Some people just appear to have the knack of doing very little or wasting time at work and getting away with it! When I was a police officer we had a sergeant who was nicknamed ‘Blister’ as he had a reliable tendency to turn up after the real work had been done. A new study looking at time wasting at work has made some useful findings for managing such people at work. (This research briefing was sent to members in December 2017 – want to be kept up to date with the latest research briefings? Apply now)
- Workers waste just over two hours a day
- Time banditry
- Positive impact of time banditry
- The management of shared meaning or impression management
- This study
- Typology of time bandits
A recent survey of 10,044 employees found that workers waste just over two hours a day in their jobs. In the United States this is estimated to amount to a loss of some $759 billion a year. It is, therefore, not surprising that many employers and managers focus on employee productivity. In the academic literature employee time wasting is referred to as time theft and, in more recent studies, as time banditry. A team of researchers from the University of Oklahoma and the University of Central Oklahoma have been conducting a series of studies looking at counter-productive work behaviours, particularly in the field time banditry.
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Time banditry was first introduced into the academic literature in 2008 and is described as “the propensity of employees to engage in unsanctioned, non-work-related activities during work time”. In effect, time banditry behaviours includes anything that results in decreased effort towards that employees tasks, for example using the Internet for personal reasons, taking or making non-urgent personal calls, extending lunch breaks and excessive socialising with co-workers in ways that are unrelated to their work.
Time banditry is a subcategory of a range of counter productive work behaviours, however, previous studies have found that, unlike many other counter-productive work behaviours, time banditry is rarely driven by a desire to inflict harm or damage to the management organisation. A study in 2008 found that time banditry usually occurs as a result of boredom, disengagement, laziness, perceptions of injustice, poorly defined jobs, bad timekeeping, poor task management and generally poor management.
A 2013 study however discovered that not all time banditry is negative. The study found that certain types of time banditry have a significantly beneficial effect, both for the employees and the organisation, particularly when the behaviour being engaged in leads to
- Better team cohesion
- Better worker networking
- Sharing of work related information
- Prosocial culture building
- Morale enhancement
- Better levels of knowledge management
- Informal problem-solving
- Worker self-management
and a range of other organisational benefits.
It is therefore important that managers and workers can genuinely identify and manage cases of beneficial and non-beneficial time banditry.
Previous research has identified that, in just about every workplace, there are skilled time bandits, who engage in expert impression management in order to cover up negative time banditry and to reframe it as pro-work behaviours, or what the researchers call the management of shared meaning.
Impression management or the management of shared meaning occurs when people provide a context or background in order to manipulate perceptions of a behaviour or act to make it appear ‘normal’. Usually this occurs when an individual manipulates shared meanings in order for their self-seeking behaviour to fit the current situation and people’s and cultural social expectations in a way that influences them to accept it.
In most organisations there is a lot of interpretive ‘white space’. This gives manipulative individuals, who are engaged in impression management (the management of shared meaning), a licence to engage in organisational politics, in order to exert their will and improve their own self standing and power, without damaging relationships or being caught. The intention behind such a manipulation is to normalise their own behaviour in the eyes of the people in the organisation, whilst maintaining the goodwill of their network and not being found to be manipulating people.
This study looked at the skills people employ in order to manage shared meaning around their own time banditry. The researchers found that habitual time bandits carefully position their time misuse behaviours in a way that intentionally manipulates others’ perceptions of their behaviour, so that it is interpreted as being productive. Further, the researchers discovered that habitual time bandits are skilled at positioning their time wasting behaviours, so that they appear to fit the situation and align with the organisation’s values, norms and beliefs.
In particular, the researchers discovered that accomplished time bandits are frequently seen as core team members or team players and are able to manage the impression that others have of them, so that they are seen as engaging in behaviours that are closer to organisational citizenship behaviours than time wasting. In effect, accomplished time bandits are also proficient manipulators of shared meaning.
The study also wanted to find out what predictors there are of both time banditry and manipulation of shared meaning.
Anecdotally and commonly, four different types of time bandit are often identified:
- Weasels – these are time bandits that are both productive and engaged, but still steal time. Weasels manipulate their environment, so that they can ‘weasel’ out of work that they are fully capable of performing, whilst still appearing to be highly productive and hard-working. The researchers found that ‘weasels’ are constantly managing the time expectations of their managers and peers. Weasels are the most productive type of time bandit in that, whilst they are stealing time, they are still reasonably engaged productive and committed to their work.
- Mercenaries – are time bandits that are productive, but not engaged in their work. These are the people who ‘go through the motions’ but really do not wish either to be doing what they are doing or to bein the organisation they are in. These people are there solely for the money and have little motivation to commit either to the work or the organisation.
- Sandbaggers – sandbaggers are individuals who are engaged but unproductive. Whilst these people are interested and stimulated by their work in reality they do little work that is job-related. Sandbaggers are most likely to engage in a series of behaviours that are aimed to create the impression that they are helping, mentoring or assisting others. Unlike mercenaries, sandbaggers are enthusiastic and engaged, however, rather than focusing on the task, they engage in displaced behaviours by focusing on other people. Arguably, sandbaggers are the easiest to identify and manage, in that their productivity is low, but their pro-social behaviour is high. All managers need to do is keep these people focused on time and on task.
- Parasites – the last form of time bandit and potentially the most harmful type. Parasites are neither productive nor engaged, however, they require the same level of organisational resources as more productive and engaged employees. Parasites typically misuse time by recourse to things like social loafing, free riding, shirking and even job neglect. Previous research has found that parasites tend not to engage in much impression management. The only reason parasites are able to maintain their behaviour is through poor management or low levels of ethical work cultures or climate, where time wasting is not seen as a negative social behaviour.
Firstly, the researchers found that 71.8% of time bandits can be identified by the following personality traits.
- Traits that predict time banditry:
- Perception of organisational unfairness
- Lack of engagement in work
- Emotional instability
- situational factors that predict time banditry:
- Task identity
- Skill variety
- Level of autonomy.
Interestingly, the researchers discovered that extroversion it is not a predictive factor for time banditry, even though many other studies found that extroversion is significantly implicated in a range of other counter productive work behaviours.
Further, the researchers found that where individuals identify with the task set them, have a wider range of skills at their disposal and a greater level of autonomy, they are significantly less likely to engage in time wasting behaviours.
The second part of the study looked at the commonly used categorisations of time bandit to see if they were valid and whether there are any predictive patterns apparent. The study found that the four typology categorisations of the time banditry account for approximately 82.4% of Time banditry behaviours.
The researchers found that:
Weasels (high engagement – high productivity) are the least likely to engage in time banditry and are the most engaged and productive of the four types oftime bandit. Managers should take care with correcting this behaviour as they are already productive and engaged and any management intervention should be aimed at ‘nudging’ small behaviour changes. The research found that providing weasels with greater levels of autonomy or variety in their tasks significantly reduces time wasting behaviours. In essence, weasels engage in time banditry largely when they are bored.
Sand baggers (high engagement – low productivity) on the other hand tend to engage in time banditry because they feel little affiliation or identification with the tasks they are doing. Usually, this is because they cannot see how their work connects with the overall aims of the organisation. The management intervention for sand baggers should be aimed at increasing task identity, by letting them see the impact their work has on other employees and parts of the system.
Mercenaries (low engagement – high productivity) tend to do only the bare minimum required of them. Mercenaries show lower levels of organisational commitment and higher levels of turnover. The management intervention for these individuals depends on whether the individual has already determined that they are going to leave or not. If the individual has determined they’re going to leave, then there appears to be very little that can be done, beyond recourse to policies, procedures and tighter management. However, it is noted this action is likely to hasten the departure. People who have not determined to leave, however, and who are mercenaries can be re-engaged and become committed by giving them responsibility, particularly in terms of management, leadership or even training responsibilities. Such empowerment tends to increase the level of importance the individual feels within the organisation, which in turn provides them with the motivation to commit to the organisation and the work at hand.
Parasites (low engagement – low productivity) have two possible trajectories; a) to terminate their employment, or b) to rehabilitate them. It could be the parasite is in a position where their skills and abilities do not match the task or job given, in which case they either need retraining or redeploying. However, some parasites are habitual and, if re-training or redeployment does not work, the best course of action is usually to terminate their employment.
This study identifies that time banditry on its own is not the main issue in the workplace. Rather, it is the subterfuge and manipulation used in order to manipulate others’ impressions of their actions that creates the biggest problem, largely because it hides and diverts attention away from their time wasting behaviours. The ability to:
- identify the types of time banditry that people engage in
- predict who is most or least likely to engage in time banditry and
- manage time banditry behaviours
are important in any workplace. In particular, these three sets of skills are important for managers and supervisors, as well as peers where there is a good work culture.
It is important to note that not all time off task is unproductive. Indeed, some behaviours that might look like time wasting may in fact be productive on a number of levels for the individuals concerned and for the organisation. It is, therefore, important that managers and people within the organisation are able to distinguish between productive and unproductive behaviours at work.
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Brock-Baskin, M. E., McKee, V., & Buckley, M. R. (2017). Time Banditry and Impression Management Behavior: Prediction and Profiling of Time Bandit Types. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 24(1), 39-54.
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