Friday, June 09, 2020

Management Double-Speak

A friend of mine, who’s an executive coach, sent me this example of macho management in action. It’s an exchange of messages between a professional employee and his or her manager, and it took place in one of America’s largest technological organizations.

I have seen the original messages, but will only summarize them here, for obvious reasons of confidentiality.

It began when the employee inquired, rather tentatively, when the requirement for one hour per day of “obligatory overtime” would end, saying it had been in place for six months. (The term “obligatory overtime” is, of course, a prime example of double-speak. Managerial and professional staff are not paid by the hour. No extra salary is earned if they work longer than is specified in their contracts. In this case, as in many others, what “obligatory overtime” means is working without pay.)

The manager’s reply is distinctly huffy, beginning by stating the exact date on which the policy began and pointing out that it had been in place for slightly less than the six months claimed. The tone is “I can see you’re a whiner, but you can’t even get your facts straight.” The reply next refers to “workplace metrics,” whatever this may mean, as the basis for the actual time to be worked (what happened to peoples’ employment contracts?), and states that it is company policy to require staff to work regular overtime to meet “business needs.” This, at last, is clear. It seems that company has decreed its employees must do unpaid work whenever it decides they should. It’s not called that, of course, and the reference to “business needs” is obviously there to imply the company’s wishes — and profits — have nothing to do with their decision.

Still, our manager clearly feels this upstart questioner hasn’t been sufficiently put in his or her place and launches into a justification, pointing out that five hours per week of “obligatory overtime” isn’t “too much” and is well within company policy guidelines. It clearly doesn’t strike him or her as odd that a company should establish guidelines for how much compulsory unpaid working time is too much. How much unpaid work could any company demand? My guess is as much as it thinks it can get away with, which in this case seems to be more than five hours each week.

Next comes the manager’s clinching point: this five hours is “not even close” to the average for the industry. It seems our original questioner ought to be grateful to an enlightened employer for requiring less unpaid working time than the industry average. Think about it. If five hours is “not even close” to the average, the average must be, say, eight or ten or more hours per week. And, for that to be the average, there must be companies demanding maybe fifteen hours or more unpaid working hours. Our manager, however, clearly sees this as unremarkable. My guess is that the manager’s paid for a thirty-five hour week and probably does fifty or sixty hours, so hasn’t any sympathy for anyone who wants to work less time. I doubt whether he or she ever wonders if giving an employer upwards of fifteen hours of unpaid work each week is fair. It’s “the norm in the industry.” How fine for these corporations to have established an expectation that they’ll pay for only part of the time people must work.

We aren’t quite finished. The final part of the manager’s reply points out that the requirement for extra work was put in place because “customers’ needs weren’t being dealt with,” and there was “unmanaged workload.” The reply then ends by thanking the employee for raising the point and assuming, rather smugly, it has now been dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction.

Let’s look at this final part. If there was “unmanaged workload” and “customers’ needs weren’t being dealt with,” whose problem was that? Surely the manager’s, who is there to see the work is done. If there’s too much work for the staff to handle — as seems to be the case here — you need more staff. But extra people cost money and eat into corporate profits. The answer? Force the staff you have to work longer hours — without pay — by instituting “obligatory overtime.”

This sad little scenario is being repeated in hundreds of businesses and other organizations every day, the inevitable outcome of convincing people they should be grateful to have a job at all. The worst aspect of it is the ease with which executives have convinced their employees it’s normal business practice. There have always been occasions when a crisis has caused employers to ask for extra effort. My guess is most people give it willingly, especially to an organization they value. When did this free expression of support and loyalty turn into an expectation, then something that organizations can enforce through policies on “obligatory overtime?”

Am I alone in thinking there’s something very sick and uncivilized at work here?

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Mickie said...

Then there is the unspoken expectation that you will do overtime if you are a salaried employee. Even your peers will complain if you are not following that unspoken rule.

My philosophy has always been it is bad business to give something away for free. The company you work for sure doesn't do it and neither should the employees. Now I don't necessarily expect money but I do expect something, comp time was always fine by me. Of course I lost my job as I probably was on the top of their cut list. I'd rather be sane and working somewhere else that treats their employee's like humans. The contracting world is nice because they pay for every hour you work and my company gives me comp time for anything over 40 hours.

8:06 AM  
Paul said...

That exchange does sound awful.

However, I disagree that mandated extra hours is equivalent to "working without pay". Every "exempt employee" employment agreement I've seen is very careful to not specify the number of hours expected per week, except to note that more than 40 hours a week is not eligible for additional pay.

In other words, professional employees are responsible for their duties however the company defines them, regardless of how many hours it takes to accomplish them.

So, I'm getting around to a similar conclusion: the management of the company in question would have done better by clearly specifying the problem (the business needs) rather than just the solution (overtime). This would make the conditions for ending the overtime clear, and render the entire exchange unnecessary.


7:21 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...


Your comment is a thoughtful one and I am sure your are correct in what you say about employment contracts. But this is an ethical issue, not a legal one, and hinges on the way people are treated, regardless of purely legal rights.

What I am pointing to is a culture in which "management" sees it as fully acceptable to demand levels of time and commitment well beyond what most people would regard as a reasonable working week. It is this which I find uncivilized.

In a civilized organization, management would hold values that include ensuring people can have a sensible balance between work and non-work activities — not because they are obliged to do so, but because it is the right thing to do.

Employment contracts will always be unequal, because the employer holds most of the cards. Exploiting that is unethical, regardless of legal niceties. If there are exceptional needs for extra work, all it takes is to compensate people in some acceptable way — perhaps with time off at another time, if not with cash.

9:34 PM  
Baba said...

Ugh . . . This was interesting. It reminds me of some of the wrangling with administration over work time and "prep[aration] time I've encountered working as a teacher. Teaching contracts are usually quite specific, in some cases specifying work hours. Nevertheless, administrations and school boards find ways to reinterpret contract language, etc., to try to get teachers to spend even more time — which most do willingly anyway — working. They are trying to fit more and more curriculum into the same size school year and school day. Why? In hopes of raising test scores and keeping special interests happy — by covering their pet topic or "fixing" their pet social need via the schools.

Another tactic is to try to stick a "professionalism" clause into the contract. This means teachers may officially and finally consider themselves bona fide "professionals." In exchange, they must work until all their openly-defined "professional" duties are finished, no matter how long it takes. This will continue indefinitely even as we cram the curriculum with more to teach, increase your responsiblities to meet the educational challenges of the 21st Century, and ignore the fact that more parents are relying on the schools to half-raise their children.

Alternatively, teachers, you could just remain mere workers, with hours in your contract, . . . and we'll cut your benefits. Oh, don't think of not accepting the contract. We just might have to let the community know that you're not the noble selfless saints to whom they entrust their children, but in fact greedy bastards who want to — gasp! — be paid proportionately to the amount of work you do.

8:44 PM  
JKB said...

What was lost before the "mandatory" overtime was the concept that a salaried employee was understood to not be on a clock. That although they worked extra when needed, they also took time off when they were ahead. However, salaried workers became managed by the hour not the outcome or output.

Many exempt employees find little difference in their working conditions and those of the factory workers. They sit at a desk rather than a factory floor but feel they are on a production line. When the manager is monitoring the employee's time just as the timeclock does, when compensation is controlled by input with no relation to output, except for environment, the working conditions of "exempt" and non-exempt employees are more similar than divergent.

The unethical comes from the modern norm of considering an employee not at their desk when things are slow is cheating the company but requiring uncompensated "extra" time is not cheating the employee. The original expectation was that a balance would be achieved in the longterm. Either in time or in compensation, i.e., a pay link to the profit/loss of the organization. zdwvm

10:31 PM  
Photopoppy said...

At the rate the business world has been going, I'm surprised they haven't invested in a set of cots in the lunch room so that no-one has to leave.

JKB makes an excellent observation about time away from ones' desk being considered "non-productive time." I've spent the past couple of years indulging in various bad habits solely for a reason to get away from my desk during my "approved away-from-desk" time such as breaks - because if I remain in the office, it is assumed that I am working.

My office instituted "mandatory overtime" some time back - starting right before Christmas 2004. Numerous people protested, and one person wound up quitting her job in a fairly public manner over the lack of balance. (We are, however, paid hourly, so everyone involved got paid for the time worked.)

10:10 AM  
Anonymous said...

It's becoming more common, especially in the IT industry.

American businesses used to operate under the prilciple of "comparative advantage." That's not enough for them anymore. They need an "absolute advantage." Well, since there are always more workers than jobs (thanks to offshoring and importing hundreds of thousands of cheap H1B and L1 workers) they have it.

It's only going to get worse. mark my word.

10:01 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Sadly, you may be right.

Keep reading.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous said...

I work for a UK public sector company. We do not have required overtime and if the company tried it they would have no staff. Our current system sees everyone payed monthly for a set number of hours per week as stated in our contracts. Any work needed more than that is done voluntarily for standard overtime rate of pay or as time in leu. We are not required to work bank holidays or over the xmas period but we always get enough volunteers because they care about what they do and are proud of their efforts. We are, apparently, very lucky to have managers who know what is good for business. Our staff are happy enough and so the work gets done to a good standard.
The scenario in the original exchange sounds like extortion to me. Anyone considered a CLASS ACTION?

6:08 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Sounds like you work for an enlightened organization, Bob.

I'm afraid many in the USA are far less amenable to commonsense.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:59 PM  

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