Larceny in the lab: how to control time theft Essay

“There’s a thief among us.” The word spread like
wildfire through the laboratory. Mary lost a wallet containing $20;
Bob’s pocket calculator disappeared; others soon reported valuables
and small amounts of money missing–and a serenr organization quickly
turned into a jumpy, guarded garrison. Hospital security dusted a purse
with finger-staining powder, then left it out in the open, but the thief
didn’t take the bait. Supervisors wanted employees to secure their
lockers and keep valuables under observation.

Such episodes are jarring. So are the occasional disappearances of
microscopes, scales, stop-watches, and other laboratory equipment. Even
the tiniest theft can disturb us. Our laboratory once had a paper clip
caper: No matter how fast we kept replacing the clips, they disappeared
again. Why anyone wanted to steal them and why the urge suddenly
stopped mystifies us to this day.

Add it all up and sneak laboratory thieves annually spirit away
loot worth many thousands of dollars. Yet they are pikers! A more
widespread and costly form of larceny goes on largely unnoticed right
under our noses; time thefts by employees. There’s no hue and cry;
it’s often the perfect crime.

One nationwide study estimated that time thefts cost U.S. employers
more than $137 billion last year. The most common kinds cited in the
study were habitual late arrivals and early departures, constant
socializing with fellow employees, excessive personal telephone calls,
and feigning illness to take days off.

Thus, Mary (whose wallet was stolen in the lab) usually gets to
work at 8:10 instead of 8 a.m., and leaves five to 10 minutes early at
the end of the day. She almost always takes long lunches and breaks.
It amounts to 30 minutes wasted per day or 2-1/2 hours per week. At a
59 hourly wage rate, Mary accepts $22.50 a week in pay for which she has
provided no service. A thief can rip her off for $20 every week and
she’ll still come out ahead.

By the same system of accounting, Bob can afford to lose a
year’s supply of pocket calculators and stopwatches. His time
theft totals $320 annually–four sick days, taken one at a time, usually
on a Monday or a Friday. His laboratory co-workers know that he’s
really slipping out of town on prearranged long week-ends with his
latest girlfriend.

Time thefts fall into three general categories. In the first, an
employee is not at work, but should be. This category includes
tardiness, early depatures, abuses of sick leave, and slipping off on
brief shopping trips or other personal business.

For example, Roy has gotten into the habit of oversleeping in the
morning and tiptoeing in late for work. Also habitual is his
wife’s swing by the laboratory on the way home from work to pick up
Roy before quitting time.

Alice calls in sick every so often to see her stockbroker. Her
securities portfolio is paying off, but the hospital’s investment
in Alice is a losing proposition.

Carl frequently works on special projects that take him out of the
laboratory. With no one checking up on his time, he feels free on
occasion to catch a sale at some store or other in town.

The second category of time theft involves employees who are on the
premises, but not at their work stations. They may linger through
extended meal or coffee breaks, wander off to the hospital gift shop,
visit sick friends in the wards, or socialize with cronies in other

Janet, a phlebotomist who has a small farm, used to bring in eggs
to sell to co-workers in the lab. This wasted virtually no time at all.
But now she has branched out and is selling eggs all over the hospital,
at the expense of her work.

Let’s not confuse time thieves like Janet with those who
collect for flowers for sick employees, or sell tickets to the hospital
fair, or solicit for charity. These activities deliver social and
financial benefits to the hospital and its employees. Nor do we need to
worry about Girl Scout cookies or chances on the Junior Chamber of
Commerce turkey raffle. Such sales occur only once a year.

Among other employees who stray from the bench, consider Jack, the
laboratory gossip. He volunteers for messenger duties just to collect
tidbits from other departments.

Ethel camps at a pay telephone on long afternoon chats with her
father (he calls her back after the dime runs out). On an office phone
line is Barry, a divorced technician whose two sons call every day when
they arrive home from school. Unfortunately, these latchkey children
don’t get along, and Barry spends 15 to 20 minutes talking to one,
then the other, trying to iron out the dispute of the day. After he
hangs up, Barry reviews his family problems with whomevr will listen or
sits motionless at the bench, unable to concentrate because he is
worrying about his boys.

The third category of time theft finds emplolyees at their work
station but not at work. They might be writting a letter, balancing
their checkbook, reading a paperback novel, day dreaming, or mindlessly
shuffling papers.

Also in this category is a more pernicious and less controllable
time-waster: continuous chatter among employees performing tasks they
think do not require their full attention. Idle conversation is the
biggest time problem in most laboratories. And it not only saps
productivity, but also spawns errors. A technologist transcribing data
from a worksheet to a laboratory report may unconsciously omit figures
oe enter them incorrectly while shooting the breeze.

Though widespread, talkativeness varies in degree and style from
person to person. Some, not satisfied with small audiences, boom out
their conservation to the far recesses of the laboratory, turning down
the volume only when the boss passes by. It is difficult to understand
why employees who complain about the noise of centrifuges and
typewriters are so tolerant of the cacophony of personal radios, loud
conversations, and raucous laughter.

Visits from friends and workers in other departments erode the work
day. Hire an attractive man or woman and the laboratory may soon be
holding open house for members of the opposite sex. Sales
representatives with time to kill also can distract technologists unless
they’re firmly told that work is pressing.

Many laboratory supervisors and managers are unwilling or unable to
control time theft. Some managers, in fact, are the worst offenders.
There is grand larceny in high places–the tenured professor who
neglects his students in order to write a textbook and the pathologist
who spends more time talking to his tax lawyer than to his supervisors
are two examples. But that’s the subject of a whole other article.

Now that DRGs are with us, financial survival demands improved
productivity. There is a burgeoning need for organizations to get the
services they pay for. Supervisors can’t blame time theft on a
decline of the work ethic or societal malaise. They ca no longer make
half-hearted attempts to limit nonproductive behavior, such as a weak,
token pep talk at a staff meeting.

Time theft can be prevented by several general measures and
corrected by a battery of specific remedies.

Figure I lists the preventive steps. Indoctrination and training
should foster proper work habits, and the supervisor can continually
underscore the desired behavior by setting a good example. Another
step, the flexible work schedule, eradicates a key reason for time
theft. It gives technologists legitimate time during the day to run
important personal errands.

Overstaffing encourages employees to waste minutes and hours.
That’s prevented by tighter staffing. Even so, there will always
be a lull while employees wait for specimens to be centrifuged or
incubated. Teach them how to keepo busy–straightening out drawers or
work areas, checking pipette tips, transcribing reports. Also provide
backup assignments for those periods when the staff is all caught up
with the work flow.

Let’s turn to the remedies available when time theft,
particularly chatter, becomes a problem:

* Be in the right place at the right time. A supervisor must be on
the scene at the beginning of every work day, especially Mondays, to get
things off to a good start. Phlebotomy teams bring in the specimens
later on Monday because of the heavier workload, so the morning tends to
deteriorate into a talkfest about the past weekend’s activities.

Break up idle conversation as soon as it starts. Just appearing at
a work station normally will do the trick. Moving closer to the
offending parties diverts their attention from each other to you. Follow
up by asking how the testing is going and when they will finish it, or
ask one of the employees to see you during the next break. Sometimes
it’s possible to briefly shift one of the employees to another
location or assign an interruptive task, like delivering a report.

More directly, you can simply say, “Let’s get on with it,
folks!” If an employee has recently made a careless error, this is
a good opportunity to point out that mistakes tend to occur during

When employees learn that unproductive chatter offends you, they
will be more likely to save their conversations for breaks and meals.

* Hold a group meeting. If bad habits become widespread and you
need to clamp down on unproductive behavior, meet with the laboratory
staff. Employees need to know that you mean business. The lab director
should preside and stress the need for improved productivity. Specify
what behavior will no longer be tolerated and put section supervisors in
charge of enforcing these new guidelines.

* Counsel the worst offender. Once you make an example of someone,
the word gets around. Use all of your counseling skill. The
employee’s first response will be to deny that there is a problem.
After you get an admission that the problem does exist, the employee
will probably try to minimize its importance or say, “Why me?
Everyone does it.”

You must emphasize that you are meeting to discuss only this
individual’s behavior. The employee will then try to close the
meeting quickly by promising to do better the “next time.”
But before the session breaks up, spell out exactly what you expect and
how you will evaluate future performance.

As in all counseling sessions, address behavior and results, not
traits and attitudes. In the role of the sympathetic mentor, pay more
attention to the employee in the future. Don’t expect 100 per cent
improvement immediately.

* Separate big talkers. Widen the physical space between them.
When possible, alter the work bench area so that employees are farther
apart. Ideally, you would put them in different rooms, but labs are
usually laid out too openly now. You could put a quiet technologist
between two noisy ones. A more permanent but less practical solution
would be to assign the big talkers to different sections.

* Rely on senior employees. Capitalize on the respect that certain
employees have earned from their co-workers. Call a reliable senior
technologist into your office and outline the problem. The technologist
should relish the opportunity to help the lab run more effectively.

* Reinforce desired behavior. You can can address a group or an
individual and praise the way a heavy workload was handled, emphasizing
that the work was finished without a lot of chatter. Pat employees on
the back as soon as they start making better use of their time.

Supervisors must maintain a high profile, be willing to take a
lonely stand, and not stop short of what is needed to curb unproductive
social practices in the lab. If they can improve productivity by even 5
per cent through the elimination of time theft, the effort will have
been worthwhile.


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