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Office thief Time the biggest item stolen from workplace

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I often start a professional speaking engagement on the topic of ethics and professionalism in the workplace with this question: "How many lies does it take to make a liar?"

The responses are typical and interesting. For instance, some workshop participants will try to define the word, give it specific parameters and then try to apply their theory. Others will jump right in and say, "it depends!" Those creative thinkers in the crowd will try to rationalize telling their lie -- either they don't want to hurt someone's feelings or they state that their lie was as a result of company standards rather than their own.

Next, when I ask if they have ever told their children about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, there's surprise on their faces. Mmmmm, yes, that is indeed also a lie. But, is there a difference between the nature of our lies or are we all liars?

Yet another more serious question than lying is also arising within the realm of work. That is the issue of productivity. Frankly, I get annoyed when reports scream out that Canada is lagging in productivity and I am dismayed to learn that it is more accurate than I wish to believe.

But just what is productivity? Productivity is all about how efficiently our goods and services are produced and includes such elements as financial input, raw materials and labour. In fact, when productivity statistics are quoted, they are most often measured as an output of per unit of labour. So, if we are indeed efficient, it means that we are producing goods and services at the highest levels of output possible with the least amount of inputs.

Being efficient and producing the highest level of goods and services also means that time is also critically important. I suspect that the importance of time has led to all those time-management courses and strategies. For instance, how often have you heard employers reminding their teams to take time to analyze and plan, take time to set goals, set priorities, to schedule, delegate or to review and reflect?

However, I doubt that many employees actually pay attention to the amount of time they waste at work and how this affects productivity. I doubt even more that these employees would consider themselves as "thieves of time." But just as we are all sometimes liars, many of us are also thieves of time. But, to be truthful, we typically don't give this even the slightest of thought. In fact, I am certain that most employees consider themselves to be honest, hardworking employees who put in a hard day's work and are loyal to their employers.

I honestly don't think most employees realize what constitutes theft from the workplace and how they might be cheating their employer of productivity. I also don't think most employees realize the full impact on an organization of their behaviour and even more so, they don't think about whether all employees are engaged in the same unproductive or thieving behavior.

I am also confident no one employee is interested in being replaced by technology and/or seeing their jobs being outsourced at much lower cost to a foreign country and so, hopefully, the following scenarios will be an eye opener for you.

Stealing time is one of the biggest issues in the workplace. While time theft has long been recognized as a problem, it's not just those clockwatchers who arrive late and leave early who create problems for employers. In fact, there are multiple ways in which employees are literally stealing from their company. For instance, how many of you have stretched your 15-minute coffee break to 20 minutes? What about a 15-minute longer lunch? Take a moment and add up all of this time as it applies to your employee head count. Don't be surprised to see hundreds of hours a week of lost time productivity turn into thousands of dollars.

How many employees now have their own personal cellphone sitting on their desk? Who can deny that they accept one or two personal calls along with many silent texts a day? How many personal emails did you receive last week?

How often were you using the company computer to surf the net and check your social networking connections? According to one research study, social networking during the workday is costing employers $2.41 billion dollars a year in lost productivity. Yes, that number is really billions of dollars.

And what about all the many personal conversations you casually engaged in this week? How many times have you left your work station only to arrive back a half hour later after little stops to talk to your friends and colleagues? Calculate the time you took away from your duties and multiply that by the number of workers in your organization. Once again, you'll discover hundreds of hours of lost time and hundreds of lost dollars for your company. Just these activities alone would probably constitute the entire pay for at least one additional full-time worker.

There are many other ways that employees steal productive time away from their employers. Do you know anyone who has the habit of taking unwarranted sick days, especially Mondays or Fridays? Who hasn't run personal errands on company time?

Who hasn't used the company photocopy machine to make personal copies of documents or to send a personal fax? But have you ever stopped to think about the cost to the company? Have you stopped to ask what it costs for the ink or the paper or the professional maintenance person to come and repair those machines? Believe me; it represents hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

People also think nothing of picking up the telephone and making personal long-distance calls. While this might be a bit more innocuous on the so-called land lines, costs add up quickly when many of your staff have a BlackBerry or some other hand-held communications gadget. Believe me, it's hard to differentiate work calls from personal calls and frankly it is too time consuming for a company staff person to begin separating out personal from professional phone calls. As can be expected, most organizations will simply pay the bill.

And how many of you have entered a workplace only to encounter front-line staff sitting at their computers playing computer games or simply surfing the net, doodling or reading a book? As well, have you ever wondered why the company is always ordering new pens, paper, folders, tape or envelopes? I imagine a security camera would capture many an employee taking supplies home for personal use. Why is this happening? Frankly, I don't know -- all I know is that many people do it. They don't consider themselves to be stealing. They don't consider themselves to be thieves. They believe they are hard working, loyal employees. But are they?

Source: Twitter, Social Networks Costly, Canadian HR Reporter, Nov 30, 2009; Canadian Productivity Losing Ground - CGA-Canada Calls For Action, May, 23, 2007.

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group a leading human resource and executive search firm. She is also author of three books and host of the weekly BowesKnows radio show. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2010 I1

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