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The Value of Clock Watching

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
March 18, 2024

In discussions of leadership, it is not uncommon to hear concerns for dysfunctional employee behaviors such as clock watching. These behaviors are typically viewed as entirely negative, contrary to organizational values, and largely a character flaw in individual employees. By leaping to these presumptions, public sector leaders might not see the value these behaviors bring to the workplace.

Reduced Liabilities

Clock watching is defined as keeping a close eye on the time, making sure not a minute of a break or lunch is missed and that work stops immediately at closing time. To many, this illustrates a negative attitude. To be honest, we might also consider other factors at play. If employees are encouraged (or allowed) to miss breaks, lunch or to work past working hours, the agency might be facing increased civil and financial liabilities for violations of labor laws, contracts or agency policy.

When leaders hear of concerns with clock watching, they might wish to consider how subordinate leaders or organizational culture might be creating liabilities by expecting work beyond normal working hours, even if done so for the best of intent. It might be an issue with employee attitude, but if environmental and structural influences beyond the control of employees are not considered and addressed, new concerns might arise.

Work/Life Balance

Another factor at play in clock watching behavior is a desire by employees to have an acceptable, if not desirable, work/life balance. In an era where quiet-quitting and employee recruitment and retention are notable concerns, providing a strong work/life balance is often a vital consideration. While it might be desirable from an agency’s perspective to have employees fully align their values and goals with that of the organization, the reality is that complete alignment is improbable, at least over the long term.

Employees have personal and social lives—families and friends—personal goals. Expecting employees to ignore or minimize this private side of their lives is unreasonable—the act of a manipulator, not a leader. Failing to recognize this reality might contribute to a formal or informal structure where employees are viewed and treated simply as “tools” needing minimal care or consideration. Failing to understand the personal motivations of employees, focusing only on the needs of the agency, is likely to create an unacceptable work/life balance for some employees. This increases the incentive for them to leave, potentially taking with them necessary and valuable skills, abilities and experiences.  

Increased Efficacy

There is the potential that clock watching behavior is premised on employees believing their work is of little value, or that the required processes and practices are poorly structured. Employees are more likely to commit to quality if they understand their role and if they believe they are using best practices. Kenneth Blanchard, long time business thought leader, once noted that if it is true “A job worth doing is worth doing well,” then it is equally true that “A job not worth doing is not worth doing well.”

If clock watching behavior is noted, it might be prudent to consider if the employees know what value they bring to the agency, asking them how the end goals of the agency might be reached more effectively, more efficiently and more responsively. This is especially true in relatively stable environments, more notably so when agency leadership has worked their way up the organizational chain, but have not done the work for some time. General George Patton once said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Empowering employees to use their creativity to do their work better may potentially reduce clock watching concerns, having them focus more on the quality and outcomes of their work.

Leadership Reflections

All too often, agency leaders lay the blame for any problems, including clock watching behavior, on employees—not on structural or environmental issues founded upon policies, procedures or organizational culture. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.” The lesson is if agency leaders see dysfunctional workplace behaviors like clock watching, they should first consider if they have created the best workplace environment.

Public sector leaders are tasked with creating effective, efficient, responsive service delivery systems for their communities. This requires a motivated, talented workforce. If employees cannot or will not perform, certainly appropriate remediation efforts should be made to correct them, up to and including employment termination. However, before presuming the performance issues are solely the responsibility of the employee, leaders should ensure they have provided clear expectations, a functional work environment and respect the personal needs and expectations of individual employees. When public sector leaders observe dysfunctional workplace behaviors like clock watching, before disciplining employees, they should first reflect on how much they own these concerns, addressing them as best they can. If using observed clock watching behaviors is a catalyst for such reflections, clock watching brings value to the agency.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and independent scholar. He served in local government for over 30 years, and has been teaching and consulting at the graduate level since 2004. He served two terms as President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected]

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