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Timesinks

Eating hours is not cool, and yet a former Big Four partner claims it's all the rage

IwanttobeaCA has a very interesting interview with a retired KPMG partner which features many candid comments on the nature of the Chartered Accountant designation and how things have changed over the years in the profession.

It also includes some smart tips for students trying to get hired - talk to the junior staff at recruiting events instead of trying to impress the big shots in attendance. With a small mob of people crowding around the top representatives, they're unlikely to remember you in particular, but the younger people from the firm you're interested in working for not only may have a better chance of remembering you, but you're more likely to make a positive connection with them. And the recruiting teams do ask those younger staff to identify who were the standout candidates.

There's one aspect of the interview which I found absolutely troubling, though. It was the nonchalant attitude towards "eating hours".

You ate time to meet budgets. And now you're dead anyway. Congratulations.

Eating hours means working and not reporting the number of hours incurred on a job to make the work look less difficult and time consuming than it really is.

From the interview:

Q: So let's talk working in Big 4. What are your thoughts on eating time?

"John:" (laughter) Eating time is an unspoken tradition. No one wants you to eat time, but if you eat it, they are happy. (more laughter)

Really, this is more a problem in the senior, manager levels who are looking to impress. The bottom line is important to partners, especially junior partners. I won’t lie to you. Any partner who tells you otherwise is flat out lying through their teeth.

There is no way around this problem. If I say I don’t want you to eat time, you’ll say I’m lying. How can I be unhappy with a bigger cut of the profit? If I tell you to eat time, cause I’ll write you a good review, you’ll think I’m a greedy SOB. So how can I possibly look good? Either way I lose.

Really, Partners want the all star managers to be partners. If you’re not an all star manager, eating time is one way to make that appearance. I won’t talk about the ethics or so behind that. It’s climbing the corporate ladder. You earn your stripes in a difficult way in any organization.
"

Wow.

Well it's not "unspoken" anymore for his former firm, courtesy of the retired partner "John" who asked to speak anonymously for his interview.

If there's anything I've witnessed during my relatively short career, it's that I've received consistent and firm instructions to be honest with timesheets. They say that there are cultural differences among firms, and this is probably a key example of actions you would expect a whisteblower line to help with.

Now, you'll notice that, even under the veil of anonymity, the partner was careful not to say he's ever instructed someone to do this, but the way his response is presented makes you question why he didn't actually come out condeming the practice, instead shrugging it off with the pat "You earn your stripes in a difficult way in any organization" response. That makes it sound like his firm condones the practice, which is simply horrible, because it can lead to the creation of a Doom Spiral.

Meet the Doom Spiral

Year one: the team goes over budget, but only charges the budget amount.

Year two: a new team comes in, looks at last year's budget, and the hours charged. Hey, it matches. Nothing else has changed, that must mean the budget was accurate. The team then encounters a job that can't be done in the budgeted time. A naive person will think that the "year two" team isn't as good as "year one". Either the quality of the work suffers as "year two" tries to get the job done in the artificially compressed timeframe, or their budget gets killed. If the firm's culture is still bad, though, then they'll embrace the "year one" team's approach of eating time.

Year three: Well if in "year one" and "year two" they managed to hit the budget, this year we can decrease the budget since we already know the job and can be more efficient.

This, is the Doom Spiral. If you eat time, you're contributing to it.

If you're in a firm where this is common practice, that's awful - dealing with it won't be easy. If your firm is more upstanding, then stand up to the error and don't allow people to bully you around.

Whenever you're challenging an incorrectly prepared budget, you must be ready for resistance with:

  • a detailed account of where you spent your time
  • reasons why the original budget is unrealistic (the first bullet should help greatly)
  • an itemized list of areas of "out of scope" work that contributed to the overages. Depending on the job you're on you may not want to touch any work that'll put you over budget until you get explicit approval to do so.

If you can't defend the reason for killing a budget with hours that exceed what you were initially given, yes, you won't look good. But I speak from personal experience by saying that it is both possible not to mention laudable to challenge unrealistic budgets.

You're not doing anyone a favour by eating time. In many if not most engagements, clients are charged a flat fee based on the original contract (unless you find some of that sweet "out of scope" work), so going over budget doesn't directly hit the client. Instead, it hits the internal cost structure of your firm. Well if they're not managing their internal cost structure effectively by indulging in poor budgeting practices, wouldn't it be better to help them realize this sooner rather than let the spiral towards doom.