workers will think everybody does it, so it’s fine. But it’s necessary to clarify to your team that your business takes stealing time at work seriously. 

Fair Labor Standards Decrease

If your productivity doesn’t reflect budgets and pay, you may have to decrease wages or increase managerial oversight to compensate for financial losses and bring productivity back to standard.

Make it clear to your team that their standards may decrease due to these issues. Not only is trust broken, but now you’re forced to reduce every worker’s pay to adjust for the actions of a few. 

How do you detect if your employees are stealing time at work?

It might seem impossible to keep up with the different forms of time theft, but it’s very possible to mitigate, prevent and identify time theft in your field service business.

We have eight tips to help you take control of your timesheets and keep your team accountable:

1. Biometric time clocks for fingerprint or facial recognition

Are manual paper punch clocks letting you down with buddy punching? Even passwords and PIN systems have their downsides, as crew members share their credentials to circumvent this security. 

Digital software has kept up with these time theft tricks! Now, companies like ClockShark offer biometric options for time clocks to prevent buddy punching. Stealing time at work is a lot harder when the punch clock requires facial recognition or a fingerprint to clock an employee in.

2. Automated time-tracking software

Automated time-tracking software such as ClockShark enables you to track an employee’s tasks and hours throughout the day, giving your business an accurate account of their productivity. 

Time-tracking software not only makes stealing time at work more difficult (goodbye ghost attendance!) but can also be integrated with payroll and accounting services to make accurate pay a breeze. Automated time-tracking means fewer manual input mistakes and more efficient work processes.

3. Random audits on employees’ time sheets

Audits on time sheets also allow businesses to collect evidence of suspected time theft. Random audits mean you’re not targeting any employee in particular; making this a regular but random process means impartiality and an honest snapshot of timesheets. 

It’s vital to have documentation and a clear paper trail if there is evidence of workers stealing time at work, as well as to demonstrate audits are another part of normal business operations to keep everything above board. 

4. Analytical tools implemented in your project management software

Product management software doesn’t just collect information about your field service jobs; it gives you the tools and insights to analyze your team’s performance and efficiency.

These tools give your business the raw numbers and accurate data, and some software offerings include automated/daily reporting to streamline the process. 

5. Employee Self-Monitoring Tools

It might seem like self-monitoring tools aren’t going to change the issues of stealing time at work, but there are plenty of time thefts that arise from simple mistakes or crew members being unable to recall their true times at jobs. 

Self-monitoring tools allow employees to clock in and out on the go with digital software: with a time card in their pocket and notifications to check in, there’s less potential for mistakes and forgotten input. 

6. Geolocation Technology

The rise of mobile devices and GPS-enabled technology means it’s easier than ever to utilize geolocation services to keep track of your field service crew and fleet. 

Geolocation services and software allow your business to set job locations and enable team tracking so you can receive timely insights on when and where your field service team is. Geofencing allows you to set a work zone and be notified when your employees arrive and leave, providing you with insights into their productivity and real movements. 

7. Honest and Accountable Culture

If stealing time at work has become a problem for your business, or you’ve uncovered time theft, an important question to ask is why are they doing it in the first place. Some workers simply will do it because they can, but what about others? Does the crew believe they’re being underpaid or is stealing time at work a way to ‘balance’ out other issues they don’t feel are addressed?

To remedy these perceptions or address legitimate issues, it’s vital that your business has a robust accountability and honesty culture at all levels. If issues are risen, address them in a timely and effective manner. Workers who trust their employer to do the right thing will be less likely to steal time at work or cut corners where they can. And for workers that aren’t honest? Transparency will make it difficult to hide time theft!

8. Educational boundaries to set the importance of time theft

If stealing time at work has been an accepted or normal part of a crew member’s work experience until now, they might not realize how much damage it can do to your business. Some might not realize they’re stealing time at work or what counts as time theft in the first place.

It’s vital to remind your team that you’re just that: a team. It’s not just about the raw numbers; educate your employees on the different effects stealing time at work can cause and the various types of time theft. 

Remind the team that effective and productive time benefits everyone. It means another crew isn’t left hanging, it means less rush to meet deadlines, and the entire business can enjoy benefits and fair compensation. Stealing time at work might benefit one employee in the short term, but it harms everyone else. 

Start Time-Tracking and Employee Management Practices

While stealing time at work is a challenging issue for businesses nationwide, plenty of tools are available to prevent and account for possible time theft in your field service business. 

Robust time-tracking tools and job management software offered by ClockShark are a digital line of defense to protect your financial health and ensure increased productivity from your field service team. 

9,500+ companies use ClockShark to track employees and save time every month.

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