Imagine if you paid an employee $20 an hour and that person wasted 30 minutes a day. That’s $10 a day or $50 a week. Now, calculate that for an entire year. You’re up to $2,600. What if five employees did this? Now, you’re over $10,000 a year.
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“You can see how time theft can affect a practice’s bottom line and your ability to give raises or pay bonuses,” says Diane Amundson, CSP, owner of The Thriving Workplace with Diane Amundson—a firm focused on improving workplace productivity—in Winona, Minn. “You can also see that $10,000 is a significant amount of money, and if it was stolen as cash or property, it would be considered a crime.”
Employees steal time in a variety of ways: by forgetting to clock in or out; arriving late and leaving early; arriving on time, but frittering away time before getting started; taking longer than allotted breaks; excessively socializing with co-workers; tending to personal tasks on the clock; and surfing the Internet.
Staff members engage in time theft for many reasons. “Employees could be bored because they don’t have enough to do, or conversely, they could be so overloaded that they need to let off steam,” says Syed Hussain, vice president of Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a specialized financial recruitment firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. “Furthermore, job-related frustrations—from long hours to dissatisfaction with a position or the practice, to inadequate compensation—may cause some employees to not focus completely. Employees can also become disengaged when they don’t feel involved in a project or see that their work contributes toward a greater cause.”
When employees operate at suboptimal performance, it hurts the entire organization. “Each employee has key tasks to fulfill, and any delay will affect the next co-worker who receives their work and, ultimately, the patient and their family,” Ms. Amundson says.
If an employee isn’t fulfilling their job requirements, others will have to do more work or employers will have to hire more staff. “When other staff can identify one employee who is not fully contributing, this can lead to inefficiencies and bad office morale,” says Erin L. Arnold, MD, a partner at Orthopaedics and Rheumatology of the North Shore in Skokie, Ill.
Further, an employee stealing time sets a bad example for other employees—who may also start to feel justified in stealing time.
Deter Time Theft
When a rheumatologist or office manager sees time waste becoming a problem, they need to address it early, identify the cause and alleviate the problem. Ms. Amundson recommends confronting the employee in a private place.
“Let them know what you have witnessed, and ask if there is a reason for it,” she says. “The important part is to really listen. Perhaps the employee has an ill child or a health concern that is causing tardiness. If the reason is short term, perhaps you can adjust this employee’s schedule until the issue is resolved.”
Another potential solution is to have the staff member who is wasting time identify their strengths.
“After the employee identifies their strengths, try to align their work [with those strengths] as much as possible,” Mr. Amundson says. “For instance, if someone in your office has strong analysis skills and they are working primarily with patients, perhaps you could shift some of their workload toward analyzing patient data to determine trends.”
If their reason for stealing time is unsubstantiated, show them how wasting time is really stealing time by sharing the math on how even 30 minutes a day adds up detrimentally to the company’s profitability and customer service, Ms. Amundson says. Then, the employee may appreciate how their actions affect the company.
Mr. Hussain recommends examining the part you may be playing as the employer or manager. Are staff members motivated, satisfied and engaged? Do they have proper workloads? If the answer to any of these questions is no, the onus is on you to make adjustments.
If staff members are overloaded or working long hours and, consequently, are unable to attend to their obligations outside of the office, try adjusting their responsibilities or schedules. “Sometimes, a simple shift may be what’s needed to help individuals gain better balance and improve their focus at work,” Mr. Hussain says.
If someone is bored or disengaged, examine how staff members are managed. If needed, provide more praise and enhance your reward system. “When people see that their work is appreciated, they’re more motivated,” Mr. Hussain says.
If you don’t address the issue promptly, you’re potentially setting yourself up to fail elsewhere. “It’s important to enforce all policies in employee handbooks,” says Karen A. Young, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, president of HR Resolutions in Harrisburg, Pa, a full-service human resources management company, and author of Stop Knocking on My Door: Drama Free HR to Help Grow Your Business.
“Honestly communicating expectations and concerns is the basis for good internal policy, procedure and morale,” Ms. Young continues. “If you have an employee who you truly believe is taking advantage, discuss it with them. Explain your take on it; they may not even realize what they are doing is actually theft of time.”
The bottom line: Implement policies and procedures that are fair to you and the employee, consistently enforce them, follow your own policies and procedures (lead by example), and make sure employees understand your expectations.
Dr. Arnold advises running a practice very efficiently and employing only the number of staff you really need.
Occasional breaks are healthy, and you should encourage them. “Managers should keep in mind that employees need to take breaks, including a lunch break, to refresh,” Mr. Hussain says. “Nobody can go full steam ahead for hours at a time without seeing their performance suffer. Quick breaks, from going for a walk or chatting with a co-worker at the water cooler, can give people time to recharge and increase camaraderie, creativity and productivity.”
Ms. Amundson does not believe in babysitting every employee’s working minute. “I think employees are more engaged when they have control over their time,” she says.
A morning and afternoon break of 15 minutes and a 30–60 minute lunch break should be enough time to tend to personal tasks that are distracting the employee. She also supports being flexible when possible. “Allow an employee to come in early or stay late if she needs time during the day for personal activities as long as the office’s and patient’s needs are met.”
Similarly, make sure your team members are taking vacations. “People need these breaks to help them recharge,” Mr. Hussain says. “They also lead to better work-life balance and job satisfaction.”
Dr. Arnold is very clear that she wants employees to take appropriate breaks and lunch time, and encourages them to take vacations. “It’s healthy, and helps them to be fully participatory when at work,” she says.
The bottom line is that most employees want to do well and don’t willfully waste time to hurt their organization, Mr. Hussain says. Use their strengths as best you can, communicate expectations, give them enough to do (but not too much), encourage breaks and appreciate them, and there’s a good chance you can avoid going down the road of disciplinary action.
Karen Appold is a medical writer in Pennsylvania.