in the salt mine

Modern corporate life has warped some of my perspectives on careers, the nature of work and even the way people relate to each other. No experience did more damage to my sweetly naive belief in the goodness of humans and the purity of the capitalist model than my time with a company I’ll call The Salt Mine. One lesson in particular stands out:  the importance of visibility (or lack thereof) versus the importance of output.

At The Salt Mine, we did large projects for clients.
We estimated the number of hours we would need to finish a job, then take the “official” rates of each of the people assigned to the job and come up with a rough estimate of the total cost to complete the project.  We’d make sure to shoehorn in plenty of hours for the highest paid consultants, and despite long, stern lectures on the necessity to report all hours worked we’d see staff, again and again, pressured to report working 10 hours when they were clocking in at 8 am and leaving at 11 pm.

To make the whole thing just a little more unpleasant, the managers (an intermediate role between the staff and the executives) were required to bill so many chargeable hours per week. As a manager, you had an odd choice to make – under-report your time and risk looking like you couldn’t keep up with your peers, or overreport your hours and risk making the projects you were shepherding less profitable (and it would be illegal, a la Tom Cruise in The Firm, but that’s just a minor detail).

For a while that practice created an uneasy balance between insane working hours and a reasonable, measured approach to working effectively until you were tired, then giving up for the day. Deadlines had to be met, too, and many of the staff were junior, inexperienced people, requiring mentoring and training.  Time spent training was not billable, though.  So we muddled along, trying to keep projects profitable while making sure we billed enough hours to justify our jobs.

Fade to six months later.

The executives had a wonderful idea. Business was good, but hiring good people to execute projects cost money.  Managers were getting the work done, and for the most part everyone left work at a reasonable hour by Salt Mine standards (7 or 8).  So let’s take this environment, and start publicly shaming managers by posting their billable hours by week on a big scoreboard visible to the whole office.

Keep in mind these were billable hours, not just hours worked. If a manager spent a day in training either for himself or training others, it wasn’t billable.  Billable meant you did work on a specific project for a specific client.  Billable time suddenly became very important.  The rumor went around that top billers would be promoted, and bottom billers wouldn’t.  The rumor was soon converted to policy, and the mayhem commenced.

You might think that ruining the profitability of the projects would bother the executives, but the simple truth was that revenue from the clients was based on a fixed fee. The profitability was merely an internal measuring stick, but since all of the consultants were on salary, 8 hours worked cost the firm exactly the same as 14.  Managers, though, were faced with the prospect of eating their own hours to make the project appear more profitable – but then looking shabby on what we called “the leader board” – or overbilling, making their billable hours look good but having horrible profit margins on their projects.

a separate piece of crap

The managers quickly separated into two groups. One engaged in mutually assured destruction.  The idea for this group was to work 120 billable hours per week, and to hell with profitability.  Face time, especially in front of the client, became the single goal of this group.  We’ll call these The Bloods, for the colors of their eyes.  The second group collapsed, effectively.  They knew they couldn’t keep up the manic pace and decided to work like they’d always worked – work 6 hours when 6 hours were necessary, get training, go out for lunch, and so on.  We’ll call this group the Crips, for the crippling of their spirits as they watched the leaderboard publicly declaring that they weren’t carrying their part of the load.

Stop and consider what you would have done. I’d argue almost everyone in corporate America thinks of themselves as Bloods.  They’d like to think they could just “do their job” but too often face time becomes critical for middle management.  I thought I could laugh off the pressure.  I was a mercenary, and had never considered even for a second making a long-term career out of The Salt Mine; it was a stop on the journey there and back again.  But that leaderboard changed things for me.  I had one of The Salt Mine’s largest clients to manage.  With tens of thousands of billable hours budgeted, I had the ability to create vast amounts of work for myself (necessary or not) and proceeded to do so.

So as time went on, the leaderboard settled into a bit of a pattern. I managed to hang on near the top – never the most hours, but never down in dreaded less-than-60-hours-per-week time.  My health suffered; my relationship with my girlfriend at the time wound down; and the patient mentoring I had done with my staff turned into barks of “just give it to me I’ll do it hell’s bells am I the only one who can get crap done around here give me that bottle of Tums yes you make yourself useful.”  I was Madonna, in other words.

I’d like to say the story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t. My stress level went through the roof.  After a serious illness my doctor told me, without humor, that I was killing myself.  Despite hovering towards the top of billable hours and winning new business right and left, I was given a backhanded promotion (promoted in grade but not allowed to refer to myself by the new title for another year for headcount reasons).  Colleagues who had coasted along at the bottom of the leaderboard weren’t fired, or held accountable, or given last pick of clients for the next year, or stripped of staff:  nothing happened to them except that they went home at 6 like normal people.  After one or two near-physical altercations in the office and one more health scare, I jumped ship after my demand that my salary be doubled was laughed off.

It’s a funny story – not a funny ha-hah story but a funny stepping-on-a-rake-and-putting-out-an-eye story. I like to think of myself as an intelligent person, but I look back on those times and wonder.  It’s not a great mystery, if I’m honest with myself.  I lost sight of the forest for the trees, too immersed in day-to-day details to step back and wonder why I was submitting to this treatment like I was some kind of corporate Andy Dufresne (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_dufresne) – except I was tunneling for freedom.  That period of time might have been one of the best times in my life to talk to a career coach, or read 48 Days to the Work You Love, or even read The Four Hour Workweek.  But I didn’t – but because I didn’t, I’m able to share a cautionary tale with you.  If you’re in that same situation, let me know and I can point you to a resource that can help you get out of that mess.  Like a soldier in a dated war movie, I can gasp out “go on, save yerself!  I’m done for, but you can still save yourself!”  I hope you do.

And maybe it does have a happy ending; I learned my lesson and got out.

(photo by kevindooley)

6 comments

  • Great story.

  • I hear where you are coming from. This once used to describe my life working 7am to 8pm – insane. But to be honest, it was the requirement of the job. But they were other folks working normal hours but making more than myself because they were in a “more profitable function”!

    How did I get out of this situation? To be honest, you just have to look for something better, something more sane!

  • Aaaah, this brings back some terrible memories at my old Salt Mine, Big 8 accounting at its prime.

    I, however was a member of the Crips, so left with my health intact . . .

  • Seems to be the story of the age. Where life in most companies and corporates are more or less similar to your story. There are the Bloods and the Cribs. Now, when more and more people become smarter, or learning from painful experience, the nicety of being the Crib… it should get pretty interesting for companies. It is at least my observation that more and more people are coming to realization.

    In fact, it's prevailing in Japan, which is called the “hodo-hodo zoku”. Look it up 🙂

  • I wasn't in such a corporate hole but I was deep enough in for my liking so I did a similar thing…. I got out. I don't earn anywhere near as much money now but I work from home and enjoy my job, mostly.

    Thanks for the insight into the salt mine….

  • How did I get out of this situation? To be honest, you just have to look for something better, something more sane!