Post Labor Day Thoughts on Misdiagnosing Workaholics

There are a lot of people who had to work on Labor Day just as there are a lot of veterans who had to work on Veteran’s Day, Moms who had to work on Mother’s Day, Dads who had to work on Father’s Day, etc., etc. Though Labor Day is an officially recognized “day off” for most, there are those that are specifically scheduled to work; police fire, retail, food, etc. Most of these workers will receive some sort of remuneration for missing the holiday, perhaps a different day off, extra pay, etc. Those that were scheduled to work probably made the appropriate adjustments in their personal itineraries to accommodate these schedules. They might not like having to work on a holiday but it’s a scheduled part of their jobs and their lives.

I did not go to work on Labor Day. Our company was closed for the holiday. I did not drop by the office. I did not take my “laptop” home (I rarely do). I’ve had enough of that. I had occasion on Labor Day to sit back and surf around the Internet for stories about working. Not surprisingly, there were more than a few articles about “workaholics” and, of course, the ever so popular self-diagnostic tests to determine if one qualifies for the title. I always find the ten or twenty questions interesting. Although I specifically did not intend on thinking about “the job”, those articles and questions starting me thinking about someone from our company that I just knew would be working that day – even though it was an official company holiday and he was not required to.

Ken works out of our Portland, OR office. He’s an administrative type, a fairly high paid employee but not considered management. He’s in his mid 50’s and has over twenty years of service. Ken lacks a formal education but has been a steady and trusted employee. He’s definitely not interested in relocation and so any career advancement opportunities are nil. Ken really doesn’t report to anyone specific in the West Coast office. He just handles all of the administrative tasks – and a lot more. Several years ago, during one of the company’s many, many, many reorganizations, Ken volunteered to take on some very tedious and complicated account reconciliations that were assigned to our division in Louisville, KY. Ken handled the work quite deftly and became quite expert at it. Taking on all this extra work caused Ken to work longer and longer hours, weekends and even holidays. But instead of just saying, “No, I’ve had enough,” he kept on volunteering for more and more.

My first encounter with Ken occurred right after I came on board with the company. The department that I managed had originally performed some of the extra work that Ken was doing. About a week into my employ, I received a call from Ken that lasted nearly two hours. He complained bitterly about his workload and wondered when I was going to “take the work back.” I had no idea of what he was talking about at the time. I decided to ask around and discovered that Ken always had a penchant for volunteering to do things and then complaining about how much work he had. I asked why Ken was never given any assistance and was told that he had always rejected the notion and, in fact, preferred to do everything himself. I recalled that during his two-hour tirade, Ken had even expressed to me that he could never be a manager over staff because he knew how demanding he was. I remembered asking him why he felt it necessary to put in all of the hours. His answer was that “they” wanted all of the deadlines met, that “they” wanted all of the accounts reconciled to the penny and that the work just had to be done. When I asked whom the “they” were, he just laughed incredulously, “Why Charles in corporate finance of course. Don’t you know who he is? Hasn’t he given you all of the deadlines?”

Every conversation that I would have with Ken since that time went the same way. First, he would remind me of his workload. Next, he would go into the most infinite of details about what he was doing. During these conversations Ken would use a tremendous amount of acronyms and “shop talk”. He would speak as though I already understood everything he was talking about it. Whenever I’d interrupt and remind him that I was new to the company and not ”hip to the jive”, it seemed to frustrate him. Yet at the same time, it seemed to make him feel important to use lingo that was foreign to me and required me to ask him to explain further in even greater detail. He was definitely well versed in the company and superb at what he did. Ken seemed to love talking about the minutiae at length and then complaining about the amount of work in the same breath. It was a strange dichotomy.

I had no organizational authority over Ken but I agreed that the work needed to be transferred back to the division. I hate to see people working hellacious hours and so I came up with a plan to transfer the work to Ann, a new staff member in the department. Ann had no problem with the transfer and so I attempted to coordinate an orderly transition. The work appeared to be of a complexity that did not lend itself to training over the phone and so I attempted to get Ken to come to Louisville for a week to train Ann. To my surprise, it was like pulling teeth. Ken could not free himself up, even for a few days. It took months to put together a schedule and I got the impression that Ken had only grudgingly agreed to it.

So we finally got Ken to come to Louisville for a week to work with Ann. It was nearly a disaster. Ken blew through the processes and procedures so quickly that Ann could not even take notes. This was complicated and painstaking work. I could hear Ken talking a mile a minute and using the usual jargon that set Ann’s head spinning. Ann did the best she could. Ken had set his own schedule for the trip that included earmarking an entire day to be spent with Charles in corporate finance.

It was apparent that Ken idolized Charles. Charles was one of those penultimate micromanagers in the finance department at corporate headquarters. Ken and Charles were kindred spirits of a sort although Charles was at least three rungs higher up the organization ladder. Charles was not very highly thought of by his staff. He was overly demanding, extremely detail orientated and single minded. I was told through the grapevine that Ken had complained to Charles about Ann. According to Ken, Ann was not a team player and a slow learner. I also learned that Ken had also complained to Charles that I was not pushing Ann hard enough to take on the work. In fact, Ken and Charles both believed that I should have been taking on the tasks myself and not delegating them to Ann. I was a manager and Ken felt that those tasks could only be performed at that level because prior to reorganization, the former manager had performed the work. Charles agreed with Ken. I’d already had a few run-ins with Charles myself over several issues. Our philosophies about management seemed to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.

So Ken returned to the West Coast and Ann was only able to retain about 60% of what Ken had “taught” her. After debriefing the bewildered Ann, I spoke to Ken to obtain his take on the training session. Not surprisingly, Ken complained that Ann was not “devoted” to the work and was not making a sincere effort. OK, the next compromise was to try and figure a way for Ann and Ken to accomplish the rest of the training over the phone.

Ken worked on Pacific Standard Time and liked to stay late. Ann worked on Eastern Standard Time and started early because of her children’s school schedule. There were only three to four core hours per day when they were both available to communicate. But Ken filled the workday with his normal duties as well as a variety of projects that he had also “volunteered” to take on. Ken demanded that Ann stay late to complete the training on his terms. Ann could not. I intervened and told Ken that if he really wanted the work transferred, he would have to compromise and free up time during the day to work with Ann. Ken grudgingly agreed. This went on for two weeks. During that, time, Ann mentioned that she was starting to get the picture of how these reconciliations were being performed and that she now believed that Ken had so overcomplicated the processes that it might take her a few months to reengineer them.

Now it’s the Friday before the Labor Day weekend. It’s 6PM EST and I’m about to leave the office. Everyone else is long gone. As a final “pre-holiday” gesture, I decide to check my E-mail. And there it is – the scathing E-mail just sent by Ken to Ann. The document accuses Ann of not working hard enough, shirking her responsibilities and skipping out early on the Friday before the holiday – once again leaving poor Ken holding the bag. Ken will now have to work the entire weekend to meet Charles’ deadline. Of course Ken copied the world including Charles on his E-mail.

Come Tuesday morning, I grabbed Ann before she logged onto the computer and warned her about the E-mail. Ann was livid. She countered that she had been unable to communicate with Ken for two days prior to Friday. She had E-mailed Ken several questions during that time and Ken had not replied. Ann was pretty fed up with both Ken and the entire process. She actually threatened to quit. After she calmed down, Ann decided to privately reply to Ken’s E-mail. Per Ann’s request, I reviewed and sanctioned the “cleaned up” version with all of the expletives deleted. Boiled down, it went like this…”If you’re so intent on getting this work off of your plate and on to mine, then you’d better start communicating in simpler terms. If you think that you’re going to get me into some sort of “trouble” over this in order to get me fired or disciplined, think twice! If I go, you’re stuck with the work.” That was a true statement. No Ann; no transfer. I backed Ann 100% on this and made sure that my superior knew about all of these issues. Again, I had no real organizational authority over Ken and in our goofy organization structure; I couldn’t seem to find anyone who actually did. Of course I received a visit from Charles who snarked about the fact that Ken had to work all weekend to meet a deadline that was ultimately MY responsibility. Rather than get into a long and drawn out argument, I ignored him. That infuriated Charles even more.

What is Ken’s agenda? Why is he constantly putting himself and others through this? Why did the company allow this to happen to a trusted employee?

I harkened back to the articles that I’d just read about Workaholics and thought about the characteristics and behaviors displayed by Ken. One might consider this workaholism but I am not so sure. Over the years I’ve run into types like Ken before to one degree or another. Here are a few more test questions that I might ask seeking a different diagnosis:

-Does the employee or employer equate long hours with loyalty?

-Does the employee feel a lack attention and work horrendous hours thinking that it will get them noticed?

-Does the employee idolize micromanagers and/or workaholics? Does the employer openly reward those types?

-Does the employee or employer confuse working long hours with working hard?

-Does the employee make things more difficult than they really are in order to spend more time on them in response to the previous questions?

-Does the employee volunteer for more and more when their plate is already full? Does the employer encourage it? Does the employer discourage it?

-Does the employee set unreasonable expectations for themselves? How about the expectations of the employer?

-Does the employee complain about the grueling hours or insane schedule that is associated with any of the above?

-Does the employer tacitly approve of these behaviors and ignore the complaints?

When I’ve noticed these symptoms in employees that report to me, I immediately sit them down for a long talk. This is not healthy behavior. My normal workweek at the office is 60 hours plus. I do not expect this from my direct reports. I know my limitations and after thirty years of this, I know when enough is enough. I’ve seen the results of this kind of behavior before.

One thing that seems to separate the classic workaholics from people like Ken is the apparent love and devotion that many workaholics have for their work. There is no love here. Not with this kind of complaining. In fact, I’d bet that many so-called workaholics are people just like Ken whose motivations for killing themselves over a job stem from a whole host of emotions other than love and devotion.

Any thoughts?


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