Larceny in the lab: how to control time theft Essay

“There’s a thief among us.” The word spread likewildfire through the laboratory. Mary lost a wallet containing $20;Bob’s pocket calculator disappeared; others soon reported valuablesand small amounts of money missing–and a serenr organization quicklyturned into a jumpy, guarded garrison. Hospital security dusted a pursewith finger-staining powder, then left it out in the open, but the thiefdidn’t take the bait. Supervisors wanted employees to secure theirlockers and keep valuables under observation. Such episodes are jarring. So are the occasional disappearances ofmicroscopes, scales, stop-watches, and other laboratory equipment.

Eventhe tiniest theft can disturb us. Our laboratory once had a paper clipcaper: No matter how fast we kept replacing the clips, they disappearedagain. Why anyone wanted to steal them and why the urge suddenlystopped mystifies us to this day. Add it all up and sneak laboratory thieves annually spirit awayloot worth many thousands of dollars. Yet they are pikers! A morewidespread and costly form of larceny goes on largely unnoticed rightunder 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.

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employersmore than $137 billion last year. The most common kinds cited in thestudy were habitual late arrivals and early departures, constantsocializing 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 towork at 8:10 instead of 8 a.m.

, and leaves five to 10 minutes early atthe 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 a59 hourly wage rate, Mary accepts $22.50 a week in pay for which she hasprovided no service.

A thief can rip her off for $20 every week andshe’ll still come out ahead. By the same system of accounting, Bob can afford to lose ayear’s supply of pocket calculators and stopwatches. His timetheft totals $320 annually–four sick days, taken one at a time, usuallyon a Monday or a Friday. His laboratory co-workers know that he’sreally slipping out of town on prearranged long week-ends with hislatest girlfriend.

Time thefts fall into three general categories. In the first, anemployee is not at work, but should be. This category includestardiness, early depatures, abuses of sick leave, and slipping off onbrief shopping trips or other personal business. For example, Roy has gotten into the habit of oversleeping in themorning and tiptoeing in late for work. Also habitual is hiswife’s swing by the laboratory on the way home from work to pick upRoy before quitting time. Alice calls in sick every so often to see her stockbroker.

Hersecurities portfolio is paying off, but the hospital’s investmentin Alice is a losing proposition. Carl frequently works on special projects that take him out of thelaboratory. With no one checking up on his time, he feels free onoccasion to catch a sale at some store or other in town. The second category of time theft involves employees who are on thepremises, but not at their work stations. They may linger throughextended meal or coffee breaks, wander off to the hospital gift shop,visit sick friends in the wards, or socialize with cronies in otherdepartments. Janet, a phlebotomist who has a small farm, used to bring in eggsto 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 whocollect for flowers for sick employees, or sell tickets to the hospitalfair, or solicit for charity. These activities deliver social andfinancial benefits to the hospital and its employees. Nor do we need toworry about Girl Scout cookies or chances on the Junior Chamber ofCommerce turkey raffle. Such sales occur only once a year. Among other employees who stray from the bench, consider Jack, thelaboratory gossip. He volunteers for messenger duties just to collecttidbits from other departments. Ethel camps at a pay telephone on long afternoon chats with herfather (he calls her back after the dime runs out).

On an office phoneline is Barry, a divorced technician whose two sons call every day whenthey arrive home from school. Unfortunately, these latchkey childrendon’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 hehangs up, Barry reviews his family problems with whomevr will listen orsits motionless at the bench, unable to concentrate because he isworrying about his boys. The third category of time theft finds emplolyees at their workstation but not at work. They might be writting a letter, balancingtheir checkbook, reading a paperback novel, day dreaming, or mindlesslyshuffling papers. Also in this category is a more pernicious and less controllabletime-waster: continuous chatter among employees performing tasks theythink do not require their full attention. Idle conversation is thebiggest time problem in most laboratories. And it not only sapsproductivity, but also spawns errors.

A technologist transcribing datafrom a worksheet to a laboratory report may unconsciously omit figuresoe enter them incorrectly while shooting the breeze. Though widespread, talkativeness varies in degree and style fromperson to person. Some, not satisfied with small audiences, boom outtheir conservation to the far recesses of the laboratory, turning downthe volume only when the boss passes by. It is difficult to understandwhy employees who complain about the noise of centrifuges andtypewriters are so tolerant of the cacophony of personal radios, loudconversations, and raucous laughter. Visits from friends and workers in other departments erode the workday.

Hire an attractive man or woman and the laboratory may soon beholding open house for members of the opposite sex. Salesrepresentatives with time to kill also can distract technologists unlessthey’re firmly told that work is pressing. Many laboratory supervisors and managers are unwilling or unable tocontrol time theft. Some managers, in fact, are the worst offenders.There is grand larceny in high places–the tenured professor whoneglects his students in order to write a textbook and the pathologistwho spends more time talking to his tax lawyer than to his supervisorsare two examples. But that’s the subject of a whole other article. Now that DRGs are with us, financial survival demands improvedproductivity.

There is a burgeoning need for organizations to get theservices they pay for. Supervisors can’t blame time theft on adecline of the work ethic or societal malaise. They ca no longer makehalf-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 andcorrected by a battery of specific remedies. Figure I lists the preventive steps.

Indoctrination and trainingshould foster proper work habits, and the supervisor can continuallyunderscore the desired behavior by setting a good example. Anotherstep, the flexible work schedule, eradicates a key reason for timetheft. It gives technologists legitimate time during the day to runimportant personal errands.

Overstaffing encourages employees to waste minutes and hours.That’s prevented by tighter staffing. Even so, there will alwaysbe a lull while employees wait for specimens to be centrifuged orincubated. Teach them how to keepo busy–straightening out drawers orwork areas, checking pipette tips, transcribing reports. Also providebackup assignments for those periods when the staff is all caught upwith 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 onthe scene at the beginning of every work day, especially Mondays, to getthings off to a good start. Phlebotomy teams bring in the specimenslater on Monday because of the heavier workload, so the morning tends todeteriorate into a talkfest about the past weekend’s activities.

Break up idle conversation as soon as it starts. Just appearing ata work station normally will do the trick. Moving closer to theoffending parties diverts their attention from each other to you. Followup by asking how the testing is going and when they will finish it, orask one of the employees to see you during the next break. Sometimesit’s possible to briefly shift one of the employees to anotherlocation 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 isa good opportunity to point out that mistakes tend to occur duringconversations. When employees learn that unproductive chatter offends you, theywill be more likely to save their conversations for breaks and meals. * Hold a group meeting.

If bad habits become widespread and youneed to clamp down on unproductive behavior, meet with the laboratorystaff. Employees need to know that you mean business. The lab directorshould preside and stress the need for improved productivity. Specifywhat behavior will no longer be tolerated and put section supervisors incharge 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. Theemployee’s first response will be to deny that there is a problem.

After you get an admission that the problem does exist, the employeewill probably try to minimize its importance or say, “Why me?Everyone does it.” You must emphasize that you are meeting to discuss only thisindividual’s behavior. The employee will then try to close themeeting quickly by promising to do better the “next time.”But before the session breaks up, spell out exactly what you expect andhow you will evaluate future performance. As in all counseling sessions, address behavior and results, nottraits and attitudes. In the role of the sympathetic mentor, pay moreattention to the employee in the future. Don’t expect 100 per centimprovement immediately. * Separate big talkers.

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

* Rely on senior employees. Capitalize on the respect that certainemployees have earned from their co-workers. Call a reliable seniortechnologist into your office and outline the problem. The technologistshould relish the opportunity to help the lab run more effectively. * Reinforce desired behavior. You can can address a group or anindividual and praise the way a heavy workload was handled, emphasizingthat the work was finished without a lot of chatter. Pat employees onthe back as soon as they start making better use of their time. Supervisors must maintain a high profile, be willing to take alonely stand, and not stop short of what is needed to curb unproductivesocial practices in the lab.

If they can improve productivity by even 5per cent through the elimination of time theft, the effort will havebeen worthwhile.


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