Staffing Management

Reader Feedback: Time and Attendance and the Fear of Abuse

By Staff Report

Nov. 10, 2015

I found your article, “It’s about Time — and Attendance,” interesting and thought-provoking. It is structured, thorough, and should meet everyone’s needs, including regulatory. However, I would like to view the issue from a somewhat different angle, keying off the author’s first “Roadblock,” which alludes to an overemphasis of structure at the expense of human needs.

I certainly agree that this is an issue, possibly more fundamental in achieving corporate objectives. Rules are fine, but they are meaningless unless they are carried out to achieve the intended results. Experience shows that the human element is at the core of success of all such processes. By developing a plan-and-implementation strategy with the human element as the key driver, the rest generally falls easily into place. Let me illustrate with two examples.

The source experience is military aerospace, largely engineering research and development, and business development with periodic forays into startup manufacturing and quality assurance. In midcareer I was assigned to restructure and re-energize a problematic organization and get it back on track. Since then I have spent most of my career doing just that. All were successful, and I attribute that to a recognition that human factors would fundamentally determine outcome. And this is a source of my first example.

On my second such assignment, I was promoted to vice president of engineering. At the time we had a very creative vice president of human resources, and we worked well together. Unfortunately for me, he was equally appreciated by corporate and promoted to head up another division. I say unfortunate because his replacement was neither creative nor people-oriented.

His background was industrial, dealing with unions, and he used a confrontational approach with strict adherence to a highly structured set of rules as his objective. It worked, sort of, if one considers the primary objective adherence to rules and results secondary. This was the antithesis of my approach, which was based on as few “rules” as possible, relying on objectives and leaving considerable freedom for individual initiative. Procedures that were put in place focused on objectives and outcomes, leaving it up to the individual to figure out the best way. This approach applied to time and attendance and created some interface problems.

Time and attendance was flexible with a few hard-and-fast rules and some guidelines. These guidelines were generally communicated informally. Basically the guideline stated that normal workhours were from 8 to 5, but if a personal issue occurred that required an adjustment, that individual could do so without formal permission as long as they coordinated with anyone who might be affected and worked out an acceptable adjustment. The issue that bothered HR and finance, but for different reasons, was the opportunity for abuse.

Finance’s issue was clearly legitimate, and that was the legal requirement to track labor to contract, which was done through a timecard system. This was addressed by making it very clear that all timecards must reflect actual work. The agreement made with finance was that any shortfall of hours because of an attendance issue would be covered in the engineering overhead and would be included as such in the timecard. History indicated that this would be minor, and finance gave its blessing.

Not so with HR but we proceeded as planned over their objections. Their concerns were never realized. As for abuse, the results were quite the opposite. The motivator was trust, and that was the real motivator. It provided a far more effective incentive to meet the requirements than any detailed set of rules and our experience certainly bore this out. Meeting their work goals was taken on as a personal responsibility.

The second example concerns a recent experience with a high-tech startup manufacturing division I was hired to run. Problems in cost and deliveries have become critical. The ultimate customer’s program, a very advanced fighter, was being held up, and he was not pleased. Fabrication was based on a proprietary process applied to newly designed and complex hardware and was still floundering after five years of startup effort. In this case the facility was union, and one of my first priorities was to understand where they stood and take any necessary steps to avoid any labor-management issues that could compound the real problem.

The first issue was actually mine and not at the time on the union’s agenda, and it was that all the hourly people were on time clocks. I contacted HR at the parent company and told them I was yanking the time clock. That, as you might imagine, was not well-received. They could not allow that since the main plant was on time clocks, and, in any case, the government would not allow it because it was part of the company’s compliance procedures. I said that wasn’t a problem.

I had already coordinated with the government representatives (who were on-site as required with such military contracts). They agreed that it was legal and probably made sense. The basic issue I had with time clocks was their message: I don’t trust you.

Technically time clocks were redundant because labor required tracking on separate timecards to relate hours to specific contract effort. I found it particularly egregious that one group, the blue-collar workers, were singled out while everyone else was somehow trustworthy. I told HR that either everyone punches a time clock or no one does. They finally agreed on no one. The results were essentially as above. People were motivated by trust and time and attendance became nonissues. A couple of individuals tried to take advantage, and these issues were actually solved by peer pressure. Violation of trust reflected on the group and was unacceptable.

These are examples of a much larger and unfortunately fairly common issue, the bureaucratization of corporations as they age. This is manifest by the growth of rules, regulations and formalized procedures whose prime result is thicker operating manuals that few read or even understand. In my experience with turnarounds, bureaucratization is a core issue. In some cases I arrived after a previous attempt that substituted a new set of procedures for the old. Procedures as such were not the core problem. If they were ineffective or counterproductive it was because bureaucratic growth and that was what needed to be addressed.

What I am trying to communicate is that, while I fully agree that there is a basic structure required for a company to operate effectively and in compliance, and that this structure needs to be in place, communicated and monitored, the process of doing so and the design of the system needs to be driven by human factors. Design and implementation certainly should not be a rote exercise.

The human interface must be a driver with serious thought given to consequences and impacts on operational effectiveness, hopefully with creative approaches that can turn requirements to advantage (as they can but that is another discussion). In my experience this begins with a mindset driven by innovative processes and management that effectively address the human factors. When this happens there will be a real pay in off in the bottom line.

Dennis Barbeau
Principal and Director
InnSol Inc.
Mesa, Arizona

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