Time thefts on the job may add up to $100 million a year

You can't see what they steal. Keep your eyes open and walk through any office. Notice the mail clerk with the glazed eyes, napping next to the candy machine?

He's a thief.

So's that new secretary. You know: the one always on the phone to her huband when someting needs to be typed.

It goes further. The man down the hall who runs a laundry soap business on the side is a criminal. Worst of all is Mr. Big, the vice-president who traps everyone with stories detailing the unprecedented cuteness of his three-year-old grandchild.

They're all thieves, says Robert Half. They steal time.

"Other people say they're lazy," says Mr. Half, president of the executive search firm Robert Half Inc. "Let's not dignify it. I call it theft."

Mr. Half recently published a survey that estimates deliberate waste and misuse of on-the-job time is costing American business $100 million a year. Some of the small acts of thievery listed in the report are:

* Habitually showing up at 8:15, even though everyone else arrives at 8:00.

* Making it a practice to leave half an hour early "because I have to go to the bank."

* Taking long lunch hours.

* Spending large chunks of each day socializing about golf, hairdressers, or two people in the next office.

* Organizing "slowdowns" to deliberately create overtime situations.

* Reading the paper when you should be working.

* Daydreaming and naps.

* Excessive personal phone calls to friends, relatives, spouses, prospective spouses, etc.

* Taking work time to clear up personal or family business.

The report was based on responses from 400 personnel directors. Asked to estimate how much time their employees wasted, the study yielded an average figure of 4 hours and 5 minutes per week, per employee. Multiplied by Bureau of Labor statistics for the number of nonagricultural workers and average nonsupervisory wage, the result was a $100 million hidden cost.

"Time theft breeds time theft," says Mr. Half. "Executives are often blatant time thieves. By setting a poor example, they are, in effect, giving others their tacit approval to steal time."

Mr. Half says the situation is getting worse. A similar survey he conducted in 1970 estimated employees stole, on the average, one hour pwer week less than they do now.

"You're entitled to talk to your co-worker," says Mr. Half. "But if we could only knock off an hour of wasted time per week, our industries could compete much more effectively in the world market."

Other management experts agree premeditated time theft is a quiet, real problem. They also say that unconscious time wastage can throw a handful of nails into the otherwise smooth-running machinery of any office.

"I believe the majority of wasted time comes from endless meetings, unimportant conversations, and drop-in visitors," says Neil Milligan, program director at the American Management Association. "Those are the real time wasters."

"I think it's one of our biggest problems," echoes Helen Reynolds, management consultant and author of the book "Executive Time Management."

Management consultants often recommend time logs for employees who want to wring more work out of each day. By charting their actions, workers can identify and eliminate time-wasting activities.

And the time-conscious employee must learn to stay clear of co-workers who specialize in wasting other people's work hours, such as the Flying Dutchman -- a worker who wanders in and ut of other's offices, perenially looking for someone to talk with.

"One of the main things is learning to say no," says Mr. Milligan.

Office furniture can be rearranged to discourage these wanderers. The typical executive arrangement, with a desk in the middle of the room, looks open and inviting and encourages people to drop by. Moving the desk against a wall, so the occupant has to turn around when visitors come calling, will discourage all but the most dauntless Flying Dutchmen.

"No one can use your time unless you let them," says Helen Reynolds.

In the end, though, office workers aren't machines. They can't be forced to block out all extraneous thoughts and focus only on the task at hand for every moment of every day.

"As long as humans are humans," says Mr. Milligan, "you're going to have personal phone calls."

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