What is “time theft” and why are some employers so concerned about it?
It may be a new year, but many employers still rely on an old tool to evaluate productivity.
That would be the clock against which so much work is measured, despite constant changes in how, where and when work is done.
Employers and employees can sometimes disagree about what happens during working hours, but in serious cases, an employee can be accused of time theft. And this issue is becoming increasingly controversial as employers monitor what remote workers do beyond the confines of traditional offices.
“Time theft is probably an even bigger problem for employers right now than before,” said Nadia Zaman, an employment lawyer at Rudner Law in Markham, Ontario.
Not what you get paid for
Time theft encompasses a wide variety of behaviors – everything from taking longer-than-planned breaks or signing off early, to using work hours to do household chores – that an employer would consider inconsistent with what one should be doing while getting paid to work.
“Time theft is actually when the person should actually be working and they don’t,” says Janet Candido, a Toronto-based HR consultant. “They’re actively doing something else.”
Looking through an employment law lens, Zaman said it’s essentially “when an employee is paid for work they didn’t perform,” or for time when they weren’t actually working.
Many people can feel guilty at times, especially with the distractions of remote work. But the problem – and when it really becomes time theft – is when it becomes a habit.
Nita Chhinzer, an associate professor in the management department at the University of Guelph, said organizations go through a series of steps when cases of alleged time theft are identified. Once documented, that usually leads to progressive discipline, she said.
“It leads to a verbal warning, followed by a written warning, followed in some cases by dismissal,” she said.
But Chhinzer said there are organizations that are taking a tougher stance that “theft is theft” and are acting decisively.
A case that made headlines in Hamilton a decade ago, for instance, saw the southwestern Ontario city investigate and then take disciplinary action against dozens of municipal road workers suspected of violations, including time theft.
There were reports of road workers working for only two hours a day. Some staff were fired, but most were reinstated after arbitration.
A persistent tension
Working life changed for millions of Canadians in 2020 as the pandemic forced organizations to hastily send people home. As a result, employees and employers had to adapt to the new circumstances.
“It’s definitely more of a problem with people who work remotely,” Candido said.
Zaman said there isn’t much case law yet regarding time theft and remote work disputes. But the issue of time theft goes back further than that. The Canadian Legal Information Institute website (a database of legal documents) contains over 300 entries dating back to 1996 that mention the term.
“It’s actually been around for a while,” says Candido, who recalls advising clients prior to the pandemic about the problem of people watching videos on cell phones during their workday.
News reports in recent years have exposed allegations of time theft by several employers — including an accounting firm, restaurants and municipal planning departments. do personal shopping.
Zaman said time theft is a broad issue that can arise in different contexts and jobs.
“Usually we see it more in the context of hourly workers because of the nature of the work. But it doesn’t mean it can’t happen for salaried workers,” she said.
Why the clock keeps ticking
For many employers, the clock has long been a mainstay of how they monitor what gets done.
“Most employers don’t know how to measure productivity any other way,” says Candido, the HR expert, who notes that more of them have been pushed to use software to track the activity of employees who work from home.
Organizations use such tools to determine if the person logged into their computer is actually working, she said. Just last week, The Canadian Press reported that a tribunal ordered a British Columbia accountant to pay her former employer more than $2,600 after tracking software revealed she engaged in time theft while working from home.
Chhinzer of the University of Guelph said this approach is rooted in “legacy thinking” about jobs being built on a strict schedule and a defined exchange of a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time worked.
“That’s how we’ve been thinking about jobs for so long,” said Chhinzer, who recently wrote in The Conversation Canada about the shortcomings of such clock-oriented thinking.
It’s also not how many knowledge workers do their jobs, she said.
“If we can find ways to be more productive, we should still be compensated and rewarded on the same level for completing work, without being penalized for our productivity,” she said.
Paul Hutton, who works out of the Greater Toronto area, is a director of a private sector company – a job that involves managing dozens of employees.
With a sales background, he says he has long been accustomed to working in an environment where people successfully worked outside of an office.
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While he says he understands some companies were previously concerned about people having to work from home, it’s clear to him that it can work.
“You can get results … you can do this remotely,” he said, pointing out that it’s about trusting employees.
“Trust and honesty are crucial,” says Zaman, the employment lawyer, noting that this can be even more important in situations where someone is working outside an office.
From Candido’s perspective, the working world is seeing a broader erosion of the relationship between employers and their employees “starting with the pandemic and it’s just getting worse and worse.”