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Updated Jan 10, 2024

8 Ways Employees Steal Time

Learn how to avoid time theft and manage employee attendance better.

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Adam Uzialko, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Editor
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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With so much money in annual payroll losses, most employers must adjust tracked time before processing payroll. While some employees give themselves a few extra minutes occasionally, others skim over an hour a day from company time. Creating an attendance policy upfront with your employees can help avoid time theft and better manage employee attendance.  

8 ways employees steal company time

Here are eight ways employees may be stealing company time from your business – sometimes without realizing it.

1. Unauthorized clocking in and out

Employees may get a co-worker to clock in or out for them when they aren’t really in attendance. For example, a co-worker might clock an employee in if they’re running late. This practice is known as “buddy punching.”

This type of time theft costs companies in the United States hundreds of millions of dollars in payroll expenses each year. Since payroll budgets are typically one of a business’s highest costs, buddy punching could result in sizable expenses for many companies.

Improperly clocking a worker in or out is a deliberate offense that should result in discipline or termination after corrective measures have been taken and ignored. It’s crucial to manage employee attendance with a time clock system that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for employees to clock in or out for one another. Some employers even have card-swipe systems for clocking in or out, significantly reducing this issue.

2. Disappearing on the job

In some work environments, particularly large offices and outdoor work sites, it can be easy for an employee to stroll off unbeknownst to a busy supervisor. It could take time for anyone to even notice this theft of company time; unfortunately, it can seriously impact operational efficiency.

Companies with large offices and recreational areas for employees are more likely to encounter this issue than other workplaces. If you’re managing a remote workforce, you can be particularly vulnerable to employees who disappear on the job and never realize it’s a problem.

To identify this type of time theft, monitor productivity and note significant decreases and missed deadlines. If you suspect an employee of stealing time, keep closer tabs on that individual. 

For remote teams expected to be available during specific hours, conduct random check-ins via your video conferencing service of choice to help ensure employees are at their workstations.

3. Employees rounding time up

Various time and attendance software solutions may round time differently. Some may round up to the nearest 15 minutes (0.25 hours), while others round time in three-minute increments (0.05 hours).

Employees sometimes stall the clock before officially clocking out to round up their time, especially if they feel they may fall short of their daily hour requirements. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, you can legally make time clock rounding adjustments for your employees – within reason. For example, if you can demonstrate that an employee is intentionally stalling to round up their time, you may be able to fix the distorted time sheet. Rounding adjustments must not be biased toward the employee or yourself; it must be a neutral adjustment to the closest increment.

4. Sleeping on the job

The U.S. is arguably one of the most overworked countries in the world. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that full-time employees tend to work over 40 hours weekly, working 8.5 hours daily on average. Between work and other responsibilities, American workers can be exhausted.

However, employees should still avoid falling asleep on the job to prevent lost productivity or, worse, unsafe conditions. The employees most likely to fall asleep at work are those who:

  • Work in a more laid-back environment (e.g., at home or in a private office)
  • Work overtime or extended hours
  • Work night hours when most people are asleep

Initially, you should hold one-on-one conversations with employees who sleep on the job. However, if the behavior persists, consider disciplinary action.

Did You Know?Did you know
For some businesses and industries, sleeping at work may be something you can accommodate occasionally. Providing employees with napping pods or offering extended breaks can actually improve productivity.

5. Extended lunch breaks

Most employees get 30 minutes to an hour for lunch. However, some employees may habitually take longer breaks. While running over break time occasionally is understandable, consistently lengthy breaks can cause productivity issues. Whether an employee misses important meetings or project deadlines, the time they spend away when you expect them to work could have a domino effect.

To make matters worse, employees may ask co-workers to do some buddy punching for them to avoid disciplinary action for excessive break time. Buddy punching makes this infraction even more serious because it’s deliberate time theft.

Review employee meal and rest break laws for your area to ensure you provide adequate breaks. As long as you provide sufficient time, you should immediately address any additional time employees take.

6. Distractions from work computers

Technology is a perennial distraction in the workplace. Millions of jobs require employees to work on a desktop computer or laptop, and the temptation to abuse this easy internet access can be compelling. 

Employees often go outside authorized technology usage to conduct the following activities:

  • Online shopping
  • Handling personal business (e.g., paying bills)
  • Browsing social media
  • Reading the news

The most effective way to restrict computer usage is to place a companywide block on external websites that enable computer misuse. This measure requires extra IT work that may or may not be worth it to you. Blocking time-wasting websites and platforms can help boost productivity, but many businesses allow some flexibility with online access. 

Consider choosing employee monitoring software to help you stay on top of employee activities while they're on the job.

7. Mobile phone usage

Mobile devices, particularly smartphones, are the ultimate distraction. Employees may be too preoccupied with their phones on the job, causing a decline in their work performance.

According to the Digital 2023: Global Overview Report, the average mobile phone user spends over five hours daily using their phone. Considering seven or eight hours of sleep, this means we’re spending nearly 30 percent of our waking hours on our phones. It’s no wonder employees get distracted browsing social media, making long phone calls, texting friends, playing games and shopping online.

Consider implementing a mobile phone usage policy so employees understand your expectations for phone usage. Enforce the policy with write-ups for repeated warnings and potential termination if employees don’t improve their behavior.

If you allow employees to use their personal smartphones for work, create a BYOD policy outlining usage parameters while on the job, along with device control, password protection and other security measures.

8. Excessive smoke breaks

Many employers are lenient about smoke breaks; some workplaces even have designated smoking areas. The problem occurs when employees take excessive smoke breaks throughout their shifts. Smoking on a lunch break may be fine, but the time an employee spends away from work to smoke or vape while on the clock can add up to significant time theft.

You can give some time as a reasonable accommodation for smoke breaks as long as it’s short, as the Americans with Disabilities Act states that employers should not encourage addiction. Set a policy that clarifies the allotted time for smoke breaks on and off company time. The policy should also clearly state where employees can take smoke breaks on company premises.

How to enforce policies on time theft

No matter what company policies you enact to improve employee productivity and reduce time theft, these scenarios will continue if you don’t enforce those policies. While occasional infractions may not be a big deal, you should have a system for handling repetitive occurrences.

Start by having conversations with employees. Approach them with concern and see if a personal issue is pulling them away from work responsibilities. If so, work together to find a compromise, such as time off work for them to get things in order.

If the offenses persist, refer to your disciplinary action policy. Disciplinary actions typically begin with write-ups, progress to employment probation and ultimately escalate to termination if the problem is not resolved.

The best time and attendance software for tracking time

When choosing a time and attendance system, consider features that make time theft difficult or impossible. Here are a few of our top choices for the best time and attendance software on the market.

TimeClock Plus

TimeClock Plus is a time and attendance application that provides users with multiple time clock options, from biometric time clocks to mobile clock apps. It allows organizations of all sizes to identify time theft or any concerning employee patterns. The system automates tasks like paid time off (PTO) tracking and integrates with enterprise software and apps. Read our detailed TimeClock Plus review to learn about the platform’s service plans and prices. 

When I Work

When I Work is an excellent tool for reducing time theft. The service offers a photo check-in option that prevents actions like buddy punching and provides shift confirmation tools and reminders for missed clock-ins. Check out our in-depth When I Work review to learn how the platform’s dashboard provides a view of unfilled shifts to help you identify discrepancies.

Rippling Time and Attendance

Rippling helps you create rules to customize your time tracking and help reduce time theft. By setting custom alerts, you can easily identify missed breaks or other concerning employee behavior. Our detailed Rippling Time and Attendance review details the platform’s intuitive dashboard and quick implementation process. 

Eliminating time theft in the workplace

While you don’t want to micromanage every second of your employees’ time, it’s important to look out for your business and ensure no one takes advantage of you. Some employees will (often unintentionally) steal minutes to hours of your time via mobile device distractions, consistently rounding up their time, or taking excessive breaks. Thankfully, the right time and attendance tracking system and clear behavior policies can help you prevent these costly issues.

Sammi Caramela contributed to this article.

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Adam Uzialko, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Editor
Adam Uzialko, senior editor of Business News Daily, is not just a professional writer and editor — he’s also an entrepreneur who knows firsthand what it’s like building a business from scratch. His experience as co-founder and managing editor of a digital marketing company imbues his work at Business News Daily with a perspective grounded in the realities of running a small business. Since 2015, Adam has reviewed hundreds of small business products and services, including contact center solutions, email marketing software and text message marketing software. Adam uses the products, interviews users and talks directly to the companies that make the products and services he covers. He specializes in digital marketing topics, with a focus on content marketing, editorial strategy and managing a team.
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