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What is ‘time theft’ and why are some employers so worked up about it?

It may be a new year, but many employers are still relying on an old tool for evaluating productivity.

That would be the clock — against which so much of work is measured, despite ongoing changes in how, where and when work gets done.

Employers and employees can sometimes butt heads over what happens on company time, but in severe cases, an employee could be accused of time theft. And this issue is growing more contentious as employers monitor what remote workers are doing outside of the confines of traditional offices. 

“Time theft is arguably an even bigger issue for employers at this time than it has been before,” said Nadia Zaman, an employment lawyer with Rudner Law in Markham, Ont.

Not what you’re paid to be doing

Time theft encompasses a broad range of behaviours — anything from taking longer-than-scheduled breaks or logging off early, to using work hours to do household tasks — all of which an employer would view as being contrary to what one should be doing while getting paid to work.

“Time theft is really when the person actually should be working and they’re not,” said Janet Candido, a Toronto-based HR consultant. “They’re actively doing something else.”

A file photo, from June 2018, looking up at some office towers in Toronto's financial district.
Working life changed for millions of Canadians in 2020, when the pandemic forced organizations to send people home in a hurry.  Outside of the confines of traditional offices, employers may now find themselves tracking how employees spend their paid time. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Zaman, looking through an employment-law lens, said it’s essentially “when an employee is paid for work that they have not performed,” or for time in which they were not actually working.

Many people might find themselves occasionally guilty, especially with the distractions of remote work. But the problem — and when it really becomes time theft — is when it becomes habitual.

Nita Chhinzer, an associate professor in the University of Guelph’s department of management, said organizations go through a series of steps when cases of alleged time theft are identified. Once it’s documented, that usually leads to progressive discipline, she said.

“It leads to a verbal warning, followed by a written warning, followed by dismissal in some cases,” she said.

But Chhinzer said there are organizations that take a harder line that “theft is theft,” and act decisively.

A headline-making case in Hamilton a decade ago, for instance, saw the southwestern Ontario city investigate and then take disciplinary action against dozens of municipal road workers it suspected of infractions that included time theft.

There were reports of road workers spending as little as two hours a day on the job. Some staff were fired, but most got their jobs back after arbitration.

An ongoing tension

Working life changed for millions of Canadians in 2020, when the pandemic forced organizations to send people home in a hurry. That left workers and employers having to adjust to the new circumstances.

“It’s more of a problem with people working remotely, certainly,” said Candido.

Zaman said there’s not a lot of case law involving time theft disputes and remote work to point to yet. But the issue of time theft goes back further than that. The Canadian Legal Information Institute website (a database of legal documents) has well over 300 entries dating back to 1996 that mention the term.

what is time theft and why are some employers so worked up about it 1
Some employers are installing software to monitor the activity of employees logged in at home. (Sebastian Leck/CBC)

“It’s actually been around for a while,” said Candido, who recalls advising clients, prior to the pandemic, on addressing the issue of people watching videos on cellphones during their workday.

News stories in recent years have revealed allegations of time theft being raised by a variety of employers — including an accounting firm, restaurants and municipal planning departments, and involving allegations ranging from employees billing for time they had not worked to people using their work time to conduct personal errands. 

Zaman said time theft is a broad issue that may be raised in a variety of contexts and jobs.

“Typically we see it more in the context of hourly employees because of the nature of the work. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen for salaried employees,” she said.

Why the clock keeps ticking

For many employers, the clock has long been a mainstay of how they keep tabs on what’s getting done.

“Most employers don’t know how to measure productivity in any other way,” said Candido, the HR expert, noting that stance has spurred more of them to employ software to monitor the activity of employees who are working at home.

Organizations are using such tools to determine if the person who has logged onto their computer is actually doing work, 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 a tracking software showed she engaged in time theft while working from home.

The University of Guelph’s Chhinzer said this approach is rooted in “legacy thinking” about jobs being built around a strict schedule and a defined exchange of a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time worked.

“That’s how we have thought about jobs for so long,” said Chhinzer, who recently wrote in The Conversation Canada about the flaws of such clock-focused thinking.

It’s also not the way that a lot of knowledge workers go about their work, she said.

“If we can find ways to be more productive, then we should still be compensated and rewarded to the same level for completing the work, without being penalized for our productivity,” she said.

Eroded trust

Paul Hutton, who works out of the Greater Toronto area, is a director in a private-sector company — a job that involves managing dozens of employees.

With a background in sales, he says he’s long been used to working in an environment where people were successfully working outside an office.

WATCH | What are the perks of going back to work?

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While he says he gets that some companies may have previously had concerns about having people working from home, it’s clear to him that it can work.

“You can achieve results … you can do this remotely,” he said, noting it involves putting trust in employees.

“Trust and honesty are critical,” said Zaman, the employment lawyer, noting they may be even more so in situations where someone works outside of 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.”

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