Thoughts on time theft: Relevance to Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Thoughts on time theft: Relevance to Sri Lanka

2 August, 2020

Time theft may be a relatively new management theme for Sri Lanka. Yet, we Sri Lankans might have already mastered it, especially in the corporate world. 

On the eve of the general election, we need to focus on the productivity of the nation in the private and public sectors alike. One major deterrent for it could be the way we steal our work time. Today’s column will take you through some thoughts on time theft to see its intent and impact.   


My interest on the topic of time theft was sparked when I met Prof. Michel Buckley at Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, where I used to 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 behaviour.  

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 US $ 759 billion per annum. Despite the unavailability of local figures, the amount as a percentage of gross national income must be high.  


It is interesting to see how a model on time theft can shed light on how it actually takes place in a variety of forms. The table contains the details. 

Time theft: Four scenarios 

Source: Buckley and others (2010) 

To understand the combinations, let us be very clear about two key terms, engagement and productivity. Employee engagement is key for organisational success. It refers to the physical, mental and emotional contribution of an employee towards work. In other words, engagement is a term used to label many types of behaviour, 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 table. 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 the 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 the tasks. How then can these people be considered time bandits? As Prof. Buckley said, “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 in Sri Lanka? I tried to adopt the descriptions given by the authors to suit the 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 the internet and ‘gossipnet’.    As people such as 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 on 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 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 

A sandbagger is someone who 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 meagre salary he is getting.    It is interesting to note that the employee is engaged in identifying himself with the job proudly, but not productive in producing results. This category of employees need an attitudinal change to become more productive.  

Parasites: Unengaged-Unproductive Bandits 

This is the worst lot. It is a category in fact detrimental for organisational and people development. They might be mere ‘passengers’posed to being performers. 

A Sri Lankan Parasite: Kairatika is a union leader who has close connections with powerful politicians. The organisation he works for 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 simply members of a team with minimum contribution. They want to do the least as a team member.   Free Riders: This is a type of behaviour which enables an employee to do significantly less work than his 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 will occur to them. 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 in that, whether they know or do not know the consequences of not doing a job, 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.  We say time is golden. That should not be a reason to steal it.  In fact, today we see that time theft is not so alien to Sri Lanka. We have Kadisaras, Kalabalas, Kaivarus and Kiratikas, in many of our workplaces. It will be a good start to reflect on ourselves to see whether time stealing characteristics are in us and the need for change and truly walk the talk.