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Accountant must repay employer after software shows ‘time theft’

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A Canadian tribunal has ordered a remote-working accountant to compensate her former firm for “time theft” based on evidence provided by time-tracking software.

17th Jan 2023
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Canadian accountant Karlee Besse claimed that accounting firm Reach CPA had terminated her remote employment without just cause, and took her case to a civil tribunal.

The firm countered, stating that Besse had been dismissed for reporting more than 50 hours’ work on her timesheet that could not be accounted for by the company’s time-tracking system.

After reviewing the evidence, including data from the time-tracking software and video interviews between the two parties, the tribunal ruled that the sacking was justified and Besse owed her former company $2,756 (£1,677) in returned wages and an advance she had received.

The ruling is one of the first instances in which technology has been used to order a worker to repay an employer for what the tribunal called “time theft”. It also raises issues concerning the lines drawn by accounting firms when it comes to monitoring staff output – particularly in a new era of remote and hybrid work.

The case

Besse started work for Reach CPA, an accounting firm based in British Columbia, Canada, in October 2021, with both parties agreeing that she could work remotely – in this case at home.

In February 2022, Besse began having weekly meetings with her manager as she felt “unproductive” and was “not performing as well as she should have been”, according to the tribunal notes. 

Later that month, Reach installed a time-tracking program called TimeCamp on Besse’s work laptop. Among other things, the software logs when an employee opens a document or accesses a client file, records how long the employee has the document open and captures details of employee activities that can be used to distinguish between work and non-work activities.

In March 2022 Besse and Reach met, as her manager felt that some of her client files were “over-budget and behind schedule” and they agreed on a performance improvement plan. 

After analysing Besse’s TimeCamp data between 22 February 2022 and 25 March 2022, her manager found 50.76 unaccounted hours she had reported on her timesheets but did not appear to have spent on work-related tasks (according to the time-tracking tool).

This analysis was then put to Besse by her manager on the morning of 29 March 2022 in a video call (which was recorded and later used as part of the tribunal hearing). The manager offered Besse time to consider the information and get back to him with an explanation, as she felt “backed into a corner,” but she declined.

“I don’t really think I need time to look at it,” she said on the video. “You can’t fight the time.” She went on to say that she’d “plugged time” into files when she wasn’t working on them and apologised for the error. Later the same day Reach terminated Besse’s employment. 

In a later submission to the tribunal, Besse said that during the video call, she believed it would be easier to tell her manager what she thought he wanted to hear, in the hope he would see she was struggling and needed support.

Tribunal verdict

Besse was permitted to use her work laptop for personal activities and told the tribunal that she found the time-tracking program “difficult” and believed it didn’t properly differentiate between work and personal use.

However, in summing up the court’s decision, tribunal member Megan Stewart stated that videos used as evidence by the accounting firm showed TimeCamp can tell the difference between work and personal automatically, so Besse did not have to actively use TimeCamp to differentiate between her work and personal activities once she was logged into the program.

“For example, if Miss Besse had a streaming service like Disney Plus open, TimeCamp recorded its electronic pathway and how long the service was accessed,” stated the tribunal’s verdict. “As this was not an activity associated with client work, Reach would classify it as personal. Similarly, if she accessed a client file, used software associated with client work, or printed client documents, TimeCamp recorded those electronic pathways and the time spent on each task, and Reach classified this as work activity.”

To account for the missing hours, Besse told the tribunal she had printed hard copies of documents to work on – something TimeCamp would not have picked up. She did not inform the firm of this, as she “knew they wouldn’t want to hear that” and was afraid about possible repercussions from the Xero Silver Partner firm.

TimeCamp data of Besse’s printing activity provided by Reach states that the time she spent printing shows she could not have printed the volume of documents she would have needed to work on in hard copy. Reach added that even if she had been working on files in hard copy, she would have had to enter information into the software at some point, which the TimeCamp data did not indicate occurred.

The tribunal accepted the accounting firm’s version of events, stating there was “no evidence” Besse uploaded her hard copy work onto the firm’s system or otherwise spent a significant amount of time performing work-related tasks in connection with the unaccounted hours. 

Based on the evidence provided, the court dismissed Besse’s claims and ruled she has 30 days to pay back her former employer for the unaccounted work hours she was paid for and other associated costs.

Deep-lying issues around employee monitoring

Monitoring employees is nothing new, but advances in technology mean it is easier to monitor staff, and the rise of remote and hybrid work has led to more demand for tracking services. 

A TUC survey in December 2021 found that 60% of workers believed they had been subject to some form of surveillance and monitoring at work, with the research flagging a “creeping role of AI and tech-driven workplace surveillance” that could lead to potential discrimination and unfair treatment.

The software may be available but there remains plenty of debate about the line between monitoring employees legally and breaching privacy.

Replies (15)

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By creamdelacream
18th Jan 2023 12:30

Not a great endorsement of working from home. If the firm did not have invasive software tracking her activity what hope would they have had in terminating her employment and/or recouping the time stolen.

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By Hugo Fair
18th Jan 2023 14:13

The big issue (unstated here) is not the degree to which surveillance and monitoring at work may be breaching privacy ... but the over-reliance on the underlying “creeping role of AI”.

As is now accepted by most purveyors (and all researchers in this area), it is no longer possible in most cases for a human to interrogate the basis for the software's conclusions - which leads to the Horizon-like scenario (Post Offices) where 'the computer says' trumps everything else.

“For example, if Miss Besse had a streaming service like Disney Plus open, TimeCamp recorded its electronic pathway and how long the service was accessed” ... sounds fairly damning.
But what if someone, like me, works better on complex issues when there is gentle music playing in the background (probably via YouTube) simultaneously to doing the work?

All the assumptions are flawed, being apparently based on a world of 30 years ago - where the user has only one device and it controls everything she does (from active work to research to printing to phoning colleagues to ... listening to music). Even I'm not that backward in using technology!

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Replying to Hugo Fair:
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By the_drookit_dug
19th Jan 2023 09:31

Hugo Fair wrote:

“For example, if Miss Besse had a streaming service like Disney Plus open, TimeCamp recorded its electronic pathway and how long the service was accessed” ... sounds fairly damning.
But what if someone, like me, works better on complex issues when there is gentle music playing in the background (probably via YouTube) simultaneously to doing the work?

Precisely what I was thinking. I regularly have YouTube or BBC Sounds on in the background while focussing on my main work - I'll even put on BBC iPlayer if there's something that I can listen to passively whilst working. I do this both in the office and at home. Can't see how it's any different from having the radio on, however presumably this software records it as personal.

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Replying to the_drookit_dug:
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By tanyajackson
19th Jan 2023 11:42

Totally agree. I often have background entertainment while I work. I'll watch 15 minutes on netflix while I eat lunch or have a quick break, I then pause it, sometimes for hours, I'm not watching but it is open and running.
On the other side of things, some are just not cut out for working alone at home. Some need the company and the office buzz, or the fear that your boss is in the next room.

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By Winnie Wiggleroom
19th Jan 2023 07:26

Interesting, but what would be more interesting is if we knew how many "work" hours are lost for an average office based employee.

Back in the dark ages when I was office based I churned out 50-60% of the work I do now working remotely. And by work I mean completing something that earns a fee.

The difference with remote working is that I can more often than not work with no interruptions at a time of the day and week that is convenient for that purpose.

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Replying to Winnie Wiggleroom:
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By the_drookit_dug
19th Jan 2023 09:36

I was in out at the office yesterday and didn't have a particularly productive day - there was a constant stream of people in an out of my office nattering. Given that it was the office though, I still felt at work and didn't feel any of the guilt or necessity to make up the time that I'd have felt at home if I'd simply downed tools for what must've added up to a couple of hours of chatting.

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By cereus77
19th Jan 2023 12:18

To me, poor management is the main reason companies need to resort to spying on their employees. If resources are well managed, deliverables clearly defined and understood with progress regularly reported then there shouldn’t be any need for this kind of skulduggery.

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By alan.falcondale
19th Jan 2023 12:37

Time to check all of those programs that run on startup and are 'always on' in the background
One wonders if the Co are tracking other employees and paying the extra time they may also be logging over and above their agreed hours.. door swings both ways

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By adam.arca
19th Jan 2023 13:09

Hmm, well I think I'm going to have to disagree with most of the comments so far.

I'm not a fan of intrusive software, far from it, but it seems a reasonable compromise to me that employees who want to work from home should expect some form of active monitoring.

If you're in the office, your boss can at least see you sat at your desk (most of the time) and it's a reasonable assumption that, in the absence of anything better to do, you'll probably be working, albeit maybe not at 100%. Neither of those basic controls are available to your employer if you work at home and your activity isn't monitored.

I know a lot of people on here think WFH is the best thing since sliced and that they're much more productive that way. That's fine in itself but what isn't fine is to project your own level of commitment onto the whole WFH population when, clearly, WFH has increased the incidence of shirkerdom many, many-fold (we only have to reference HMRC call centres).

I would also have thought that those who are WFH and very productive might actually welcome some active monitoring as this would demonstrate their work commitment to their boss in a numerical way.

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Replying to adam.arca:
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By rememberscarborough
19th Jan 2023 13:34

I could never work from home. Too many distractions (dogs, pinball machine, telly etc) whereas in the office I'm free to concentrate on what I'm being paid to do. Also, helps to only have a 10 minute "commute" but that's a different issue...

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By paul.benny
19th Jan 2023 13:51

Do we measure ourselves and our teams by their inputs or their outputs?

Using software to monitor work activity speaks of low trust by the employer. And people soon find ways to game such systems.

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Replying to paul.benny:
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By adam.arca
19th Jan 2023 15:59

You're not wrong and a good manager should use both inputs and outputs as a tool, with more emphasis on the latter. But if outputs are poor, then surely the next stage is to look at inputs?

An analogy might be the offside law in football: it doesn't stop the offence occurring nor does it stop the system being gamed but it does specify a sanction and it does prevent egregious exploitation (until modern officials and their mickey mouse interpretations get in the way but that's a whole different topic).

Bottom line, activity monitoring is a means to an end and not an end in itself but, like any other tool, it can be misused.

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paddle steamer
By DJKL
19th Jan 2023 16:37

Have not done timesheets for years that had to add to 35 hours each week (or more), but when I did circa 25% of my time reported was non chargeable admin/misc/reading etc, so in one month of say 150 hours I would usually have had 37.5 non billable and not directly applying to clients. Could these sorts of things account for some of her 50 hours ?(Eg yesterday I moved 3 boxes of textbooks etc down to our new office (bookcase to follow) and on occasion I do open the odd one to refresh my memory re how to do x or y, how might that sort of thing be recorded?)

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Kitten
By Hazel Accounts
19th Jan 2023 19:03

I think one of the key points here is the software was only installed after she raised the issue of being "unproductive", and a work performance plan had been set up. I see it as part of the company's way of monitoring that. Presumably if an employee is producing good work output the need wouldn't arise.
Perhaps acting after just one month is a bit quick off the mark for the firm to jump to conclusions but her mistake was not to try and offer any explanation eg struggling with understanding the work, working offline, research reading or other other potentially acceptable activities. 50 hours is quite significant at around 25% of the time. It looks like she possibly needed more training but it is hard to know as we don't know what type of work she was doing.

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By Jason Croke
21st Jan 2023 05:23

It's Canada, where they recently announced that adults should reduce alcohol consumption drastically as it's bad for you ....whilst also about to decrimanalise heroin and crack.

Like others, I stream radio in the background and will have Twitter,LinkedIn and AccountingWeb open as well, I know some tracking. software can see what you are actively watching and what is in the background, but really, if trust is that broken, monitoring IT use is the least if the employers troubles.

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