The dangers of reinforcing bad workplace standards

Reinforcing bad workplace standards

“Work eleven, charge seven”, was the saying we had in consulting. What this means is that no matter how long you work on a given day, you charge the client seven hours. Instead of the real amount of time that you worked.

This unwritten rule was never said out loud, but it was commonly accepted throughout the organisation.

This was a hot topic of conversation. Especially since leaders told us that we should log exactly the hours we worked, not less.

It even got to the point where we had online training which specifically addressed this issue from an ethical standpoint. These were complete with videos demonstrating poor leadership behaviour and instructions to call the ethics hotline.

Shortly afterwards, a confirmation box appeared every time we submitted our timesheet. It said  “The numbers submitted in this timesheet is the real number of hours I have worked.” To submit the timesheet, you had to click that button. So we did.

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The very real problems arising from bad workplace standards

There are a number of significant problems that arise when leadership reinforce bad workplace behaviours.

Bad workplace standards result in increased stress

During my consulting career there were a number of people who started at the company from various backgrounds. They were completely blindsided by this unwritten rule.

I remember one example where a project had gone way over budget because somebody had logged the actual number of hours they worked, rather than only seven hours per day.

This was a big reality shock for them and I could see their brain struggling to comprehend the situation. “How can we report projects accurately if we are always lying about the hours worked?” Well…of course, you can’t.

The effect this had on people was significant because it resulted in cognitive dissonance, a mismatch between what they believed (that they should report hours accurately), and the behaviour that they were carrying out (logging false time sheets).

Bad workplace standards make people feel like they are underperforming

A leader once explained “Work eleven, charge seven” this way:

“Well, in a given day when you are out at a client, even if you are working for more than 7.5 hours, you are most probably checking emails, responding to phone calls from your colleagues and managers and having breaks. So actually on average, you probably only do 7.5 hours of actual client work.”

This doesn’t sound quite right to me. What this sort of statement implies is that even if you are busting your gut working twelve plus hour days, it all equals out to be seven and a half *real* hours.

In fact, this implies that if you were more productive, you wouldn’t need to be in the office for so long.

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Bad workplace standards can ruin your metrics

Do you know how easy it is to complete a project on time and on budget, when lots of people in your project team work additional hours for free? It is *much* easier.

The obvious problem with this approach is that the metrics you record are worthless. I never worked on a project that went over budget, because people never charged all the time they actually spent.

Now how does that make any logical sense? It doesn’t give you any feedback on your estimation process or how efficiently people are working. It is, in fact, ridiculous for any organisation that wants to improve the way they work.

The other side of the story

Whilst there are good reasons to stamp out your bad workplace standards, it would be remiss of me not to put forward the benefits of having workplace standards, even bad ones like “work eleven, charge seven”.

Workplace standards help an organisation create standard behaviour

It’s hard not to be one of the “pack”, when you work in these workplace standards, even if you disagree with them. In the example above, it is very difficult to go against the grain and to record more than seven and a half hours in your timesheet, because you know that everybody else doesn’t and you’ll get in trouble for it.

What this means is that an organisation can create behaviours that are culturally accepted and hard to change. In this case, if your people work longer hours than normal, you are getting more for less. As an organisation, you can still charge premium prices but clients will receive more work for the money spent.

This allows people to perceive consultancies as premium services. Even though in some cases clients are simply getting smart people working twelve hours a day, instead of an actual expert who works a few hours and gets paid a fortune.

Workplace standards can bring people together

You’ll find that people in prestigious industries that work long hours often bond together over that fact. Many consultants will often talk about how they work harder than the clients that they serve.

This view has the effect of building camaraderie amongst the team. The standards that are making them work long hours are a source of consternation, but also differentiation. Where people are put on a pedestal for being such “hard workers”.

Ultimately, bad workplace standards seem to be more damaging to individuals and beneficial to organisations that need their workforce to behave a certain way. There are costs, as employees leave their integrity at the door. This is harmful to motivation and general wellbeing.

When people force you to do something every day that is unethical, you fight an ongoing internal battle. Eventually you give in and the behaviour becomes normal. Once the behaviour is accepted as normal, it is a very difficult task to reverse because it is entrenched in the culture of the organisation.

Are you reinforcing bad workplace standards in your team?

Do these standards have some benefits, or are they just harmful to the individuals that work there?

What would be the consequences if you refused to follow the bad workplace standards?

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