Presenteeism worse than being absent


I heard something interesting the other day from an HR Manager.  When posed the question “what do you think of someone who finishes their work sooner than their colleagues?”  His reply was “well, that person obviously doesn’t have enough work to do then.”  This got me thinking.  If I were that employee what incentive would I have to work, smarter, harder, and more efficient?  Or to find better ways to do something with less effort?  Answer: NONE, zip, zilch, nada.

In this management philosophy, the result of me doing working faster is only rewarded with more work.  I don’t get off early, I don’t gain any time for myself, and chances are I am not getting paid per widget I produce.  So what does this screwed up system of work/reward (if you can call it that) produce?  I think it produces two things:  liars and slower workers.

Now, before I get too deep into this, let me describe what presenteeism is.  Presenteeism is simply the act of being present.  You are not actually doing anything, you are just there.  And this is EVERYWHERE in the work place; in meetings, at your desk, on phone conferences.  And it comes from this antiquated notion that if you are there, you must be doing work and if you are not, then you obviously aren’t.  The mere fact that I am sitting at my desk proves I must be working, which is nonsense.

I remember when I first started my current job and in the first few weeks there was not a lot expected of me in terms of production.  My job as I understood it was to get a lay of the land, meet some people, and do some reading.  Yet, every time my boss or a colleague passed my office, I frantically started moving my mouse around and typing just to give the mere impression that I was doing something.  In reality I wasn’t doing anything, I was just practicing the art of presenteeism, I was just there.

My behavior was hold over of the political game of my previous employer who frowned on people who left early.  Now, I typically got there at 7 in the morning and I was done with my workload by 3.  The first few times I just asked if anyone else needed anything and when they said “no” I left, which was great!  I could spend 2-3 hours of the afternoon taking care of errands, going on a hike, whatever.  After a couple weeks my boss came and told me I needed to stay until 5 as some of the other team members “had noticed” I was leaving earlier than them.  Nevermind the fact that one of them did not show up until 10 or 10:30.  When I asked what I should do if I get my work done and no one needed help, she actually replied with “I don’t really care, I just need you to stay until 5.”  So, I did what any logical person with a computer would do when they have free time and I surfed the internet for 2 hours each day after I got my work done.  Again, another feedback conversation happened where I was told that was not an appropriate use of company resources.  At that point, even though it was against my nature, I slowed down everything I did, I went to people’s desk and had casual conversations that were meant very specifically to kill time between jobs.  I came in at 8 and left at 5.  There, everyone happy now?  Not me!

I was angry, demotivated, and most of all, totally cynical about my job.  I no longer cared about how much I got done or how quickly I turned around projects.  Nothing was met with any sense of urgency.  I did not care to look at my production numbers and instead of doing more, I did less.  And worst of all, all those side conversations I was having with others…I was soaking up 30 minutes of their time too.  So between the two of us we just spent an hour doing nothing to help the company.  And for what: the mere appearance of working – a.k.a. presenteeism.

And here is the kicker, my colleague who came in at 10am but did not leave each day until 6:00 was lauded for her work ethic even if she produced less than me.  She was getting less done and charging overtime to the company than I was in 7 hours of work.  Starting to see how ridiculous this whole thing starts to become.

This starts early in our careers.  “You got time to lean, you got time to clean” was a favorite saying of my first boss in high school.  So, instead I spent my day walking around the store as if I had a purpose.  If my boss ever asked me what I was doing, I made something up.  I became a liar.  And to be honest, being a liar was better than telling the truth.   Had I said “nothing”, then I would have looked lazy.  And is not that I was lazy or didn’t want to clean, I just did not want to clean something that was not dirty.  It just seemed like a waste of my time and not was I was really getting paid to do.

In my first account my reaction to getting judged simply on my presence and finding that working efficiently simply got me more work was to work slower.  I became lazy.   I worked just hard enough to not get talked to.  Heck, I would even go to bathroom and read for an hour so I could fill the day.  And since the willingness to work overtime was seen as a “good work ethic” I would work even slower so it took me longer than 8 hours to do what initially was 6 hours of work for me.

And let’s keep in mind, this is NOT what I wanted to do, this behavior was caused by my boss’s desire for me to simply be present.  And the cultural norm that overtime meant you were working hard.  So I lied about what I was doing so I sounded busier, and I worked slower on projects so I worked 30 minutes overtime each day.  Sounding dumber by the minute, eh?

In a mobile, 24/7, global, and knowledge based economy the whole idea of the 8-5 workday and 40 hour workweek just doesn’t make sense anymore, at least not as a rule.  Sure, there may be scenarios when you need to be there at a certain time or for a certain length but that should be guided by what work needs to be done, not this weird rule of even if you are not doing anything, you need to be here.  I was more productive and engaged in my work when I could manage my schedule and I think you will find your employees would be too.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here