What is a Time Theft and How to Prevent It

  • Published: Apr 25, 2024
  • Last Updated: May 02, 2024

Time theft happens when employees dishonestly use their paid work hours for personal activities or tasks unrelated to work. Time fraud significantly impacts an organization’s productivity, business strategy, finances, and employee morale. To keep a high-performing work environment, companies must combat time theft.

What is Time Theft

Time theft occurs when an employee receives payment for hours not genuinely worked. Although the immediate thought of theft often involves physical items like money or products, employees can also steal from their employers through other means. Time theft, for instance, involves employees manipulating attendance or time clock tracking systems to falsely claim hours they have not worked.

This misconduct is not limited to any particular job or industry and can affect employees across various fields. By arriving a few minutes late, working slightly less, taking extended breaks, and deviating from work duties intermittently, time theft can accumulate to several weeks over a calendar year.

In today's ever-expanding mobile, employee time theft has become a significant concern for employers. Time theft often results in billions of dollars in losses and low productivity for many organizations. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, companies experience losses equivalent to about 5% of their annual revenue due to employee theft.

 Time Theft

Common Forms of Time Theft

Time theft commonly occurs in the following forms:

Buddy Punching

Buddy punching refers to the practice wherein one employee clocks in or out on behalf of another employee, thus falsifying attendance records. It is widely recognized as one of the most prevalent forms of time theft in contemporary workplaces. Buddy punching occurs when an employee is late and requests a colleague to clock in for them to avoid detection by their superiors or supervisors. For instance, an employee arrives late for their scheduled shift. They contact a trusted colleague to conceal their lateness and ask them to clock in at the designated start time. Consequently, payroll hours begin accruing despite the individual's absence from the workplace.

Similarly, another instance of buddy punching may arise towards the end of the workday. An employee may wish to leave work early without providing formal notice. They then enlist the assistance of a coworker to inaccurately record their departure time, thereby extending their apparent presence period at work.

Buddy-punched minutes round up to hundreds of hours, especially over long periods. That translates into payroll expenses the employers must cover, even though no work was performed during these hours. If ignored by employers, it can add up to the salary of multiple employees.

Extended Breaks

Extended breaks constitute a type of time theft wherein individuals exceed the permitted duration of breaks during company hours. These prolonged breaks decrease productivity and lower morale. Repeated instances of extended breaks, such as excessively lengthy smoke breaks or lunch breaks, disrupt workflow and adversely affect overall efficiency.

For instance, if an employee is entitled to a 30-minute lunch break, they may take 45 minutes or even an hour instead but still record only 30 minutes in the timekeeping system.

Extended breaks reduce working hours, decreasing productivity and operational efficiency. Instances of time theft in the form of extended breaks disrupt workflow, delay tasks and projects, and negatively affect team collaboration and project timelines. Furthermore, extended breaks create a perception of inequity among employees who adhere to the rules, potentially leading to decreased morale and diminished workplace cohesion.

Unauthorized Personal Time

Participating in personal activities during work hours represents a discrete yet consequential form of time theft by employees. Time theft in the form of unauthorized personal activities includes online shopping, personal phone calls, gaming, browsing social media, or streaming videos, diverting attention away from job duties. These distractions contribute to decreased productivity, overall quality of work, and potential misuse of company resources.

Unauthorized Personal Time

Time Rounding

Time rounding is a workplace practice where employers round employees' clock-in and clock-out times to the nearest interval, usually in five-, ten-, or fifteen-minute increments. While this practice is often implemented to simplify payroll calculations, it can lead to cases of time theft. For example, if an employee clocks in at 9:53 AM and the time is rounded to 10:00 AM, they are credited with an additional seven minutes of work they did not perform. Conversely, if an employee clocks out at 5:07 PM and the time is rounded to 5:10 PM, they are paid for an extra three minutes of work they did not complete.

If a company tracks work time using paper operations, employees can lie about how many hours they have worked. Employees may adjust their time if allowed to clock in or out using applications such as a Microsoft Excel sheet. For example, an employee who leaves the office at 4:55 may round up to 5:00. While single instances of rounding may seem insignificant, they can add up to substantial overpayment by employers over time.

Slow Working for Overpayment

Slow working, as a form of time theft, occurs when employees deliberately work at a slower pace than their capability to inflate the time spent on assigned tasks. While appearing to be engaged in work, these employees accomplish significantly less within the allotted time frame, leading to overpayment by the employer. This results in financial losses for the employer and undermines workplace productivity and efficiency.


Socializing during work hours is a subtle yet impactful form of time theft within workplace environments. While occasional social interactions can contribute to a positive work environment, excessive socializing can detract from productivity and overall work efficiency.

Frequent socializing can create a culture of inefficiency within the workplace, where the boundaries between work and socialization become blurred. From an organizational standpoint, socializing as a form of time theft can result in financial losses due to decreased output and wasted labor hours.

Preventing Time Theft

Employees may unintentionally engage in time theft without fully understanding the consequences of their actions. Managers tasked with addressing time theft face the delicate challenge of identifying these behaviors without infringing upon employee privacy ot trust.

Addressing time theft actions can pose a complex challenge for employers. However, the most effective strategy for combating time theft often lies in prevention. As with many aspects of business and life, taking proactive measures to prevent time theft before it occurs can yield the best results. You should consider the following actions when combating time fraud in your workplace:

Implementing Clear Policies and Procedures

Establishing transparent policies and fostering open communication is crucial to combating time theft in workplace settings. Therefore, the initial step in addressing time fraud involves implementing clear policies and workplace procedures. Employees need to understand what constitutes time theft and the repercussions associated with such actions.

A comprehensive time theft policy should precisely outline the definition of time theft, the protocols for reporting and investigating suspected incidents, and the potential consequences ranging from verbal warnings to more severe penalties. This policy must be effectively communicated to all employees, possibly by incorporating it into the employee handbook.

Moreover, employees should receive adequate training and resources to grasp this policy's significance. Regular policy reviews and updates are necessary to ensure its relevance and efficacy in adapting to changing workplace dynamics.

Using Time Tracking Technology

Technology plays a crucial role in preventing time theft. For instance, a timesheet calculator can help employees track their work hours accurately, reducing the chances of time fraud. However, when selecting time-tracking technology, employers should opt for tools that do not invade the privacy of their employees. Time-tracking technology may be chosen in the following forms:

Time Clock Systems: These are traditional systems where employees physically clock in and out using a time clock device. They can be either analog or digital and may include features like biometric authentication or RFID cards

Mobile Apps: Mobile apps allow employees to clock in and out using smart devices such as their smartphones or tablets. They typically include additional features such as GPS tracking, task tracking, and integration with payroll systems

Web-Based Systems: Web-based time-tracking systems are accessed through web browsers and can be used on devices with internet access. They offer flexibility and accessibility for both in-office and remote employees

Desktop Monitoring Software: Software like AnyDesk enables employers to monitor remote employees' work hours and activity levels by capturing screenshots, tracking mouse and keyboard activity, and generating activity reports

Employee Time Theft Punishment

Employees caught stealing time at work should face consequences, including disciplinary action and termination. Adhering to stipulated disciplinary procedures and actions can effectively deter time theft actions and inactions from becoming habitual.

Disciplinary measures should vary depending on the severity and frequency of the offense. Minor infractions may result in verbal warnings or written reprimands, while repeated or deliberate time theft may lead to more severe penalties, such as suspension or termination of employment.

Legal considerations are crucial when administering disciplinary measures for time theft. Employers must ensure compliance with labor regulations and laws, including fair labor standards and employment contracts. It is essential to thoroughly document instances of time theft and follow established disciplinary procedures to mitigate legal risks. Fair and consistent enforcement of consequences is paramount to maintaining employee morale and trust. Employees need to perceive disciplinary actions as fair and equitable, regardless of their position or tenure.


Time theft can result in significant financial losses and decreased productivity. Common forms of time theft include buddy punching, extended breaks, unauthorized personal activities, time rounding, slow working, and socializing during work hours.

Employers should establish clear policies and procedures to combat time theft, communicate expectations effectively, and utilize time-tracking technology. Fair and consistent enforcement of consequences for time theft is also essential to maintain employee morale and trust.

The role of leadership in fostering a culture of integrity and accountability is crucial in preventing time theft. As an employer or an individual holding a management position in a work environment, you should set a positive example by avoiding actions that may promote time theft to foster a culture of accountability and integrity.

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