Sunday, October 26, 2014

Encroachment: Five Years Or Five Yards?

Yet another demonstration of why Charles Hill is a long-time favorite of mine:

[M]any people well and truly hate their daily commutes, and that mass-transit options would appeal greatly to them if the logistics worked out. In my case, the logistics don't work out: bus stops are more conveniently placed for me than you might think, but two hours in and two hours back is 3:20 longer than it takes me to drive the 10.6-mile loop. And what bothers me, I think, is that people will look at that and think, "Oh, wow, three hours I can use to get stuff done."

Get stuff done? What can they do on the bus that they can't do at home? And this is where I part ways with these folks. One of my desiderata is a distinct line of demarcation between Work Hours and Non-Work Hours, and that line is paved with asphalt. I'm not taking my work home with me, and the stuff I'm not taking home, I'm not bringing back the next day....

This is not to say that my position is unimportant, or that I'm easily replaced; however, damn little I do has to be done Right This Instant Or Else, and since it is tacitly acknowledged that I manage time superbly well, they're generally loath to play the Emergency card.

My word, how I've longed to hear others voice such sentiments!


"Emergency! Everybody to get from street!" -- "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!"

There's an inevitable tension between work and those activities (including total inactivity) that are not work. It's difficult to define the boundary between them with exactitude, especially since many of us find the activities in the former category pleasurable, while the latter category -- for those among us insufficiently rich to hire a household staff, at least -- includes many things that, given an acceptable alternative, we'd rather not do. For the purposes of this screed, let's use a wage paid by an employer as the line of demarcation.

Accepting a wage for your labor creates both an unwritten contract and a set of expectations. It's in the nature of the conventional employment-at-will arrangement that both these things are incompletely defined. For example:

  • The "contract" doesn't specify standards of quality, nor does it encompass everything you'll be asked to do.
  • The expectations might include "emergency" provisions your employer can invoke, which he will deem you ethically bound to respect.

The consequences for ignoring the force of those considerations can be dramatic, ranging from your supervisor's spoken chastisement to an expensive lawsuit.

An unscrupulous supervisor will ruthlessly exploit such invisible-ink provisions in your "contract" to his and his company's benefit. Again in the usual case, you'll have little recourse beyond submitting your resignation and finding a better gig. White-collar workers are, of course, the cohort most exposed to such hazards.

In particular, the cost of compliance with invocations of emergency can be significant. The upper bound is higher than you might think. If we take a standard "work year" as 2000 hours of labor (50 weeks per year, 40 hours per week) and a standard "career" as forty-five such years (90,000 hours), your supervisor can add five years to that career by extracting slightly less than one extra hour of labor per working day from you. As the typical white-collar worker isn't paid overtime, that would equate to fifty years' labor for forty-five years' compensation.

That doesn't strike me as a bargain I'd care to make. Yet millions of other Americans have done so.


There's some truth in the old maxim that If you need something done in a hurry, take it to a busy man. As it happens, the busiest man in a typical shop is also the most skilled and productive man there. As skill and productivity are difficult to conceal, extra work "finds him" almost automatically. He usually can't decline the honor without some sort of penalty.

A brief personal vignette is illustrative. As a software engineer of long and broad experience, I am sometimes called into situations the like of which my younger colleagues have never seen. Some years ago, I was asked to assist in resolving a deadlock condition in a superannuated system that shared random-access memory among a DEC PDP 11/34, a Motorola MVME-147, and a custom-designed vector processor. My assistance was deemed necessary because no one else in the shop had ever worked with any of the processors involved, whereas I had had prior exposure to two of the three. I swiftly found the exact place where the deadlock was occurring, pointed out the reason for it, handed it off to my electrical-engineering colleagues, and returned to my previous labors, deeming my involvement properly at an end.

But my E.E. colleagues procrastinated and dawdled. They didn't want to work on that old dinosaur of a system. The project manager was unhappy -- with good reason; there was a million-dollar payment hinging on the delivery of that old system -- but he preferred not to vent his unhappiness upon those most responsible for it. So without first speaking to me, he issued a memo to my direct supervisor, to the effect that I was on a mandatory 60-hour week until the problem had been solved.

My response to that memo was to submit my resignation, effective immediately. Yes, it had the desired effect. But many a senior engineer, mindful of the difficulty of securing a new position in one's fifties, would have submitted to the demand, as pointless and abusive as it was, thereby adding fifty percent to his work week for no compensation.

Mind you, I enjoyed the process of finding and diagnosing the problem -- indeed, I reveled in the use of expertises and skills no one else possessed -- but that's hardly the point.


"You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The tension between work and not-work can be sharpened to microtome levels by making work pleasurable. For those of us fortunate enough to enjoy our trades, this is often a contributor to intense domestic anguish. It's sundered many a marriage.

The great Robert C. Townsend has argued for making work so much fun that "[the employee] comes in on Saturday instead of playing golf or cutting the grass." However, the equally insightful Scott Adams has pointed out that the Law of Diminishing Returns guarantees that at some point, one's "return" of profit and pleasure from an increment of work will dip below that available from other activities. There is justice in both approaches. It's up to each individual, employee or employer, to find the break-off point.

Some persons adopt a strategy of rigidity: 40 hours labor per week, no more under any circumstances. Others attempt to be flexible, hoping that their employer will be reasonable in acknowledgement of their willingness to accommodate. There are situations fitted to each of those approaches, but there are never any guarantees.

What's to be avoided is the automatic acceptance of a cry of "emergency." Of course, if the problem is your fault, that would be ethically unacceptable. But how often is that the case? How much more often is the genesis of the problem a bad job by management, whether in estimating, scheduling, resource allocation, or personnel deployment?

Your employer's innate incentive for extracting more work from you for the same money is powerfully compelling. Such demands could easily become habitual, and they're the worst enemy your personal life and ongoing enjoyment of your job could ever have. Don't automatically bend to his "emergency" encroachments on your non-work time. Even if you agree with him on the importance of the "emergency" and your indispensability to its solution, inflict "five yards and loss of down:" pleasantly, to be sure, but firmly and without embarrassment. That's the only counter-incentive at your disposal...assuming you can't get away with what I did, of course.

2 comments:

  1. "...What's to be avoided is the automatic acceptance of a cry of "emergency."

    The system I worked with I liked the best for that is the 'hourly minimum' emergency system. If I got called in for an 'emergency' fix I got paid for x number of hours no matter how long it took me to fix. So if I got called in because someone kicked a plug out of the socket, I'd get 4+ hours free money since it took me 20 minutes to drive in and 2 minutes to plug the machine back in.

    If something was actually seriously broken then I'd be paid normal overtime.

    In the end the company normally really tried not to call in the big guns for every little stupid problem. Of course it takes fine balancing to make that work well.

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  2. I should probably point out that my 40-minute drive consists of two 20-minute drives of 10.6 miles each. In practice, I can shave it to 18 or so, depending on whether I can make up time on Interstate 44, which is far busier in other parts of town than it is in mine.

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