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Larceny in the lab: how to control time theft.

"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 departments.

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 conversations.

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.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Sep 1, 1984
Previous Article:New era begins as HCFA implements lab fee schedule.
Next Article:A DRG survival plan for the laboratory budget.

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