Christmas has come and gone and annual bonus pay-out season is upon us. Business Reporter’s resident American ‘blogger relates how thwarted expectations for both events can make a person bitter, dejected, and permanently cynical.
Another year is behind us. My local radio stations have finally stopped playing Christmas music. Most (not all) of my neighbours have taken down (or, at least, turned off) their garish blinking lights and inflatable cartoon lawn decorations. Everyone can pat themselves on the back for having survived another holiday season, and begin mentally steeling themselves to face all the unread e-mails they abandoned at the office back in December.
I apologize; I don’t mean to be Scrooge-like; Most of my Christmas spirit died alongside my illusions about business ethics in an empty cubicle farm in Ohio in the late 90s.
For context, I’d just mustered off active duty and had taken a job as an IT consultant with an international firm. I’d planned on becoming a successful businessperson with all the trimmings: suits that fit, business lunches, enough money to live on, etc. The standard American dream for someone trying to reach the middle class. Instead, my first assignment was to bilk a government client for hundreds of ‘consulting hours’ on a huge database project that nobody wanted and that had been going for so long that no one knew how to end it.
Adhering to our firm’s stated core values of selflessly placing the client’s interests above our own, I helped the government’s programme manager shut the obsolete project down. He was chuffed; he got to redirect about $3 million to other, urgently-needed, defence projects. According to our firm’s marketing materials, I should have been commended for always doing the right thingTM. Instead, I found myself sent to internal exile for having cut off a billing channel. Anyone with experience in the world of Big Consulting Firms could have told me that billing is the only thing that matters; project success or completion are nice-to-have accidents, not actual objectives.
A completed project means an end to a revenue stream; a failed project is an excellent segue to another lucrative project.
Thereafter, I spent forty hours a week idling in an empty cubicle in a nearly-deserted wing of an old government office block. I wrote about this situation a few years ago in my column For a Few Billable Hours More, which was later expanded into an eBook called Office Cowboys: Cautionary Tales from the Cubicle Frontier.  TL;DR: my boss (we’ll call him ‘Bob’ in keeping with tradition) posted me in a location where no one else could see me or hear me. Then I was given nothing to do for ‘my’ new project. My only task was to sit at my terminal and wait for e-mails to show up.
I volunteered to assist my fellow consultants and was sternly warned that I wasn’t allowed to perform any other work since I was a ‘dedicated resource.’ To add insult to inanity, my supervisor insisted that I ‘look busy’ all of the time. I couldn’t be seen reading a book. I couldn’t use the client’s PC to take online courses. I couldn’t use the client’s phone for personal calls. I understood the professional diligence aspect of our performance standards. At the same time, I found sitting bolt upright while staring vacantly into space for eight hours a day galling. In local parlance, I was bored out of my gourd.
This farce dragged on for months. Staring out the window at the falling snow led me to the obvious conclusion that my firm was only interested in how much revenue we could drain out of the client’s coffers. I did a little back-of-the-napkin math and worked out that we were billing the client about £5,500 a week for my presence. About £640 of that went towards my pay packet and benefits, leaving 88% of my billing as clear profit. The numbers made it clear why they were doing this to me and made it equally clear that they wouldn’t stop doing it any time soon.
Making things worse, I was a military man. Exploiting a government contract is anathema. I was wracked with guilt over how my firm was draining taxpayer funds out of a pointless project while providing no benefit to the taxpayers. I badgered Bob to transfer me to a viable project. Bob repeatedly told to stay where I was at. ‘You’re doing a fine job,’ he said. ‘Keep at it.’
I’m not sure if it would have been more or less condescending if Bob had balanced a dog treat on my nice before the perfunctory head pat.
When I’d first discovered unnecessary upgrades fraud on my first project, I thought that it might have been an isolated incident; one rogue consultant letting our side down. I’d convinced myself that it must have been an aberration. After being exiled to the Fabric Hinterlands the following winter, I began to realize that the entire office was at least partially culpable. Bob most of all.
This came into focus right after Christmas. Bob insisted that all of his direct reports attend a working lunch (on our dime, of course!). Bob gave a tepid inspirational speech, bragging about our last fiscal year’s revenues. Then his mood turned serious. He admonished us that we had a vital responsibility to the firm to keep our bill rate up. ‘There are 2,088 billable hours in a performance year,’ he warned. ‘and you each need to charge a minimum of 92 percent of your work hours to a client. If you fail to achieve at least 92% chargeability, you will lose your bonus eligibility for the year and may be terminated for inadequate performance.’
Basic maths told me that 92% billing left us only167 hours (20 work days and change) for personal vacation, sick leave, family emergencies, etc. The firm granted us consultants 240 personal leave hours each year; if we used our leave the way HR had urged us to, we’d lose our shot at an annual bonus cheque. It was a clever tactic for exploiting your workers; looking around the room, I could see that many of my fellow consultants had already squandered their bonus eligibility and hadn’t realized it until just then. People were despondent.
I was new to the consulting world and hadn’t gotten used to idea of depending on an annual bonus to make my budget. Some of my friends in the firm felt like they’d had their legs kicked out from under them.
As for me, I hadn’t taken any personal time off yet since I’d been saving mine for Christmastime. I elected to play along. When my parents drove in from out of town to visit their first grandchild, I worked all day and only saw them in the evenings. When I got terribly sick with the flu, I didn’t stay home. Instead, I spent a week feverishly shivering in my cubicle. I despised the company and everything about my life, but I got my bloody hours billed.
This revolting labour exploitation story had a happy ending … for Bob. At the end of our fiscal year when it came time to review each consultant’s performance, I strolled into Bob’s office with my billing records and handed them over with a smile.
‘Did you reach your 92% billing target?’ Bob asked in a smug and condescending tone.
‘I did,’ I said. ‘I achieved 100% billable hours for the year.’
Bob’s expression morphed from contemptuous to delighted. ‘That’s excellent!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s going to boost me over the target threshold and get me get a much larger annual bonus!’ He looked insufferably pleased. No grateful, mind.
I blinked, waiting patiently to hear about the ‘glorious rewards’ Bob had promised us for exceeding our individual annual performance targets. Without missing a beat, Bob dropped his exhilarated face, put on his ‘gravely-concerned’ expression, and advised me that times were very tough in the consulting industry. It would be improper and selfish, he lectured, for me to expect a large pay rise or a bonus during these ‘turbulent economic conditions.’
Joss Whedon’s dystopian vision of a future where an employer can erase a worker’s memory after every assignment must have been taken directly from our firm’s approach to performance counselling.
On the one hand, I very much wanted to lunge across the table and throttle him. On the other hand, I was shocked by his naked chutzpah. Bob had absolutely no sense of shame. His callous greed and utter disregard for his own people was staggering. Moreover, Bob couldn’t be bothered to shine me on about what was happening. He’d gotten what he wanted; no one else mattered.
To be fair, one positive thing did come out of my 100% billable year: Two weeks later, Bob shifted me off of his madogiwazoku-style internal exile list and relocated me … into the basement. I spent the rest of my time at that organisation sharing a renovated storage room with two other less-than-useless business consultants. We didn’t have windows or working ventilation. We at least had someone to talk to; acknowledgement that we existed. More importantly, we each had someone to cover for us. One of us was always there to claim that one or the other had ‘just stepped out’ when Bob came by so that we could run personal errands or be home sick while maintaining Bob’s precious 100% billing rate.
In retrospect, given where we worked and who we worked for, that was the best Christmas present we could’ve expected.
 Available later this year in audiobook format.
Pop Culture Allusion: Joss Whedon, Dollhouse (2009 television series)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.