Thoughts on Time Theft: Relevance to Sri Lanka

Monday, 13 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Time Theft may be new as a management concept to Sri Lanka. Yet, we Sri Lankans might have already mastered it, especially in the corporate world. Today’s column will take you through some thoughts on time theft in order to see the intent and impact of it.  

Meaning of Time Theft

My interest on the topic of time theft was sparked when I met Professor Michel Buckley at Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, where I do my annual summer teaching. He and a few of his colleagues have done research on time banditry, what they called a variant of counterproductive work behavior.

According to them, time banditry or time theft, the simpler term I prefer, is defined as the tendency of employees to engage in non-work related activities during work time. Now, I am sure, the concept is not something alien to us Sri Lankans. According to Prof. Buckley and other researchers, it is quite an issue in the USA. They say that the financial impact of the overall loss of potentially productive time is estimated to total 759 billion US dollars per annum. Despite the availability of local figures, the amount as a percentage of gross national income must be high.

A Model on Time Theft

It is interesting to see how a model on time theft can shed light on how it is actually taking place in variety of forms. Figure 1 contains the details. ( See Fig. 1)

 In order to understand the combinations, let us be very clear about two key terms, engagement and productivity. As we discussed a few months ago, employee engagement is key for organisational success. It refers to physical, mental and emotional contribution of an employee towards work. In other words, engagement is a term used to label many behaviours, which collectively describe employees who are excited and truly want to perform their job to the best of their abilities.

On the other hand, productivity is about being efficient and effective, in achieving the given targets. Now we can see the connection between the two. Engagement and productivity can be combined to form four different possibilities as shown in the figure. As the researchers have attempted, employees can be classified into four different categories: Engaged-Productive, Unengaged-Productive, Engaged-Unproductive and Unengaged-Unproductive.

Along dimensions (engagement and productivity), time bandits or time thieves can be segmented into moderate and poor groups. The resulting four employee classifications each reflect different types of time thieves.  Let’s look into their details.

Weasels: Engaged-Productive Bandits

As the researchers say, the majority of time thieves fall into this category. The Engaged-Productive employee is moderately committed to his/her job and does a minimally reasonable job of completing their tasks. How then can these people be considered time bandits? As Prof. Buckley comments, “It is our contention that this type of bandit ‘weasels’ the system by learning how to keep output expectations low.” Simply put, they could perform better if they chose to.

How about such examples from Sri Lanka? I tried to adopt the descriptions given by the authors to suit Sri Lankan reality. Common names are used, without any specific reference to anyone living or dead.

A Sri Lankan Weasel: Kadisara completes tasks in half of the allotted time and uses the remaining time to surf the internet and talk to others in the office. He uses both internet and “gossipnet”.

As people like Kadisara complete assigned tasks, they have perhaps the least negative effect on organisational productivity individually. Yet, the fact that many employees may regularly be engaging in this type of time theft can have a substantial adverse effect for the whole organisation.

A possible solution would be to assign them to projects that need extra time so that they can use their spare time more productively.

Mercenaries:  Unengaged-Productive Bandits

The mercenary has little if any commitment to his/her position, and like the weasel, could perform better. It can be a case of having a particularly un-engaging job, but still produces at a minimally acceptable rate in order to keep his/her job. In this case, the lack of engagement is due to the nature of the job, not individual characteristics. The highly structured nature of the job makes it relatively hard to engage in time theft.

A Sri Lankan Mercenary: Kalabala is an assembly line worker in a packing plant of a leading multinational. He is bored with his routine job but carries on the orders in achieving the targets.

Even though, he has to produce the required number of items, a machine breakdown is a welcome event to relax, or to joke around with other line employees.

If the job has no specific standards, there is a tendency for mercenaries to slow down, as they are not emotionally involved with the process.  

A solution to arrest such time thefts could be to ensure that they are connected to the big picture, and to convince the importance of their “boring” job to the organisation.

Sandbaggers: Engaged-Unproductive Bandits

As the researchers describe, a sandbagger is someone that appears to be involved but the involvement is largely for the sake of managing impressions. When the sandbagger is closely examined, it becomes apparent that s/he is stealing time. This type of time theft seems subtle and may occur among white-collar employees.

A Sri Lankan Sandbagger: Kaiwaru is an experienced administrator in a government office. He wants to show that he is always busy with lots of pending work. He has a side business where he has to spend a considerable time. He claims that he is doing more than enough for the meager salary he is getting.  

It is interesting to note that the employee is engaged in identifying oneself with the job proudly, but not productive in producing results. This category of employees needs an attitudinal change in order to become more productive.

Parasites: Unengaged-Unproductive Bandits

This is the worst lot. It is a category in fact detrimental for both organisational and people development. They might be just “passengers” as opposed to being performers.

A Sri Lankan Parasite: Kairatika is a union leader who has close connections with powerful politicians. The organisation he works is willing to keep him for diplomatic reasons, to show goodwill. He gives a variety of excuses to avoid no pay leave, having exhausted all the other leave.  The fellow workers are willingly carrying his burden, anticipating political favours.

Like a parasitic organism, this type of time thief simply drains resources from the organisation. As this category is so prevalent, the researchers have further divided it into four sub-categories.

Social Loafers: Those who are just members of a team with minimum contribution. They want to do the least as a team member.

Free Riders: This is a behaviour where an employee engages in that allows them to do significantly less work than their colleagues. Here, the colleagues are also to be blamed for carrying the extra burden.

Shirkers: They are the people who will stop work if no negative effect to them will occur. In other words, they work only when they really have to work.

 Job Neglectors: This involves employees who simply neglect their tasks. They differ from shirkers that, whether they know the consequences of not doing a job or not, they still continue to neglect the job.

It will be interesting to see how such parasites paralyse the progress of an organisation.  In fact, damage must have already reached an alarming level in Sri Lanka.

Concluding thoughts

We say time is golden. That should not be the reason to steel it.  In fact, now we see that time theft is not so alien to Sri Lanka. We have Kadisaras, Kalabalas, Kaivarus as well as Kiratikas, in many of our workplaces.

It will be a good start to reflect on ourselves to see whether time steeling elements of such characters are in us. Then, is the need to change, in truly walking the talk.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of human resource management and organisational behaviour. He can be reached on

Recent columns