English is full of dead metaphors, familiar phrases for which the original meaning has been lost in time. Consider “punching the clock.” We all know what this means—namely, to check in and out of a work shift. But its points of reference—mechanical contraptions that printed timestamps on paper cards to record employees’ arrival and departure times—have largely vanished from the workplace. Today, time clocks that use unique codes, swipe cards, or some other digital identifier are the norm.
Unlike punching the clock, unfortunately, buddy punching is far from dead. A deceptively friendly term for labor fraud, buddy punching refers to one employee clocking in or out for another employee who is not present. Buddy punching is also a classic example of the slippery slope. Honest employees may participate in what is essentially wage theft because they want to help a coworker who is running late. Compounded, however, those few inconsequential minutes can add up to substantial wage theft, especially for grocery store owners and managers.
But, thanks to advancements in biometrics, time clock hardware and software, buddy punching in retail grocery stores may soon be a thing of the past.
The biometric basics
Facial recognition, voice authentication, gait measurements, iris scans, hand scans—they may sound like the stuff of spy novels, but biometric technologies like these are becoming common outside the purview of international espionage.
Law enforcement has been using fingerprints for decades, and DNA testing is now routine in criminal investigations. In the past decade, businesses began harnessing biometric data to guarantee better security and optimize the management of their human resources. Identifiers based on biometric data can often replace keys, ID badges, time cards, and alphanumeric login credentials.
By and large, retailers have taken a wait-and-see stance on investing in this cutting-edge technology. Nevertheless, some systems have been around long enough to have a proven track record. This includes employee time clock software that help businesses control labor costs, improve scheduling efforts, and curtail buddy punching. For grocery stores accustomed to operating within narrow margins, the long-term savings realized by replacing their last-century time clock systems can mean the difference between profit and loss at the end of the quarter.
How biometrics bypass buddy punching
Rather than using a time card, swipe card, or login credentials to “punch in,” biometric systems require an employee’s physical presence. Physiological markers which cannot be forged or replicated become each employee’s unique access code.
The individual physiological markers used for this purpose vary from system to system. Facial recognition technology—just like the “face unlock” feature on certain smartphones—is now being incorporated into employee time clock software. Palm vein readers, which use light waves to capture the distinctive patterns blood vessels trace across an individual’s palm, are another option.
Meanwhile, Amazon is testing touchless hand scanners that “read” the size and shape of the hand at their Whole Foods grocery stores. While the eCommerce giant is looking to incorporate this technology in a new POS system, it has significant labor-management implications.
Of course, there will always be employees that view a new time clock system as a challenge. Is there some way to get around company controls? Some may try to scan the wrong finger and then claim the time clock is broken. Another employee may disconnect the scanner’s Ethernet cable, then ask to have time manually recorded. These and other ploys can be quickly exposed and shouldn’t pose a persistent problem.
Caution: privacy concerns ahead
Unfortunately, some advances in technology can be misused, often overshadowing ethical considerations. The use of biometrics for identification has raised concerns about privacy and possible misuse of personal data. Several states (including Illinois and Texas) have already enacted laws that restrict the use of biometrics. Other states, such as Arizona, Florida, and Massachusetts, are following suit with legislation pending.
In addition, facial recognition technology that is 100-percent reliable and infallible is still under development, and the jury is still out on its practicality vis-a-vis employee time clock software. Mounting evidence that facial recognition programs are capable of expressing racial bias has only complicated the issue. Ultimately, the cost and risk of facial recognition technology make it a non-starter for most grocers in search of a buddy punching-proof labor management application.
Putting your finger on the right buddy punching solution
Of all the biometric-based options available for employee time clock software, fingerprint readers are the most tested, the most affordable, and the least obtrusive. Even so, grocers must still weigh several pros and cons.
Some fingerprint scanners feature a gelatinous membrane as their primary interface. While this substrate produces a superior reading of each fingerprint, these systems are often plagued by durability issues. Additionally, in a grocery store environment in which employees are handling meat, dairy, and produce, hygiene is a crucial consideration.
Finger scan devices that utilize chemically strengthened Gorilla Glass offer highly accurate and dependable scanning for even high employee volumes per shift. As an added benefit, these scanners do not permanently store entire fingerprints. Instead, they record and match only a few uniquely identifying whorls within each fingerprint’s “signature.” This functionality both eases employee privacy concerns and aids with compliance.
Whichever new technology you choose to replace your old punch clock, the best time clock systems are modular and integrate attendance tracking with scheduling and payroll. In other words, the best cures for buddy punching also work together with your other human capital management systems, nurturing both your employees and your bottom line at the same time.