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January 20, 2023 Everything You Need to Know About: Time Theft

Erin Mitchell

Time theft is trending.  


In early January, a B.C. tribunal ordered an accountant to repay her former employees for hours she didn’t actually work, according to tracking software on her computer.

It was bound to happen eventually. With the huge increase in employees working from home since the pandemic came the debate: if your employees work from home, how do you know they’re really working?  To solve this dilemma, employers turned to software solutions installed on work devices to better track productivity. 

In response to this “dystopian” side effect of “late stage capitalism”, TikTok blew up with tips to trick your computer into keeping your status active. Some were ingenious: weighing down the space bar with coins, taping a string to your mouse and tying it to a fan, or smearing peanut butter on your mouse and letting your dog have at it.  If you’re like us, and pretty sure your dog would eat anything smaller than a couch if it was smeared with peanut butter, Amazon has hundreds of listings with thousands of reviews for mouse jigglers.



Time theft at work


Time theft isn’t new; it wasn’t created by WFH culture or perfected by Gen-Zers on social media.   As far back as 1985, Robert Half International, a global HR consulting firm,  was warning employers that time theft costs them billions every year.  

The average employee steals 4.5 hours per week, and the number increases each year. 

A study by Intuit found that 49% of American and 62% of Canadian employees who track time admit to time theft, amounting to more than $11 billion a year! (Editor’s note: does this mean Canadians are more crooked than their counterparts to the south, or simply more honest about their dishonesty?)


The cost to you


Let’s be generous and use the lowest estimate of four hours lost per week. Four hours times four weeks is sixteen hours, or two days each month. Over twelve months, that brings us to 24 days, or nearly five weeks of work. Take your weekly payroll and multiply it by 5.  That’s how much you could be losing to time theft annually.

So what does time theft look like on the job site?


The five faces of time theft:


1. Rounding up or down

If you’re using paper time sheets, this one is pretty much inevitable.   

Even without the intent to steal wages, a worker who is arriving a few minutes late would prefer not to draw attention to it by recording the time accurately, and rounds down.  Or, say it’s Friday. It’s been a long week, and you’re ready for wings and a pint. Do you wait until 5, or maybe skip out for happy hour at 4:51 and just write 5 on your card so no questions get asked? 

It can also happen unintentionally, especially when time sheets are filled out on a weekly basis.  Workers are much more likely to just write in their scheduled hours rather than struggling to remember particulars. 


2. Buddy Punching

Worker 1: “Hey buddy, would you be a buddy and punch me in when you get to work? I lost track of time solving the Wordle and I’m still in my PJs.”
Worker 2: “Sure thing buddy, you did the same for me last week when I overslept.”
Worker 1: “Thanks buddy, I’ll be there by lunch time.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates buddy punching costs employers $373 million annually.


3. Straight up forgetting

Again, we don’t think (most) employees are maliciously stealing time. It’s easy to forget to punch in and out for a break, or intend to account for it at the end of the day/week but then it slips your mind. 

(“Was it Tuesday the traffic was bad?” “Did I leave early for my dental appointment this Monday or was it last week?”). 


4. Extra long breaks

When you’re not required to punch in and out around your break times, those 30-minute lunches start edging closer to 45 pretty quickly…


5. Disappearing on the job

There’s a certain amount of freedom of movement inherent in construction. An employee sent to pick up materials or tools from another location might be tempted by the Starbucks drive-through. Maybe a worker takes their phone with them to the bathroom, gets distracted scrolling through the Gram, and next thing you know their legs have fallen asleep. 


The Solution


Electronic timekeeping can help reduce or eliminate most of these contributing factors: 

  • Employees can receive reminders to punch in and punch out if they haven’t done so at their scheduled start and end times. This takes care of anyone who is simply forgetting to punch out.
  • GPS and Geofencing - Set a geographical boundary around the job site, and only allow employees to punch in and out when they’re within those boundaries. Or enable GPS tracking and you can see where they were when they punched in and out, whether that’s on the job or in the Starbucks drive through.
  • Time cards can be automatically compared to scheduled hours, and any discrepancies flagged.
  • Making punching in and out more convenient (eg. using the phone in your pocket, not a clipboard in the site office) means it can happen in real time, not estimated at the end of the week.  And you know what they say about estimates – they’re usually wrong.
  • Time trust is a two-way street. That same Intuit study (👆) found that almost 10% of US business owners admit to shaving hours off their employees' time cards after they’re submitted, at a cost to the average of worker of $1,400 to $6,000. When everyone has access to the same super clear data about hours worked and hours paid, everyone wins (except the scammers, but we know that’s not you).
  • You’re on your own with the bathroom stuff. Good luck.


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