Identity theft takes its toll on our workplaces

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Last winter, one of the top box-office movies was called “Identity Thief,” a lightweight comedy about a guy chasing a woman across the country after she had stolen his identity. It was filled with pratfalls, sight gags and fat jokes.

The message of the movie was simple: Getting your identity stolen can be funny. But try telling that to the more than 11 million victims who each year suffer the devastating emotional toll of knowing they no longer have control over their lives.

Film critic Mick Lasalle of the San Francisco Chronicle summed up the movie quite well: “The concept of one person stealing another’s identity might be amusing in the abstract, but the minute you start filling in the details, it becomes the stuff of drama, not comedy.”

Identity theft is not just a financial burden, but also a feeling of vulnerability and violation. It’s why you can find support groups all over the country that deal with nothing but helping ID theft victims cope with the realization of what has befallen them, and the long and winding road needed to be traveled in order to try and resolve the situation.

Research shows it can take up to 33 hours for a victim to come to a satisfactory ID theft resolution. Some reports suggest it can take up to 600 hours for truly serious breaches to be rectified, and occasionally the problem never gets resolved.

Whether 33 hours or 600 hours, that’s a lot of time spent on phones, emails, copying documents, running to the post office, etc. It also takes a lot of direct telephone interaction with a live person, a person who works your basic 9-5 schedule.

This means when a person has their identity stolen, there’s also an innocent bystander about to become collateral damage: the employer.

Industry research has found conclusive evidence that legal issues cause workplace distraction, absenteeism and lost productivity. According to Corporate Wellness magazine, 48 percent of a company’s employees will experience some business or personal legal-related issues (including ID theft) throughout the year, and be away from their jobs at least 51 hours per year to solve them.

This time spent away from work – dealing with legal issues – ends up costing employers thousands of dollars in terms of overtime, absenteeism, higher insurance and compensation premium claims, administrative costs and lost employee production. The publication goes on to further state that studies show employees with legal problems usually:

• Are absent five times more than average.

• Use their medical benefits four times more than average.

• Use their sick leave twice as often as the average employee.

• Experience a substantial reduction in their productivity.

Identity theft issues can have a devastating effect on an employee’s credit rating, his or her reputation, emotional state and morale. Employees are battling the emotional stress akin to being the victim of a violent assault.

Employees dealing with ID theft do not have their head in the game when on the job. They need to make repeated phone calls, either on the company phone or going outside to talk on their cellphone. They are checking their personal emails, using the company fax and copy machine, taking longer lunch breaks to stand in line at the post office.

Just dealing with the credit bureaus alone is a Herculean effort. According to a recent report on 60 Minutes on CBS, the three major credit bureaus are designed to make the situation even more difficult. The report states that no one on a phone has the power to help you, and if you send anything to their post office box “No one with the authority to settle your dispute will ever actually see it.”

And to add to the crushing emotional toll, the fastest-rising form of ID theft is children. If you think your employee is distracted by their own legal issues, picture the mindset when they also have to concentrate on protecting their children as well.

The core of the issue is lost productivity, through either not being on the job to negligence in doing the job. Employers may be able to tolerate something simple such as a stressed-out secretary misspelling a word in a correspondence because her credit card company just charged her $5,000 for a seven-day cruise to the Bahamas she never took.

But what if the distraction is life threatening, to fellow employees and the customers? What if the guy driving a bus through a busy city street is shouting at his banker on his cellphone and doesn’t notice the light is no longer green?

ID theft is a major problem; any employer who thinks he is not going to be affected by it because he handed out a pamphlet at orientation on how to be careful is simply sticking his head in the sand. Employers need to be supportive of what the employee is going through and make every effort to make the process as stress-free as possible, both for them and the company’s bottom line.

Companies need to train their HR staff on how to deal with this ever-growing issue in a way that can boost employee morale, keep their eye on the ball and do everything possible to alleviate the situation.

But most importantly, many businesses with foresight are now making identity theft services a coveted voluntary benefit. They are discovering that for a nominal cost per employee, depending on the size of the company and participation, it’s a small price to pay in lieu of a reduction in productivity and revenue.

Some ID theft services have procedures in place where case managers reduce significantly time spent by employees on the phone during work hours trying to cancel stolen credit cards by making the calls for them.

Employers are never going to be able to completely protect their employees from ID theft. But with the right mechanisms in place, they can help ease the pain, reduce the stress and keep the bottom line from hitting rock bottom.

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