As a small business owner, you’ll know that it pays to be extra vigilant over the ins and outs of your operations. And if you were asked if you’ve had any problems with theft, what would you say? Immediately, we picture broken into premises, a forced open cash register. Or perhaps we picture some spreadsheet theft that our Accounting and Tax hasn’t uncovers yet.
But there’s a form of stealing that may have been going on in your business, right under your nose, for a long time. And it’s the hardest type of stealing to detect. Stolen time is something we don’t often quantify. But actually, it has the potential to be a bigger ongoing loss to your company than anything else. The practise is widespread, hard to detect and insidious. But what is time theft, how exactly does it occur and what can be done to stop it?
What Is Time Theft?
We all know the old truism that ‘time is money’. And never is that more true than when it comes to our business practices. From creative time that we may bill to clients to time spent creating a physical product, our time and our output represent the profitability of our businesses. The problem occurs when employees are not being productive during their time in the workplace. They may be effectively billing you for time that you haven’t received. This can work in many different ways. From rounding up hours worked or taking longer lunch breaks than contracted, falsifying time sheets to employees clocking in for each other incorrectly if one is late or absent, on to the more subtle practice of conducting personal business on company time, there are lots of ways that the time we seem to be getting isn’t all it seems.
In fact, the American Society of Employers estimate that four and a half hours is ‘stolen’ by the average American employee during the course of just one week. This means that a shocking twenty per cent of every dollar earned to a US company is lost to employee time theft. Those are some significant numbers.
However, employees can be just as guilty of time theft as those they employ. Paying less than the legal minimum wage, not delivering contracted benefits, wrongly classifying employees who should rightfully be salaried staff as independent contractors and (the one that almost every business commits, even without malicious intent) benefitting from unpaid employee overtime. Often, business owners are just as much at fault for time theft in the work place.
Why Does Time Theft Happen?
The answer is simple: like most thefts, this is pure opportunism at action. Time theft often happens because it’s perceived as harder to effectively tackle than to allow to continue. In any ambitious business, and especially a small but growing one, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to drive more growth. Tough targets to meet and less people than are typically needed due to the restricted resources that characterise an SME. That means that corners are often cut on both sides. If more and more corners are cut and more is demanded of employees without due balance, many of them will push back by taking unauthorised time as they feel it is ‘deserved’. Similarly businesses write off their time thieving from their employees with the excuse that they need to meet this or that KPI at all costs.
How Do We Stop Time Theft?
So now we know what time theft is and how it works, what can we do to prevent it happening? The first, and most important step, is to acknowledge that it’s very much a two way street. If you expect that your employees are fair and accountable to you, then you must be the same to them as well. Accepting your own part in things as a responsible employer is the first step. The culture you set from the top down and the standards that you as a business owner set will affect everything else.
A Culture of Trust
Your aim should be to create a culture of genuine trust – you’ll find that you will create much more loyal and productive employees in the process. Empowering those who work for you is crucial, as it’s only when people have a sense of agency and a stake in the company’s success that they feel obligated to perform to the best of their abilities. Begin a tone of fairness by setting very clear, measurable goals around output and standard of behaviour. These must be evaluated on a regular basis, and success appropriately rewarded. Invest in people first and foremost.
It also helps to ensure you have a very clear company structure. Everyone should understand exactly what their role is and what is required of them when, how and why. If confusion is allowed to flourish, there are cracks where opportunism and untruthfulness can flourish.
The next step is to create accountability. A culture where things matter and are monitored as a matter of course. Software solutions can help enormously with this approach, adding data-driven insights to your people management approach and lessening the margin for error. It also helps to lessen a feeling of blame culture if there are clearly demonstrable performance tracking options that remove impartiality from the equation. Find a workforce management platform, which can help make everyone involved more trackable. Then your workforce planning becomes much more efficient and the potential to be over-stretched and cut corners that leads to employees feeling demotivated is cut out. Your preparations are all about lessening the conditions that cause stress and lost productivity.
Finally, be realistic in your expectations of staff. If you are demanding the impossible and not willing to listen to feedback from the frontline, you’re asking for trouble. Stopping time theft is reciprocal and it’s also a long term strategy, although you may find a few quick wins along the way. Setting targets that are beyond the limitations of your current staffing levels are not going to help anyone feel valued.
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