What is buddy punching, and how can businesses prevent it?

Phil Kendall

Apr 2021 ⋅ 6 min read

An illustration of a hand holding a stopwatch in front of a screen and wads of bank notes.

We’ve talked before about time theft on the RotaCloud blog, but there’s a specific type of time theft that’s being talked about more and more recently in business and HR circles: buddy punching.

Left unchecked, buddy punching can become a serious problem. It costs businesses millions of pounds a year, in some cases even contributing to their failure.

In this blog, we’ll be discussing exactly what buddy punching is, why it happens, and what employers can do to prevent it happening.

What is buddy punching?

Buddy punching is when one member of staff clocks in or out of a shift on behalf of another, whether it’s via a time-clock, swipe card clocking-in system, or a paper sign-in sheet. The ‘punch’ part in the name comes from the old-fashioned time-clocks that would punch holes into an employee’s time card.

Buddy punching happens most often when staff are running late for a shift or are attempting to artificially extend their recorded working hours for more pay. But it can also happen during a shift, with staff clocking one another in and out of their breaks to give the impression that they’re working when they’re not.

The act of staff clocking each other in and out of shifts isn’t new, but the term ‘buddy punching’ has become increasingly common in recent years as more employers become wise to the fact that an act that might seem a little bit cheeky on the surface could actually be costing them considerable sums of money each year.

What causes buddy punching?

It’s easy to put the blame for buddy punching squarely on the shoulders of the offending employee. Sure, some more unscrupulous staff might be trying their luck, but there’s often more at play than simply staff trying to get one over on their boss.

In fact, buddy punching is often a symptom of bigger problem, such as unhappy staff, rigid rota planning, or poorly articulated policies.

Therefore, there’s usually no single cause of buddy punching. Rather, it tends to be a combination of some, or all, of the following:

  • Fear of being reprimanded. If your staff know they’ll be in trouble or lose out on pay as a result of turning up late to work, they’re far more likely to ask a friend or co-worker to clock in for them when they’re running late.
  • Feeling disengaged at work. Some lateness is outside of an employee's control, but in other cases employees will arrive late (and find a way to hide doing so!) purely because they set off for work at the last possible moment. After all, no one sets off early for a job that they're fed up with..
  • Feelings of resentment towards the employer. In the rarest of cases, staff clocking in for one another can come down to the simple fact that the employee simply doesn’t like their employer, their work, or their shift, and sees this as a tiny act of defiance.

There’s no excusing buddy punching, since, however minor the offence may appear on the surface, staff asking someone else to clock in or out for them results in them being paid for work they didn’t do.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that there are myriad factors influencing employees’ decisions to do this. We’ll be offering up some solutions below, but if the root of the problem is that your staff are feeling genuinely disengaged at work, or there’s low morale in your workplace, then it might be worth looking a little deeper.

How to prevent buddy punching

The good news is that, if you're looking for a way to prevent the physical act of staff clocking in for one another, there are a number of tried-and-tested methods to consider.

1. Make clocking in digital

The quickest and easiest way to stop buddy punching in your workplace is to make your staff clocking-in process fully digital. While paper timesheets and logbooks can be easily forged, and swipe cards easily passed between staff, digital, web-based solutions make buddy punching all but impossible.

Typical features of online clocking-in solutions include:

  • PIN entry systems. Staff are given unique PINs for a clocking-in terminal, which are tied to a particular employee’s account and timesheet.
  • Geofencing. If staff use a smartphone app to clock in, check if the app lets you limit clock-ins by GPS location, or even wi-fi network, ensuring that employees are actually on site when they clock in.
  • Photo taking on clock-in/out. These quick snapshots allow managers to be sure that the person clocking in is who they say they are.
  • Auto-populating timesheets. Clock-ins are recorded to the exact second, with this data stored securely on the employee’s digital timesheet. No more number-fudging!

The platform you choose will depend on the size of your business, your budget, and the hardware you’d prefer to use.

RotaCloud’s Time & Attendance platform comes with a 30-day free trial period, and even allows managers to set up a clocking-in terminal using an existing iPad or Android tablet, so there’s no specialist equipment to buy or rent.

2. Address buddy punching in your employee handbook

If buddy punching isn’t already specifically mentioned in your employee handbook or discussed during your employee induction processes, then it should be.

It’s not enough to simply tell your staff that buddy punching is ‘bad’ — we all know this, but it happens anyway. Rather, your staff need to be made aware not just of the possible repercussions for clocking in for one another, but of the implications for the business as a whole.

It’s easy for staff to downplay the impact that buddy punching can have. But when you have tens, or even hundreds of staff doing it, buddy punching can lead to real financial trouble for the company, potentially even risking people’s jobs — and your staff need to know this.

3. Build a better company culture

Part of the reason that some staff try to game the system when it comes to clocking in is because they feel disconnected from the business they work for. Ultimately, if staff don’t feel valued by their employer, they’re unlikely to feel too guilty about covering up the fact that they were running a little late.

This can be remedied — and with it instances of buddy punching reduced — by working to create an environment where staff feel like they are a part of something bigger; that they and the work they do impacts the business as a whole.

From increased employee engagement to reduced turnover and staff absence, businesses that nurture their company culture tend to perform better than those who leave it to chance. Check out our in-depth guide to company culture to learn more.

4. Plan rotas that work for your staff

We know that managers have a lot on their plates, and that preparing the staff rota or employee schedule can be tricky enough to begin with, without trying to work around your employees’ preferences for particular shifts.

But by inviting your staff to share their availability with you, you not only make yourself more approachable as an employer (and thus one people are less likely to take advantage of), but you make life easier for yourself by ensuring that staff will be able to work the shifts you give them in the first place.

Give your team an opportunity to request particular shift patterns, or highlight any times or days that could be difficult for them — they'll thank you for doing so, and be less likely to cheat the system when it comes to clocking in.

In RotaCloud, staff whose managers have the setting turned on are able to mark their availability (and unavailability) in advance, making it easy for managers to see when they’re about to schedule a shift for an employee that they won’t be able to do — saving everybody the time and hassle of finding cover or rescheduling the shift.

Final thoughts

When it gets out of hand, buddy punching can lead to serious problems, from overspending on staffing, to putting people’s lives at risk should a fire break out with no accurate record of who’s actually on site.

Making your clocking in process digital is the quickest and easiest way to prevent buddy punching. But managers should also try to look beyond the clocking-in method itself for a potential cause.

Staff who feel happy, engaged, and respected at work are far less likely to fudge the numbers on their timesheets or ask their coworkers to clock in or out on their behalf. Finding ways to prevent buddy punching is crucial for the future success of your business, but be sure to look deeper and strive to create a working environment where, even if they could, your staff would choose not to mislead their employer about the hours they worked.

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