Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marking Time

Civilization is all about mediating our baser instincts with layers of ritual and indirection. Let's face it, many (if not all) of our relationships are based on what someone else can do for us, as long as the price is not too odious. But when we strip away enough of the dance to simply trade sex for cash, the veneer gets too thin for most people's tastes.*

Another place the veneer can get pretty thin is the timesheet. From the time I was fifteen, I was compelled to punch in, sign in, or log in at every job I worked, accounting for my time to the minute initially, and later to the quarter hour. Like toddlers getting haircuts, new workers generally find this practice horribly degrading and painful, and it often takes several years for the indignation to fade. This is because they see it for what it is.

After about thirty years of this, I found my indignation returning. I'm sure this is partially because of the type of jobs I was doing, and the accompanying changes in expectations. Dairy Queen paid me $2.50 for every hour that I spent cooking, mopping, waiting on customers, and making out with Nancy Jacuzzi in the walk-in cooler. After I clocked out, they stopped paying me, and I effectively stopped being an employee. They really didn't care much what I did, as long as I wasn't wearing the little paper hat.

Inexorably, job by job, that social contract changed. I was still expected to account for every minute that I was on the job, but employers expected more. Loyalty, concern for company property and welfare, unpaid overtime, appropriate wardrobe, abstinence from certain extra-curricular activities, and "other duties as directed" are routinely expected by employers, with no real change in attitude toward the employee. Admittedly, they pay more than Dairy Queen, but as the punchline to the old joke goes, "Now we know what you are, we're just haggling on price." In the most extreme cases, we essentially rent the best years of our lives to someone else. The final straw for me was my CEO calling on a Saturday afternoon, asking why I had not responded to the e-mail she sent two hours before.

The last four years have been the first of my professional career without timesheets, and it is hard to describe the difference. People still tell me what to do and expect me to be at work, but I feel much more in control of my own priorities and actions. Our focus is on results, not what people do with every minute of their day.

In the end, the real difference is probably inconsequential. I'm still doing what someone else wants in exchange for money. But the extra layer of indirection makes it easier to pretend we are all in it together.

* Mine included, in case you're wondering. On the occasions I've been compelled to visit "gentleman's clubs" for bachelor parties, I generally keep to myself, try not to touch anything, and leave as soon as possible. I think they are the saddest places on Earth. A stripper actually asked me once if I was "afraid of titties." True story.


  1. CEO calling on a Saturday afternoon? I can relate to that. When you are at the top of the heap, it's a lot more fun to live and breathe the job 24/7. I work for someone like that, who cannot understand why I would not want to be called about something minor on a day off. A couple of years ago, he was flabbergasted that I wanted to take a couple of days off around the holidays. He couldn't understand why in the world I would rather be doing something other than working for him.

  2. Geez...your boss is a last job, my boss asked how he could get hold of me on my beach vacation. I told him he couldn't. Between that and the fact I called out his passive-agressiveness, it's probably a good thing I ended up leaving when I did.

    Nancy J? Seriously??!

  3. Unfortunately our government in an attempt to protect the hapless employee requires that many jobs be classified as non-exempt and that every hour be tracked.

    If you had an employer that classified you as exempt and still make you log every hour then that's a bit excessive. If they were tracking you with sophisticated cameras and keylogging then that's just good business.

  4. let's hear more about Nancy...

    i was part of a team once where we were working for the greater good. sure, we probably wouldn't have done it for free, but we were jazzed about the goal, and driven to get there. That experience sort of spoiled me... i wanted the rest of my career to be that way. It hasn't happened. At least not yet. But i keep looking for it, as i count the remaining days toward my retirement in 6 years. 6 years 14 days, to be exact...