Clock Watchers Redux

Today, I'm taking a break from my series on Work Lessons Learned, to touch on a subject that has been percolating for quite a while.

Starting about three years an ago, I wrote two series of blog posts on the following subjects:

  • Extreme Boss Behaviors that Employees Hate
  • Employee Behaviors Managers Hate

The second contained a post on the subject of Clock Watching.  Here is a link to the original blog post:  Clock Watchers -- Employee Behaviors Managers Hate #8.

In case you're not familiar with the term, in management circles a "clock watcher" is an employee who focuses on putting in exactly the amount of time they are scheduled for, and not one minute more.

The purpose of this series of posts was to point out to employees things they might unwittingly be doing that will undermine them with their boss.  For some reason, however, a few readers seemed to think I was somehow advocating in favor of the bosses that engage in this behavior.

To try to clarify, I've decided to dive into the subject in a bit more detail.

Clock Watching is a Choice

If you've been in a corporate environment for any length of time, you've observed Clock Watchers.  I'm not talking about an occasional early departure, I'm talking about a systematic pattern of behavior where the employee either arrives at the last minute, leaves in the first minute after the end of their "shift," or more probably both.

Years ago, when I worked in a large, automotive component, manufacturing plant, I used to see shop floor workers literally running for the exits when the horn sounded signalling the end of their shift.  Yes, running.  It was undoubtedly the fastest many of them moved all day.

Of course, there is a difference between an hourly worker, who is literally trading hours for pay, and their salaried counterparts.  Managers expect to pay hourly workers for every minute (well, from a practical standpoint it is usually every 6-10 minutes) they are on the job.  Salaried workers are, for better or for worse, are considered "professionals" and expected to conduct themselves in a more "professional" fashion.  In many (but admittedly, not all) manager's opinions, this includes committing extra time on the job when circumstances require.  Some managers appear to expect extra time most of the time.

Against this backdrop of opinion -- Note, I'm not making a value judgement on this, yet.  Just stating the facts as I observe them -- employees that fixate on the clock can easily become a "burr" under the manager's "saddle."

Why do managers feel this way?

Managers themselves are usually expected to dedicate hours beyond the typical forty hour work week.  More ambitious managers typically take on more responsibility and commit more time -- hours spend either "on the road" (in other words, traveling) or in the office.

Is it absolutely necessary for ambitious managers to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week?  That's hard to say.  The answer often depends on the opinions and practices of the "Big Boss."  Having spent a number of years working directly with CEOs, in my experience they all evaluate and critique the hours put in by their managers.  Why do they do so?  Although CEOs may say they value "results," comparing employees and the results they contribute is difficult.  Most professional jobs are unique, and it can be tough to determine where the lines between mediocre, good, and great lie.  But every employee's commitment level is relatively easy to evaluate by watching the amount of time they put in.

In my experience, a senior manager exhibiting "Clock Watcher" behaviors simply does not exist.

One of my peers was fired and the primary reason was the perception that he was "phoning it in."  He wasn't in the office enough (admittedly, probably less than forty hours a week) and the behavior had a detrimental impact on the morale of his subordinates.  There was no question in anyone's mind that his behavior (in a senior manager) was unacceptable.  A "Clock Watcher"  in senior management would invoke a similar reaction.

Why does it matter for lower level management or professionals?

Quite simply, because sh!t rolls downhill.  Senior managers expect those working further down in the organization to model their behavioral leads.  Particularly if they are ambitious and expect to get ahead in the organization.

For most managers, a certain amount of Clock Watching is tolerated among their salaried employees.  Most likely, however, they will also conclude that the employee has little or no interest in being promoted.  Why?  Because they aren't modeling the behavior of the company managers whose ranks they might wish to join.  Whether a first level manager who "watches the clock" would be tolerated depends on the organization and how important the question of time commitment is within the organization.  Based on what I've observed, CEO opinion and corporate culture set the tone and should be no mystery to any employee that pays attention.

I can assure my readers that in the organizations where I've worked, I've heard employees repeatedly knocked out of consideration for promotions because of "Clock Watching."

Teams of "A" Players

Managers are coached to develop teams of top performing individuals, or "A" players.  Can "Clock Watchers" be "A" players?  Probably.  All other factors being equal, however, the employee that commits more time to the job will probably perform better.  Can managers look past clock watching when determining if a player is grade "A?"  That's a lot tougher.  Managers may know that their Clock Watcher is a top performer, but may have a difficult time convincing those further up the management ladder.  Why?  Because those higher level managers see the behaviors and/or know the employee's reputation as a Clock Watcher, but may not be aware of the quality and quantity of their work contributions.

Blatant Clock Watching behaviors -- things like leaving a meeting at 4:01, or cutting off conversations unfinished because the workday is done (or it's break time), or reading at your desk during lunch because that's "your" time -- are very obvious to people.

And these behaviors will also annoy your peers, who will conclude you are trying to "get away with something."  Your enemies will use those behaviors against you, making sure those in management are well aware of any obvious signs of Clock Watching.

Odds are, it is going to hurt you.

You may not lose your job over it, but you're substantially less likely to be promoted.  Or taken as seriously as other employees that appear to be more committed.

And you probably won't make the list of "A" players.

What can you do?

I detailed this in the original post on this subject.  There are many reasons that people leave right away when their shift for the day is done.  There are even reasons that management would consider "legitimate."  Picking up a child.  Ongoing medical appointments.

If the reason you're clock watching is one of these, simply making your manager aware of the reason you bolt for the door at 4:30 every Tuesday and Thursday, will help tremendously.

If you simply don't want to be there any longer/later, and don't have a "good excuse," then at least try not make the behavior blatant.  Don't leave meetings or end conversations early or unnaturally.  Try not to let you comings and goings be obvious.  Park in different locations.  Use alternate routes to go in/out.  Wait just five extra minutes.

If you can, stay late once in a blue moon.  Make sure people notice.

It's all about managing perceptions.

Is It Fair?

Most of the complaints I've heard on this subject are of the following form....

"I don't see why I have to put in extra time.  It's unfair.  If I can get my job done in forty hours a week, why should I have to waste any of my personal time?  Managers should be focused on quality over quantity."

All good points.

The problem is, life isn't fair.  Neither is work.  As I mentioned above, managers have a much more difficult time evaluating quality of work and productivity than they do quantity of time spent.  Their bosses will undoubtedly be wondering why more work isn't assigned to the person who can always get their assignments done in forty hours, anyway.

In theory, companies shouldn't be using the "time spent" yardstick as a means of evaluating employees.  In an ideal world they would look only at productivity and quality.

But the corporate environment is anything but ideal.

The point is, you can wish things were different all you want.  Reality in most corporations is that time commitment matters.  With a few exceptions, Clock Watching is frowned upon.  Sorry, but it's a fact.

My personal feelings

In one of my jobs, I worked for a boss that was obsessive about managerial time commitment.  In that job I traveled incessantly, worked ten to twelve hour days most of the time, regularly attended evening dinners and fundraisers on the company's behalf, and still listened to my boss complain that "nobody was here on Saturday" when he came in to the office.  Unfortunately, he did watch the time I spent at work, and it was an important element of his evaluation of all his subordinates.

I resented his obsession with measuring my time commitment.  I found myself feeling guilty when I did need to leave on time, or even (gasp) early.  I worried when I had to turn down a dinner invitation.  At least when I traveled, he couldn't directly observe when I was leaving for the day.

I short, I hated the situation, and had similar feelings to those I wrote about above.

But I learned that it was the price of admission into a senior management position.  I accepted the situation for what it was, and didn't waste energy complaining about why it should be different.

As to my own subordinates, I tried the best I could not to let their time commitment practices impact my evaluation of their work.  I attempted to focus on quality and productivity.

But it wasn't easy.  And sometimes I failed, defaulting back to the company standard of expecting extra time from my managers.

I never fired anyone for clock watching.  I didn't automatically throw them off the "A" team.  But I don't recall ever promoting a clock watcher, either.  In that environment, doing so would have been virtually impossible.  My boss would have never allowed it.  And had I even recommended a clock watcher for a promotion, he would have immediately questioned my judgement.

When is it okay to watch the clock?

You can clock watch when any of the following are true:

  1. You are working in a company where committed time isn't a (formal or informal) measure of performance.
  2. You are in an "hourly" type job.
  3. Sometimes (depending on company culture), when you are in a "clerical" position.
  4. When you don't have ambition to be promoted.
  5. When no one can observe your comings and goings.

In general, however, I advise against this behavior.  A few modest compromises made to disguise or moderate Clock Watching behavior will pay dividends in the long term.  No matter who your employer is.

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, complete with a story about how a "deal" they are negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, everything is not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.