Classic: Behaviors Managers Hate, Clock Watchers

Originally posted on 01/27/12 and 03/24/14.

Does the term “Clock Watcher” refer to the employee restricting his time at work to the absolute minimum, or the supervisor that is observing such behavior with disdain?

It could be either.  The term is used disparagingly by both employees and managers.

Keeping with the theme of this series – employee behaviors that drive their boss’s crazy – we will be primarily focusing on the manager’s perspective in this post.  Keep in mind, however, that when it comes to Clock Watching, strong feelings extend in both directions.

Clock Watching is a Choice

If you've been in a corporate environment for any length of time, you've undoubtedly noticed 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, engages in 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 claxon sounded signaling the end of their shift.  Yes, running.  Like they were school kids on their way to the playground.  It was undoubtedly the fastest many of them moved all day long.

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 in 6-10 minutes intervals) they are on the job.  Salaried, exempt workers are, for better or for worse, considered "professionals" and expected to conduct themselves in a more "professional" manner.  In many (but admittedly, not all) manager's opinions, this includes committing extra time on the job – at least when circumstances require it.  Fair or unfair, many 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, at least not yet. I’m just stating the facts as I observe them -- employees that fixate on the clock can easily become a "burr" under their manager's "saddle."

I once had a subordinate that appeared to be running a side business at work.  It happened far too often that he “had to run to town on a personal errand” or was otherwise occupied during normal working hours.  While he didn’t leave the office as soon as the clock struck 5, he was clearly carving time away from the job in order to satisfy other (business) interests.  And while this didn’t bother me all that much as long as he got his other work done, it definitely annoyed his peers to no end, generating repeated, vicious complaints.  Eventually, I was forced into a confrontation over this problem when his performance slipped on a couple of projects.  While he promised to reform, and did so for a few weeks, before long he was back to his old ways.

Eventually, we parted company in a most unfriendly (and, I’m sure in his opinion, an unfair) fashion.

Why do managers get all bent out of shape over this?

Managers themselves are normally expected to dedicate hours beyond the typical forty hour work week.  More ambitious managers typically take on more responsibility and commit even more time -- hours spend either "on the road" (in other words, traveling) or in the office.  It’s not hard to see how managers might equate “solid career prospects” to “dedication” and, in turn to “long working hours.”

Is it absolutely necessary for ambitious managers to work 50, 60, or even 70 hours a week?  That's hard to say.  The answer to this question 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 directly subordinate executives.  Why do they do this?  Although CEOs may say they value "results," comparing employees and the results they contribute is often problematic. Most professional jobs are unique, and it can be tough to determine where the lines between mediocre, good, and great lie.  And timing matters.  A genius who steps in at the wrong time in the business cycle will show poor results, and the idiot that lucks in at the right time will display the exact opposite – at least for a time.  This is the source of the often repeated career wisdom:  “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

But every employee's commitment is relatively easy to evaluate, simply by noting the amount of time they put in.

In my experience, a senior executive personally exhibiting "Clock Watching" behavior simply does not survive – at least not for very long.

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.

"Clock Watching" by a senior executive 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 the behavior of those higher up – particularly if they are ambitious and expect to get ahead.

For most front line managers, a certain amount of Clock Watching is tolerated among their salaried employees.  Most likely, however, they will also conclude that the Clock Watching employee has little or no interest in being promoted.  Why?  Because they aren't modeling the behavior of the company’s successful managers whose ranks a promotion would allow them to join.  Whether a first level manager who "Watches the Clock" would be tolerated depends on the company 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 this should be no mystery to any employee that pays attention.

As an example, my CEO boss in one of my jobs vocally opined that “he needed to come to work every Saturday morning “to catch up on paperwork and other items he couldn’t get around to during the week” and further said that he didn’t see how the rest of us could get by without doing the same thing.

As you could easily guess, the ambitious among the executive staff started showing up for work every Saturday morning, whether they needed the extra time in the office, or didn’t.

I can assure you that in every organization where I've worked, I've heard employees knocked out of consideration for promotions because they were considered to be "Clock Watchers."

Teams of "A" Players

Managers are coached to develop teams of top performing individuals, or "A" players. Can "Clock Watchers" be "A" players?  In truth, some probably can.  All other factors being equal, however, the employee that commits more time to the job will probably perform better – particularly if they devote a lot more time.  Can managers look past Clock Watching when determining if an employee is grade "A?"  That's a lot tougher one.  The manager may recognize that their Clock Watcher is a top performer, but may have a difficult time convincing those further up the management ladder.  Why?  Because higher level managers readily notice Clock Watching behaviors and/or are aware of the employee's reputation as a Clock Watcher.  On the other hand, they may not be aware of the quality and quantity of the Clock Watching employee’s work contributions.

Blatant Clock Watching behaviors -- things like leaving a meeting at 4:01, or cutting off conversations midsentence 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 your boss.

These behaviors will also annoy your peers, who often times 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.  And you probably won’t be taken as seriously as other employees that appear to be more committed.

And you almost certainly won't stay on the list of "A" players.

What can you do?

There are many reasons that people leave right away when their shift for the day is done.  There are even reasons that most managers would consider "legitimate," such as picking up a child, or ongoing medical appointments.

If you’re Clock Watching because of one of these, simply make your manager aware of the reason you bolt for the door at 4:30 every Tuesday and Thursday.  It will help tremendously.

If you Clock Watch because you don't want to be there any longer/later, and lack 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 your comings and goings become obvious.  Park in different locations each day.  Use alternate routes to go in/out of the property/building.  Wait just five extra minutes sometimes to improve your cover.

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

It's all about managing perceptions.

Is It Fair?

This photo was inspiration for the cover of EMPOWERED.

This photo was inspiration for the cover of EMPOWERED.

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, and neither is work.  As I mentioned before, managers have a much more difficult time evaluating “quality of work,” “results,” and “productivity” than they do quantity of time spent.  And their bosses will undoubtedly be wondering why more work isn't assigned to a 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, results, and quality.

But the corporate environment is anything but ideal.

The point is:  you can wish things were different all you want.  The 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 when in town, regularly attended evening dinners and fundraisers on the company's behalf, worked occasional weekends in my kitchen, and still listened to my boss complain that "nobody was here on the weekend" when he came to the office on Sunday.  Unfortunately, he did watch the time I spent at work, and it was an important element of his evaluation of me and all his other subordinates.

I resented his obsession with measuring my time commitment.  I found myself feeling guilty when I did need to leave on time, and much more so should I consider (gasp) cutting out early.  I worried any time I had to turn down a dinner invitation.  At least when I traveled, he couldn't directly observe when I was done for the day.

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

But I learned that it was part of 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, results, and productivity.

But it wasn't easy.  Sometimes I failed, defaulting back to the company’s 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.  Had I 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) substitute 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 will pay dividends in the long term.  No matter who your employer is.

Posts in the “Behaviors Managers Hate” Series (Chronological Order)

Classic:  Extreme Leadership Types

Classic:  The Super-Critic

Classic:  The Micromanager

Classic:  The Burnout

Classic:  The Diva

Classic:  The Oddball

Classic:  The Procrastinator

Classic:  The Regurgitator

Classic:  The Screamer

Classic:  The Blame-gamer

Classic:  The Gentleman

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Here is the cover for my latest novel, EMPOWERED, which was released in ebook and paperback versions on October 12, 2014.  EMPOWERED is the story of newly hired division president Colin Jensen, and his investigation into unexplained performance problems in the shipping department of TruePhase Chemicals division.  The story is set in Indianapolis during a blizzard, and takes its inspiration from the television series Undercover Boss.  As always, there are a few plot twists that I hope will surprise and entertain the reader.

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