Time Theft at Work Is Bad, Except When It’s Not

Time theft is unsanctioned use of time while on the job. More specifically, it’s time for which employees get paid that was not spent in pursuit of one’s assigned tasks. And it can take various forms: daydreaming, cyberloafing, and socializing or doing personal tasks during work hours. Moreover, it can occur while at a workplace, as well as while working from home. And while it is sometimes done intentionally, often it is not. 

According to one commonly cited study, the average employee “steals” 4.5 hours per week from their employer, cumulatively costing businesses hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Because of this, time theft is typically framed as deviant or counterproductive work behavior, and many employers approach it from the standpoint of how to reduce it via control and/or disciplinary measures such as the mandatory use of time tracking software or by docking pay.

Certainly, excessive time theft can be detrimental to companies and should be addressed. However, what is not widely discussed or understood is that time theft can actually serve productive functions that are beneficial to both workers and companies. 

It’s therefore important to account for the deeper reasons for why time theft happens and adopt a holistic approach to managing it, instead of applying quick fix measures that will only result in limited, short-term improvements. This becomes all the more pressing during the pandemic as a wide range of disruptions are creating new opportunities and risks for time theft.

What Causes Time Theft?

One common cause of time theft is job-related stress. Job stressors such as task ambiguity (a lack of clarity about expectations for tasks or roles) and task conflict (when tasks or  assignments have conflicting expectations, deadlines, and/or content) have been found to induce time theft behaviors. Both conflict and ambiguity can cause anxiety, frustration, or anger in employees because there is no clear standard with which to fairly assess their performance.      

Other factors that lead to time theft are inherent to the employee, often involving employees’ personality traits. A high level of conscientiousness, for instance, makes one less likely to engage in time theft, while a high level of neurosis makes one more likely to engage in it. Happier people are also less likely to engage in time-theft behaviors. Likewise, workers who are satisfied with their jobs tend to be happier are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs when companies can provide enough variety, autonomy, and feedback. 

Job satisfaction is also related to organizational justice, or workers’ perceptions of fairness at work. When people feel that they are being treated fairly, they are less likely to steal time. 

How Does Time Theft Serve Productive Purposes?

According to affective events theory, employees regularly face a range of possible stressors at work that cause or exacerbate negative emotions, which in turn influence their workplace behaviors, actions, and performance. What’s more, a basic assumption in mood management theory is that people dislike negative feelings and are strongly motivated to either change them into positive ones or at least alleviate them into manageable levels.

One way they do this is by shifting attention away from the source of the stressor— in this case, work — since continuing to focus on the stressor will continue to trigger stress. Since the most common forms of time theft — cyberloafing, workplace socializing, and absenteeism — are ways of shifting attention away from work-related stressors, time theft can be viewed as an emotion-focused coping mechanism that employees use to manage their emotional states in response to workday stressors. 

Furthermore, the idea that only lazy, unproductive, or unscrupulous workers engage in time theft is inaccurate. Time theft is different from other forms of counterproductive work behaviors in that it is generally not done with bad intentions. Genuinely well-intentioned, productive workers who are satisfied with their jobs (indeed, the ideal type of worker) may regularly engage in some degree of time theft as a way to recover emotional equilibrium, which consequently helps them maintain a high level of productivity. 

This makes it difficult to view time theft in black-and-white terms or as strictly good or bad behavior. Rather, it is something that both productive and unproductive employees do, is arguably unavoidable at least some of the time, and is beneficial in the emotional coping and recovery functions that it serves. 

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Moreover, it is not just employees who benefit from time theft but companies, as well, since unmanaged stress and negative emotions are widely known to reduce worker productivity and, when left unaddressed, can lead to burnout or more harmful forms of counterproductive work behavior

How Can You Address Time Theft?

Despite all this, when time theft becomes excessive, it can undoubtedly become a serious problem for employers. The best way to address this problem is by first acknowledging that time theft provides some long-term benefits in the ways just discussed — even as it may cause some short-term harm. Such a perspective encourages deeper, more holistic solutions instead of harsh disciplinary measures that may actually create even more stress for workers. 

For example, companies could consider formally allowing periods of rest and distraction (apart from legally required meal times). If possible, they could provide outlets for stress-relief, such as fitness and recreation rooms. Setting aside such times or spaces for activities that might otherwise be considered time theft can replenish people’s emotion regulation resources and, therefore, their performance and productivity.

Next, since task/role ambiguity and task/role conflict can result in the stress and negative emotions that can lead to time theft, regularly performing job and task analyses, along with reviews of work policies and rules, can reduce the ambiguity and conflict that cause that stress. Companies should prioritize ensuring organizational justice and fair treatment of workers since, as discussed, people are more likely to engage in time theft if they feel that their companies are not being fair. 

Finally, both employers and employees alike should understand that while the former should make efforts to create a positive workplace environment, it will likely never be perfect, nor can workday stressors ever be eliminated, since many of them are by nature unpredictable. Organizations could therefore provide intervention programs that teach employees how to manage and regulate their emotions. Such workplace stress management initiatives have generally been found to be helpful, particularly if they are based on evidence-based principles and techniques.

By addressing the external factors ( job characteristics, workplace climate) and providing employees with the resources to help them manage the internal factors (stress, negative emotions), companies can help reduce more gratuitous instances of time theft. Beyond that, a deeper understanding of why time theft occurs and the positive functions it serves can help organizations come to terms with modest amounts of time theft.  

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