May 16, 2005
Postcards from the labor market

There were a couple of stories in the Business section that caught my eye recently. First is this piece about how the offshoring trend has had an unanticipated side effect - scheduling regular meetings with coworkers whose workday doesn't intersect your own is really awkward and intrusive into what one normally thinks of as one's own time.

Silicon Valley workers grumble that communicating with colleagues overseas requires midnight teleconferences, 6 a.m. video meetings and the annoying “pling” of instant messages and twittering cell phones all night long. Although many techies swapped social lives for 80-hour weeks during the ephemeral dot-com boom, the 24-hour business cycle seems even more stressful than the caffeinated ’90s: Today’s long hours are less likely to result in windfall bonuses or stock options, and there’s no end in sight.


Some executives who ask workers to burn the midnight oil offer flexibility — longer lunch breaks, telecommuting privileges and complimentary dinner if you work past 6 p.m. Others dismiss complainers as spoiled or provincial — after all, customer service representatives in Asia have worked on U.S. schedules for more than a decade, so why shouldn’t Americans deal with time-zone challenges as the industry globalizes?

The staunchest advocates say whiners should find new professions. Richard Spitz, who leads the technology division of the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, says corporate clients want employees who embrace a 24-hour business cycle.

“If you want to play in the A league, you have to take on some additional challenges,” Spitz said. “It might not mean that you have to work around the clock for your entire career — at some point, you can step off the treadmill. But if you want to be in the business, then you have to commit to this schedule for some period of time.”

Hold that thought for a minute while we look at this story about absenteeism.

"[N]o-fault" attendance programs, which run counter to the trend toward more family-friendly approaches, are migrating from factories and warehouses to white-collar workplaces as employers try to standardize discipline and wrest greater control over workers' schedules.

In Chicago, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.'s Bank One tracks and disciplines unscheduled absences at its operations centers. People's Energy Corp. does the same in its call centers.

Such policies are gaining sway in an unforgiving economy where staffing is lean and turnover and absenteeism are chronic problems in some lower-paying clerical, technical and service jobs, experts said.

No-fault policies eliminate judgments about whether an absence could have been avoided. Instead, they draw a strict line between planned and unplanned time off. Typically, no more than six unscheduled absences are tolerated within a year, although multiday illnesses count as one "occurrence."

Those with paid days off for illness or emergencies still get paid, but these unplanned absences count against their attendance records.

"It's no-fault, but it's also no-excuse," said attorney Timothy Huizenga of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metro Chicago. "People who are sick are treated the same as those who don't feel like coming to work."


Illness accounts for 38 percent of unplanned absences, while family issues, personal needs and stress account for 52 percent, according to an annual study by publisher CCH.

Only 10 percent of unexpected absences stem from an "entitlement mentality," according to the study. The report was based on a random poll of 305 human resource executives.

"For most employees, absenteeism is something they really can't control," said Susan Lambert, associate professor at University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration.

"Kids get sick — the average is 10 days a year — and policies are never that generous," she said. "A lot of these policies are trying to legislate stability, but they're not taking into consideration the realities of people's lives.

"What's most effective in trying to reduce absenteeism and turnover is flexibility and well-designed jobs."

As a personal note, I get called by Olivia's daycare provider if they find that she's running a temperature of 100.4 or higher. It's happened three times, and each of those times I've had to leave work to pick her up and take her home. (I'm the one who does this because Tiffany takes a vanpool to The Woodlands and thus literally can't leave work to get Olivia.) If anyone can suggest a method by which I can know in advance of Olivia's illnesses, I'm sure I'd appreciate it.

My point in highlighting these two stories is that I seriously doubt you'd see this kind of crap in a robust labor market. In a robust labor market, where people have actual options if they don't like their current jobs, nobody would put up with this kind of interference with their private lives. I'm not saying that no concessions have to be made to the global economy, or that absenteeism isn't a legitmate concern. What I am saying is that employees who can go elsewhere tend to get treated more like adults and less like probationers. Who would choose to accept this if they didn't feel like they had to?

You can take all of the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly reports about job creation and unemployment and draw whatever conclusions you want. Me, I'll believe the economy and the job market are doing well when I stop seeing stories like these and start seeing stories about job retention bonuses and new innovations in fringe benefits.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 16, 2005 to Bidness | TrackBack

If there's one thing that my company does well, it's the time off policies. The company policy is that if someone has to leave after four hours, they are considered to have worked a full day. I've been there five years, and I have four weeks vacation and nine sick days a year, as well as an additional ten days that were grandfathered from the old procedures (although those ten days can only be used for more severe illnesses). It doesn't hurt that my boss knows that I will take at least one day a year for my back pains, and two days a year because I am an insomniac that becomes useless in the office if I can't get any sleep at all. I also get comp days for any weekend day that I have to work, which occurs once or twice a year due to projects that my department has to work on.

Posted by: William Hughes on May 16, 2005 7:44 PM