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My Boss Has A Near-Psychotic Obsession With People Being On Time

What do you do when you want flexible working hours but your boss is watching the clock?

My Boss Has A Near-Psychotic Obsession With People Being On Time
[Photo: Flickr user Katelyn Fay]

On a basic level, work is about showing up at the same place every day at a certain time to complete a set of tasks. But for many of us, work is much more than that, and bleeds into many other parts of life. We aren’t punching a time clock. But what if your boss is watching the clock?

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This week, psychologist Art Markman helps a reader who thinks his working hours should be more flexible, while his boss has a more traditional view.

Hi,

I work a few rungs under a division head who has a near-psychotic obsession with everyone in his department getting to work on time. Even my manager has acknowledged to my team that it’s gotten out of control, but there’s nothing she can do.

I work in a big city with unreliable public transportation (to say the least), making it impossible for my coworkers and I to get to our desks at the exact same time every day. But not only does the division head drive to and from the office, he’s also a workaholic. He arrives extremely early and regularly stays late, so he can’t accept that the rest of us simply can’t arrive promptly at 9 a.m. every single day, especially if we’re “only” working 40 hours a week. What should I do?

Thanks,
Definitely Not Saved By The Bell


Dear Definitely Not:

Your letter reflects one of two diverging trends in the workplace. On the one hand, some workplaces are getting more informal and giving their employees more flexibility to do their work when and where they want. On the other hand, companies have a hard time measuring people’s productivity, particularly for tasks that require some amount of innovation. And so companies measure other aspects of people’s behavior, like the number of hours they put in and the time that they clock in and out.

Your division head is a particularly extreme version of this second trend. Thankfully, it sounds like your direct supervisor agrees that this is a problem.

There are several things you can do here.

If your company has an evaluation system that supports 360 feedback, then your division head needs to get clear communication from the people below him that the focus on the time that people arrive to the office is counterproductive, because it does not take people’s personal lives into account. If your company does not have a formal mechanism for providing feedback from reports during evaluations, then your manager should talk with other, more senior management about ways to provide feedback to your division head.

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From your letter, it is not clear what the actual consequences of the division head’s displeasure are. Clearly, he makes it clear that he wants people to arrive on time. Does he mention it when people arrive late? Are there actual formal consequences for your career if you arrive late?

This matters, because it affects the way you want to approach the problem. If your division head is just griping, but this does not actually have any lasting consequences for your career, you may just want to ignore it the way teenagers ignore parents who establish rules they have no intention of enforcing.

If employees have actually had negative consequences as a result of arriving late, then you have three options. The first is to continue as you have, do your best to arrive on time, and suffer the consequences when life intervenes in ways that make you late.

The second option is to start looking for another job. Not every company has this focus on timeliness. If things are not going to change, you might want to consider working elsewhere.

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The final possibility is to work with your manager to find a solution. I realize she says there is nothing she can do, but really there is nothing she wants to do about the problem. There are always opportunities to influence the way rules are enforced at work. Your manager has made a cost-benefit calculation and has decided that it is not worth the effort to speak up. However, if there is a possibility that she will lose valuable employees because of this policy, then she might be more motivated to help create a change.

Ultimately, it is amazing how seemingly small aspects of the environment can ultimately come to be so important. This focus on getting to the office on time has actually made your office an unpleasant place to work. That lesson is also important, because you may take on a leadership role one day. It is worth thinking about how the priorities you express will affect the people who work for you.


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

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