The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently announced that it would reform its workplace practices after it was discovered that patent examiners golfed while supposedly on the job.
The revelation about the golfing appeared in a review of the USPTO’s time and attendance policies by the Department of Commerce’s Office of the Inspector General.
The report followed an earlier internal report by the USPTO itself. The draft version of the internal report said that patent examiners “can work inconsistently throughout the year, and even fail to be present at work, with little or no consequences.” However, the final version of the internal report said that investigators were “not able to reach a conclusion” about work-time abuses.
According to the Inspector General’s report, “Inspector A” was authorized to telecommute. The report found that he committed at least 730 hours’ worth of time and attendance abuse and was paid about $25,000 for time he did not actually work in Fiscal Year 2014 – about 43% of the hours he reported.
The investigation was launched when two supervisory patent examiners found copies of an anonymous letter claiming that Examiner A came into the office only at the end of the quarter and that his work was “garbage.”
Examiner A was joined on his worktime golf outings by at least one USPTO co-worker.
The Inspector General referred the matter the US Attorney’s office, which declined to prosecute Examiner A.
When she was still deputy-director of the USPTO, current director Michelle K. Lee told members of Congress that fraudulent time and attendance reporting would be met with appropriate disciplinary action.
Reforms to combat telecommuting abuse at the USPTO include:
• Annual required training on time and attendance rules
• Identifying the causes for attendance misconduct
• Forming employee teams to combat the problem
Many patent applicants are frustrated by the extremely slow pace of the patent examination process. It is not clear whether lax workplace policies may play a role in examination delays, but with these reforms the USPTO is showing acute sensitivity to any indication that its examiners are less than diligent.