Every spring one major event disrupts the workplace: March Madness. How does an annual college basketball tournament have relevance to the workplace? Well, estimates by a variety of sources indicate employees not only waste up to six hours a day, but also may resort to calling in sick throughout the NCAA Tournament. While seemingly innocuous, these estimates indicate March Madness results in up to $13.8 billion in lost revenue annually due to lower employee productivity.
The concept of employee time theft is not new—nor unique to seasonal sporting events. Time is a unique resource; unlike other resources, it is not renewable, recoverable or substitutable. However, like other resources, time can be stolen. After considering how and why, the question becomes what do we do about it, both during peak misuse such as March Madness and everyday misuse?
Time is relatively easy to steal, especially in the digital age, and that theft can take many forms. From an extreme standpoint, it could include falsifying time cards. However, the majority of time theft involves such activities as daydreaming, web and social media surfing, socializing and using work hours to do personal tasks—say, following sports events and setting up betting pools. All of this is done while seemingly completing work tasks.
The “why” of time theft is much more complicated than the “how.” The causes of time theft boil down to the person, the job and the organization. Since people who are inherently devious, counterproductive and inclined to slack off regardless of their position or task are luckily fairly rare, the nature of the job tasks and the organizational culture are much more important to understanding the “why.” Research suggests the strongest job-related predictors of employee time theft are task conflict and task ambiguity. When employees don’t know what they are doing or have conflicting tasks, it increases their stress and frustration to the point that they have to step away from the job to repair their mood.
Organizational norms and expectations around time also play a large role in time theft. In environments in which water-cooler talk, socializing and web surfing aren’t closely monitored, it will likely be seen as “less wrong” and increase such behavior.
Understanding why someone is stealing time will provide direction to employers about what, if anything, can be done to ameliorate time theft. This can be done by increasing the clarity of work tasks and decreasing conflict between the expectations of projects. Furthermore, employers should provide clear expectations of workplace time norms for employees.
During March Madness, which is an isolated event irrelevant to a particular job or organizational culture, it might be best to take control of the fact that employees will inevitably engage in off-task activities. I suggest turning it into a team-building exercise by having workplace or workgroup competitions surrounding the tournament. This could increase not only team cohesion but employee well-being and commitment to the organization. While there might be lost dollars from reduced productivity, the value added to the organization by increasing employee commitment is substantial.
It all comes down to one thing at the end of the day: What are you willing to tolerate in your organization? Behavior measured and subsequently rewarded or punished is the behavior you allow. If you are going to tolerate time theft, find ways to change the narrative, bring it to light and use it to your advantage.
Meagan E. Brock Baskin, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business. She publishes and consults in the areas of time theft, organizational culture, ethics and human resources. She is also director of the Southwest Florida Leadership Institute at FGCU, through which she designs and delivers corporate training and development programs for businesses in Southwest Florida.