Employee Time Clock Buying Guide

Acumen biometric time clock

Selecting and buying a time clock involves very different processes for different companies. But for such niche products, the selection process can be tough without a guide. Fortunately, that’s exactly what this article provides: a complete time clock buying guide. 

Time clock selection can be relatively easy when the desired system is a traditional standalone time clock that uses paper time cards, but the selection process for networked time clocks, biometric time clocks, and innovative solutions is not as straightforward. This article will discuss purchase criteria for both standalone time clocks that use paper timecards and advanced time clocks that integrate with time and attendance software. 

Time Clock Integration Options

Before examining the purchase criteria for each time clock type, it is important to review the different types of time clocks and timekeeping methods commonly implemented today. 

Manual, Paper-Based Time Clocks

Paper-based timekeeping systems have existed for over a centuryWith these implementations, employee labor is typically recorded by a tamper-proof timekeeping device that imprints each punch onto a paper timecard. 

Manual Time Stamps 

The simplest manual implementation for timekeeping relies on time stamps. Time stamps provide the most basic form of timekeeping, utilizing paper forms (typically not time cards). Basic, tamper-proof timekeeping can achieved with time stamps, though they are truly designed for time-stamping and date-stamping forms such as applications, contracts, and so forth. 

While time stamps are certainly the most basic way to track employee time, this solution can often cost more and incur more manual tracking than other solutions that are better-suited for employee time and attendance. 

Mechanical Time Clocks 

Mechanical time clocks are very rugged standalone time clocks that print on paper timecards. These machines utilize mechanical type wheels that imprint the time and attendance information on employee’s timecards. These systems are reliable, but are often not automated. 

The primary advantage mechanical time clocks have over other time clocks is the heavy-duty construction and reliability of mechanical time clocks through years of constant use in harsh environments that may be unsuitable for other time clocks. 

Electronic Time Clocks 

Electronic time clocks are similar to mechanical time clocks in many ways, with the only significant difference being that electronic time clocks are fully electronic; the printing mechanism and date advancement is fully automated. 

Standalone electronic time clocks are often rugged and reliable, though these time clocks are not as rugged as mechanical time clocks. With a balance of ease of use, automation, and reliability, many companies today continue to use electronic time clocks. 

Calculating Time Clocks 

Calculating time clocks feature all of the functionality of an electronic time clock, but will also calculate the total amount of time an employee has worked each day. These time clocks will automatically deduct breaks and lunches to reduce payroll errors and speed payroll processing. 

Calculating time clocks are ideal for small businesses that do not require advanced time and attendance features, companies that only require basic rollouts involving one or two time clocks, and organizations that prefer paper timecards but want some processes automated. 

Automated, Networked Time Clocks

Modern timekeeping systems automate calculations to eliminate payroll errors and speed processes. They are integrated with time and attendance software and other time clocks to provide advanced functionality and protection against buddy punching. 

Networked Time Clocks 

Networked time clocks use serial, ethernet, or another type of networked communications to synchronize data between time and attendance software and one or more time clocks. 

Networked time clocks typically offer several more advanced options for clocking, including: 

  • PIN 
  • Magnetic Stripe Badges 
  • Barcode Badges 
  • Proximity Badges 
  • Hand Geometry Biometrics 
  • Fingerprint Biometrics 
  • Facial Recognition Biometrics 
  • Iris Biometrics 

One of the goals inherent to networked time and attendance systems is to inhibit buddy punching – one employee clocking another employee in or out to receive undeserved pay. Instead of using paper time cards, which any employee could easily punch for another employee, most networked time clock rollouts require input from the employee that is unique to that employee such as a PIN or that employee’s biometrics. 

The only exception is an implementation where badges are kept in a rack next to the time clock, much like the way paper timecards are typically kept. Of course, this could result in the same buddy punching problems seen in standalone time clock implementations. 

Networked time clocks are ideal for managing larger workforces, implementing advanced time and attendance rules, adding benefit accruals to the employee timekeeping process, and achieving other advanced time and attendance functionality that automates processes and eliminates payroll errors. 

Biometric Time Clocks 

Almost invariably networked, biometric time clocks require unique, personally-identifying input from the employee that prevents buddy punching outright. By requiring biometric data such as a finger scan or face scan, for instance, biometric time clocks help you achieve the best return on investment for any time and attendance system rollout. 

Implementation simplification and a significant drop in cost have made biometric time clocks ideal for any sized company looking to eliminate buddy punching and achieve highly accurate timekeeping. 

Time Clock-Free Implementations

It may seem odd to have a section on time clock-free implementations in a time clock buying guide – but, for many businesses, a web-based time clock is a time clock nonetheless. After all, these systems still implement best practices, hold employees accountable for their time, and ensure accurate recordkeeping. 

Web-Based Clocking 

Many time and attendance software developers offer web-based or software-based employee clocking to eliminate the need for time clocks altogether. 

Depending on the application and company need, sometimes a kiosk is used at a central location or entryway to serve as a surrogate time clock. Other times, when appropriate, employees are permitted to clock in and out directly from their computers. 

Web-based clocking can also support advanced implementations such as mobile time and attendance. Acumen’s time and attendance software, for instance, supports smartphones for real-time web-based employee clocking. 

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Clocking 

Telephony and IVR systems can also be synchronized with time and attendance software for reliable and automated time and attendance for mobile workforces. With an IVR time and attendance system, any mobile phone or touchtone telephone can be used for time and attendance. 

Advanced IVR time and attendance systems can incorporate complex menu systems to offer a number of employee self-service and supervisor-level system management functions. 

Selecting the Best Time Clock for Your Company

Since every company has unique requirements, the first step in any selection process is to form an interdepartmental committee to discuss limitations of the current system, goals for the new system, concerns, and other purchase considerations. 

With a thorough understanding of common time clocks and integration options, the next step is to examine the features, planning considerations, and other purchase criteria to select the best time clock to meet the needs of your company. 

Deployment Type

Probably the most fundamental consideration is whether to implement a standalone time clock using paper timecards, a networked time clock integrated with time and attendance software, or a time clock-free solution using either web-based clocking or a telephony-based solution. 

It is important to note that some time and attendance software providers, such as Acumen, can integrate solutions incorporating both networked time clocks and time clock-free solutions to accommodate  

When making a decision regarding deployment type, there are several important questions to ask: 

How many employees will my business track in this system? 

The more employees, the more you will want to implement an automated solution with networked time clocks. Implementation, employee enrollmentmaintenance, and many other routine operations become exponentially more difficult when more employees need to be tracked manually. 

Does my business have a buddy punching problem? 

If so, consider networked biometric time clocks complete with time and attendance software. These thoroughly eliminate the possibility for buddy punching and employee timekeeping falsification. 

Is network connectivity available at all locations that require clocking? 

If not, consider a mixed solution incorporating networked time clocks and a time clock-free solution such as telephony or web-based clocking. 

Another option would be implementing standalone time clocks for locations that do not have network connectivity. 

Does my business want to integrate access control with our time and attendance system? 

If so, networked time clocks are an ideal solution that integrates well with access control devices. 

Many time and attendance software developers, including Acumen, can implement a software time and attendance solution that also controls doors using door-mounted proximity hardware. This makes it possible to integrate access control with clock-free solutions as well as with networked time clocks. 

Does my business want to track mobile employees? 

If so, consider time and attendance software developers like Acumen that offer telephony or web-based time tracking via mobile devices. 

Clocking Methods

As previously covered, the most common clocking methods include: 

  • Paper Timecards 
  • PIN 
  • Magnetic Stripe Badges 
  • Barcode Badges 
  • Proximity Badges 
  • Hand Geometry Biometrics 
  • Fingerprint Biometrics 
  • Facial Recognition Biometrics 
  • Iris Biometrics 
  • Web-Based Clocking 
  • Telephony-Based Clocking 

Truly, there is no one technology that is unequivocally best in every circumstance. A given technology may be ideal in one situation but exhibit an unacceptable fail rate in another scenario.  

Time Clock Comparison Chart

Technology Reliability

With just about any clocking technology, the system’s “failure rate” should be considered. This refers to the amount of error that exists in the system: misreads, false positives, and other factors that make one system more or less reliable than another. 

This chart provides reliability scores for each clocking technology, considering the typical criteria (such as the failure rate) as well as the potential for employee fraud or error: 

Clocking Method Reliability Score Notes
Paper Timecards 3 Easily misread. Easily abused. Prone to data entry errors.
PIN 8 Technologically sound, but potential for abuse.
Magnetic Stripe 8 Magnetic stripe wears and can be erased by employees. Magnetic stripe readers offer exceptional reliability and low fail rates.
Barcode 8 The barcode will eventually wear and can be scratched-off by employees. Barcode readers offer exceptional reliability and low fail rates.
Proximity 9 Proximity badges are long-lasting and resist employee tampering. Proximity readers offer exceptional reliability and low fail rates.
Hand Geometry 9 Proven technology that is exceptionally reliable for tens of thousands of employees.
Fingerprint 5 – 9 Two types of fingerprint technology and wide array of vendors make reliability vary greatly. Low-end fingerprint time clocks exhibit unacceptable fail rates. Environmental conditions affect reliability greatly.
Facial Recognition 7 – 9 Most facial recognition time clocks are very reliable for companies with a small number of employees. The more employees, the less reliable the system. Unsuitable for large companies.
Iris 9 – 10 Iris biometrics offer the best reliability across many conditions for high-end systems. Low-end systems will offer reduced reliability (though rare to find anyway).
Web-Based Clocking 8 Extremely reliable technology, but potential for abuse exists. Some systems can track IP to reduce buddy punching, but potential for abuse still exists.
IVR / Telephony 9 Extremely reliable technology. Potential for abuse is decreased when employees use a dedicated mobile phone (personal or company-issued) and phone number verification is used.


Many older networked time clocks use serial communication systems, while most modern time clocks communicate via LAN or web services. 

Serial communication systems have many restrictions that make them unsuitable for many businesses. Serial communications degrade when transmitted distances greater than 50 feet. That makes serial communications impractical at distances over 50 feet from the server running the time and attendance software. When longer distances are required, a signal converter must be used to run RS232 serial communications over a RS485 network. In this configuration, a RS485 network can support up to 32 time clocks per converter. 

LAN and web service-enabled time clocks are more convenient to implement because either technology is more modern, more common, and more economical than serial communications. Hard-wired and wireless networked clocks are more commonly utilized options for modern systems. The technology is tried-and-true and familiar to most IT staff, reducing implementation headaches. 

Some networked time clocks also offer Power over Ethernet (PoE) to reduce the cables going into the clock and prevent employees from unplugging the time clock. 

Environmental Concerns & Ruggedness

Sometimes, environmental conditions make certain clocking types unsuitable, particularly when any imaging system is used within the clocking technology. 

Other times, an employee’s work requirements make certain types of clocking difficult. A nurse that wears latex gloves for large periods of the day may complain about a fingerscan biometric time and attendance system, for instance. Alternatively, the nurse’s employer may be looking for a hygienic alternative to fingerscan biometrics and may ultimately choose a facial recognition system instead because no physical interaction is required. 

Some common reasons your business might research clocking alternatives or rugged time clocks include: 

  • Your employees work with acid or other harsh chemicals 
  • Your time clock is exposed to elements or humidity 
  • Your employees wear gloves while working 
  • Your employees work outdoors 
  • Your business seeks a hygienic biometric solution 

Regardless of your environment, there is a rugged time clock that suits your needs or an alternative clocking method that can meet your company’s demands. 

Sometimes, your time and attendance solution provider can recommend a ruggedized time clock that supports the clocking technology you prefer. If a given clocking technology is truly unsuited for your environment, the solution provider will steer you in the right direction. 

Unique scenarios such as this require personalized recommendations; you can contact Acumen if you have any questions or are looking for a professional and personalized time clock reccomendation. 

Time Clock Features

Time clock features and functions that are available directly from the time clock terminal will vary widely amongst between hardware manufacturers and the software developers that integrate a given time clock. The best time and attendance integrators will customize your time clock based on your desired functionality, so you get the most out of your investment. 

Consider some of the features and capabilities for time clocks based on clock type: 

Manual Time Clock Features 

Manual time clocks that use paper timecards are simply going to lack features compared to networked time clocks; any solution that is not synchronized with software will naturally have these shortcomings. 

Manual time clocks and paper timecards are designed to be simple. Fewer moving parts mean fewer things to break. It would also be very difficult to program complex pay rules and shift rules into a standalone time clock with few, if any, function buttons. 

Most companies that use manual time clocks and paper timecards do so because they want simplicity. If your company is intending to track anything beyond basic “in” and “out” punches, it may be worthwhile to upgrade to an automated system, considering the prohibitive cost required to incorporate advanced tracking with manual time clocks. 

However, purely discussing capabilities and features, there are some respectable options out there for manual time clocks. Some more advanced manual time clocks can manage overtime pay, automatically deduct breaks and lunch, offer user-definable grace period and rounding rules, print punch exceptions in red, and more. These features, however, are less common and often incur significantly higher expenses to implement. 

Networked Time Clock Features 

Very few time clock manufacturers also make the time and attendance software that serves as the brain behind the system. Typically, time clocks systems that also include time and attendance software are extremely basic– providing little more than “in” and “out” punching, and interoperable with only the most common business systems and payroll systems. 

In many cases, your decision might be better informed by the specifications of your time and attendance software provider as opposed to the specifications of your time clock manufacturer. If a given time clock allows you to program up to 10 function buttons according to the hardware manufacturer– but the software limits you to 8– you’re going to end-up with no more than 8 customized function buttons. 

Typically, it is not necessary for you to source and spec-out the exact time clock model you want. Many times, it is much easier to present your businesses clocking preference (proximity, fingerscan, etc.) to your prospective software providers first. Experienced providers will most likely have a short list of questions pertaining to configuration, and then they will be able to recommend specific time clocks that support your preferred clocking type and needs. 

Each software provider has its own expertise, its own back-end database, and its own communications engine. Because of that, each provider is going to have a core set of tried-and-true employee time clocks they commonly integrate depending on customer requirements. 

Some software providers specialize in only one or two time clocks and present their solutions as a package. Providers such as these, with their limited expertise, may also have limitations regarding payroll support, system integration, deployment, etc. It is important to find out about the integration capabilities of the software developer before spending too much time researching a given solution. 

Without focusing too much on the features that are largely software-driven, an overview of networked time clock functionality includes: 

  • Support for Several Clocking Types (PIN Available in Almost All) 
  • Programmable Function Keys 
  • Supervisor System Management from Time Clock 
  • Employee Self-Service from Time Clock 
  • Advanced Communications (Email, Audio, Photograph, or Video) 
  • Real-Time Data Synchronization (if Supported) 
  • Synchronization Between Many Time Clocks & Locations 
  • Expansion Options 
  • Software Specific Enhancements 

Most modern time clocks will also retain punch data during network or power outages. Make sure you look for this feature if your environment is prone to either type of outage. 

Time Clock-Free Solution Features 

Inherently, the features of a hardware-free time clock are determined by software; features are going to be unique from provider to provider and solution to solution. Even without physical time clock devices, these solutions can still be highly secure and fully functional. 

Acumen’s web-based clocking application, WebCLOCK, can track employees’ IP addresses for verification. Since employees typically do not share their Windows passwords, using WebCLOCK on employees’ computers in a typical office place provides three forms of employee identity verification: the network login, the Acumen login, and the IP address verification. 

The full functionality of time clock-free solutions is essentially going to be determined by the software. Still, with clock-free solutions one can expect much of the same capabilities of full-featured time and attendance software. 

Every common feature found in Acumen’s full system rollouts can be actualized in a time clock-free implementation. Feel free to contact us for more information about the features available in clock-free implementations. 

The Bottom Line

There are many factors to consider when selecting a time clock solution for your company. In order to be confident in your selection, you must thoroughly consider integration options, deployment types, clocking methods, method reliability, implementation connectivity, environmental ruggedness, and the various additional features that make many time clock solutions unique. 

Every company has different needs for their timekeeping solution and balancing these needs can be difficult without professional guidance. Contact Acumen today for a consultation and ensure that you have the best time clock solution possible to meet your company’s unique needs.