April 05, 2004

By Any Other Name

From the NY Times:

Experts on compensation say that the illegal doctoring of hourly employees' time records is far more prevalent than most Americans believe. The practice, commonly called shaving time, is easily done and hard to detect a simple matter of computer keystrokes and has spurred a growing number of lawsuits and settlements against a wide range of businesses.

It may be commonly called "shaving time," but it should be commonly called "theft" or "fraud." If a worker, with a few keystrokes, transferred money from her employer's account to her own, she would be prosecuted for embezzlement. There's no moral difference when the employer does the same--except that the workers who lose their pay are probably less able to afford it.

It's worth reading this to look at the institutional structure. Various company spokespeople claim they're shocked, shocked to find that rogue managers are shaving time. I'm not qualified to discuss the law here--except for the Wal-Mart one-minute clockouts, I'd be surprised if the companies didn't have plausible deniability--but I think there are actually interesting moral questions involved.

Namely: How are we to allocate the blame for this? The managers may not be under orders to cheat their underlings, and I think the morally required action is to quit (and blow the whistle) rather than do so, but the blame certainly doesn't stop with them. Upper-level management who put pressure on lower-level management to achieve impossible results surely bear some blame, but they didn't order the theft.

What's going on here is an institutional evil, and I think that's a category that's much underdiscussed in philosophical ethics.* The institutions seem to be set up to put pressure on underpaid district managers, to make cheating easy, and to make it easy for the corporations to turn a blind eye to what's going on. The culpability of the whole is greater than the sum of the culpabilities of the parts. It's worth noting here that institutional practices can make a difference; note the contrast between Wal-Mart and McDonald's, which gives employees printouts of hours worked and doesn't have time shaving problems.

*I'm sure there's a lot of work of which I'm ignorant here, but it's still underdiscussed--it should be intro-level material.

Posted by Matt Weiner at April 5, 2004 06:51 PM

Unbelievable, I know. But it happens more than you think and even in academic settings, like several labs that I have worked in. But regarding the "time shaving" going on in Walmarts, Dollar Stores, etc., maybe these cases are just instances of what is problematic about capitalism in general...This is not to say that we ought not be capitalists, or even that upper and lower management should not be held to industry integrity standards, but just that these *are* cases that make us question the integrity of institutional arrangements.

Posted by: Linda Fiorentino at April 7, 2004 10:36 AM