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Fact Checked

What does It Mean to "Punch a Clock"?

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Keeping track of the hours an employee has worked during a particular day is an important part of successfully managing a company’s payroll expenses. Workers who are paid by the hour instead of receiving a set salary for their position must punch a clock to let their employer know when they have been at work.

Before computers became a workplace necessity, workers were required to clock in on an actual clock at the start of the workday. The worker inserted a card labeled with his/her name into a special mechanical time clock, which the recorded the day and time onto the card. Depending upon the workplace rules and regulations, clocking in and clocking out for breaks and meals may have also been part of what it meant to punch a clock.

Employee pulling her punch card to clock in.
Employee pulling her punch card to clock in.

Of course, now that most companies are able to invest in sophisticated software programs, it’s quite rare to see a mechanical clock used to keep track of employee time cards. Most businesses now use a computerized method of tracking employee work hours. Other offices keep track of employee time by recording when a worker logs on to his/her computer or a central business web site. In some large corporations with sophisticated security systems, workers punch a clock by using an identification card with a unique bar code to enter and leave the building.

Traditional clocks -- including old-fashioned time clocks -- use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.
Traditional clocks -- including old-fashioned time clocks -- use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.

From an employer’s perspective, the biggest appeal of using modern technology to require workers to punch a clock is the ability to eliminate fraud. Software programs that record employee time cards are much more difficult to tamper with than a manual time clock. Employers who are particularly concerned about ensuring an honest recording of work hours can even invest in a biometric time clock that responds to the worker’s unique hand shape in order to prevent a worker from trying to punch a clock for someone else.

In popular culture, the expression "punch a clock" has a somewhat negative connotation. It is often used to refer to a dead-end job or a job that is somehow distasteful to the employee. When you say it’s time to punch a clock, you’re simply counting down the hours until you can leave work for a more enjoyable activity. The term may also be used to refer to someone else’s lack of work ethic. If you describe another employee as looking to punch a clock, you’re implying that he/she isn’t fully invested in performing the required tasks of the position.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

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Discussion Comments

Ruggercat68

My wife uses a biometric employee punch clock at her job, and apparently the company has saved a lot of money on payroll by cutting down on fraud. She said she knew of some instances in the past where one employee was punching a clock for another employee who was running late or not even coming in to work. The company bought an expensive biometric time attendance system after those employees were dismissed.

I remember running into a few problems with the old clock punching system at my restaurant. Sometimes employees would forget to clock back in from a break, or they would accidentally punch the clock twice at the beginning of their shifts. The payroll accountant we used treated those punch cards like legal documents, so I would have to verify each and every change I made to them. I much prefer the electronic time clock systems restaurants use today. Employees enter a unique code into the cash register system and we run a wage report at the end of the day.

mrwormy

The thing I remember most about using old fashioned punch clocks is that everything worked by quarters of an hour. If your shift started at 7am, for instance, you had to wait until the middle of the 6:45 to 7:00 quarter hour to clock in. If your shift ended at 3:30pm, you only had seven minutes to officially clock out. Sometimes if there were a lot of employees and only one clock, it could get a little manic at quitting time.

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    • Employee pulling her punch card to clock in.
      Employee pulling her punch card to clock in.
    • Traditional clocks -- including old-fashioned time clocks -- use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.
      By: tycoon101
      Traditional clocks -- including old-fashioned time clocks -- use a system of gears and pulleys to keep time.