home before dark

2003-02 Central Park

Related to an earlier post about consulting, I had an interview with a ‘traditional employer’ back in the mid-2000s. I’d had a long standing consulting relationship with the company and was even offered a position with them about a year into working with them. Once every six months there would be a brief flurry of interest about bringing me on board as a regular, full-time employee. The last time this happened, when I received an offer, I wasn’t ready to join for many of the reasons I mentioned in my earlier post: I wasn’t willing to give up the flexibility or decent hours that I enjoyed. Another reason I didn’t share with them was my general state of mental exhaustion with audit and Sarbanes-Oxley. I just couldn’t bear doing that full-time forever, and hoped to start transitioning more to finance and systems.

So we went through another little series of feints at one point and I was left feeling a little queasy. A new group had been formed in the company to do work similar to my area of specialty, but probably a little more technical than my usual ‘big picture’ work. I interviewed with two women, both of whom were very pleasant. I had spoken with one of them before as a consultant, but she didn’t remember me and I didn’t bring it up.  The other one I hadn’t met before, but she placed a great deal of trust on the recommendation from the woman I had reported to for the on-and-off couple of years I had worked with the company.

Both of the interviewees made cheerful – almost gloatingly so – references to how hard they were working and how much travel they were doing and how they worked weekends and late into the night. It made me a little bit sad and a little bit angry both at myself and at the culture I live in.

They were proud of spending so much time away from home. One of the women told me how important it was to get along with the team because you spend more time at work than you do with your family.  True, perhaps. But I thought ‘how sad for her family.’ When did that sort of thought process become normal? I think it is important to get along with your coworkers, but the way in which it was presented made it seem like it was a choice, and that the choice should be to focus on your colleagues even at the expense of your family.

Corporate professionals aren’t really compensated fairly. I wonder how you would feel if you calculated how much a Fortune 500 company makes in profit per year and then think about what your share of that profit was. If they have a good year, does your gross go up? No. If they have a bad year, do you get laid off? Maybe. The upside goes to the executives and the downside goes to the employees. I think half of the corporate workforce would like to say “hey, if I work hard and I’m successful, I want to be paid more.” I guess you might argue that’s what promotions do, but there are definitely plateaus there. I took a huge leap when I went from staff to management but once I hit management it definitely was a declining rate of increase each year. I make a lot more as a consultant, and if I work long hours I get paid overtime. If I work less, I get paid less.  If you’re a corporate employee on a salary, please do this exercise:  keep track of when you arrive and leave at the office for a month, and then take your monthly salary and divide by hours worked.  Include time spent at home checking email, too.  It’s the only way to be honest with yourself about what your ‘true’ salary is.

Are people just really good at hiding their emotions? I saw dozens of people in the office churning away at their work, seemingly content. Maybe they were just hiding it better than I am, but I wondered when exactly I lost that burning desire to claw my way up the corporate ladder – and to do it cheerfully. I definitely had it – I worked long hours and played the political games with the best of them for most of my early career. But somewhere in there my will to sell my life to my employers just died. I view my work as a distraction from my life, rather than the other way around. Article after article that I read tells me that unless my work and my values and my goals align, I will be miserable. That may be true, but a significant component of that equation is simply the number of hours you spend on work you aren’t that interested in.

What is the effect on young families? I really dread the consequences of generation after generation of kids growing up in America seeing their parents once or twice a week on the weekends. One of my favorite quips is that no-one ever wishes on their deathbed that they had only spent a little more time in the office.

 Does it matter if it ‘matters’? I have done my bit of mentoring and helping younger people become successful throughout my career, I guess. I have paid my taxes and earned enough to create a good home for my wife and kids, which took some effort after 2008. I don’t work for Halliburton or the Carlyle Group. One of the biggest disconnects I had with the big client I mentioned at the beginning of the article was my suspicion from my time working there that something was rotten in Denmark.  My suspicions were borne out in 2008, of course; just read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

But I didn’t take the job offer, obviously, and after 7 years of consulting I still come home while it’s light out 99 out of 100 workdays. That may not be everything, but it’s something, and my hope is that for my kids it’s a big something.