Nov 3 • 4 min read

“Excellent time management skills” are a requisite included in almost every job posting nowadays. Many corporate firms calculate an employee’s productivity by comparing the number of hours an employee has worked to the percentage of work the employee has completed. Yet this measure doesn’t consider if an employee who was supposed to be working during this time, was actually working.

Crystal Harold, associate professor of human resource management at the Fox School, and her co-authors define what constitutes time theft and identify motives that employees use to justify time theft in their research paper, “Employee time theft: Conceptualization, measure development, and validation.” 

Harold shared that even though time theft is common and quite costly to organizations, it hasn’t received much research attention.

To understand how employees rationalize time theft, the team gathered data about 3,000 employees across nine different studies. They focused their attention primarily on hourly wage earners. “The time of salaried workers is not accounted for the same way it is accounted for hourly workers,” Harold explains. “For hourly employees, their time is accounted for in a strict monetary sense.”

Through their research, Harold and her colleagues discovered a disconnect between how researchers and the popular press talked about time theft. When researchers studied time theft, they focused on behaviors like daydreaming or socializing with one’s peers. Managers and popular press outlets, however, were most concerned with hours fraud, as in the manipulation of timesheets or time tracking systems to pad one’s hours. 

Harold explains, “I wanted academics to have a more holistic understanding as to what time theft is so that we could provide better advice to managers on how to prevent it.” 

To get a more comprehensive idea, the research team started by asking hourly employees to describe instances where they engaged in time theft. Harold and her colleagues classified their responses into five themes: falsifying work hours, taking excessive (or unsanctioned) breaks, excessive socialization, manipulating work speed and working on non-work activities. One participant, for instance, described asking their coworkers to clock them in on a day they were running late, to make it look like they arrived to work on time. Another participant described running personal errands on company time.

Harold and her coauthors used these behavioral incidences to develop and validate a measure to assess time theft. They then turned their attention to examining why employees might engage in time theft in the first place. The researchers found that time theft was most likely to occur in response to pay (dis)satisfaction, a desire to retaliate against one’s supervisor, boredom and not having enough role clarity. 

On the role of pay satisfaction, Harold elaborates, “If an employee feels he is underpaid, he rationalizes time theft by convincing himself that it’s okay because he’s actually being cheated by the organization.”

While employees are central in understanding how and why time theft takes place in workplaces, Harold and her team do not want all the onus to fall on the employees. She believes that in many instances employers overwork their employees or create environments where time theft is more likely to occur. 

To combat time theft, Harold advises that employers can take certain actions that can minimize this behavior.

“Making jobs more meaningful, helping employees identify with their work, understanding that what they’re doing is important for the organization and paying people what they should be paid are all important steps,” says Harold. “Fair treatment leads to satisfied employees, which in turn should decrease the motivation to engage in time theft.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have been using time monitoring software with increasing frequency, to monitor their employees’ time use. However, Harold offers a caution against overly monitoring employees.

“The default response when learning about time theft may be to crack down by monitoring keystrokes or tracking employees through their laptop webcams, to make sure they are staying on task. These sorts of control systems can backfire though, and lead to a less engaged workforce.” 

Harold continues, “We should take a step back from the scientific management approaches to managing employees and ask why they’re engaging in time theft in the first place. If the pay is unfair, the job isn’t meaningful and the employee is bored, addressing the root cause of time theft will do more to prevent it in the long run. Our results suggested that most companies used some form of time monitoring software, but time theft still occurred.”