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To Bill or Not to Bill

Don't let anyone bully you into working hours off the clock. It's a common practice, but also an unethical one

Dear Liz,

I work for a management consulting firm where client satisfaction is by far the biggest priority. I've been here for four years and have had four excellent performance reviews. Right now I'm working on a client project that takes up a tremendous amount of time. My project manager gives me special subassignments at the rate of two or three a week, on top of my usual tasks. I have been completing these assignments at night, because I'm away from home anyway during the week and because my client contacts need me focused on their priorities all day long.

Last week I got an e-mail from my project manager (located in another city) chiding me for having logged too many hours on my weekly report. I called him to get clarification and he said, "I'm going to have to eat some of these hours; I can't bill the client for all of them." I asked him whether that meant I should back off on the after-hours work, meaning back off on the special assignments, and he said no. Now I feel stuck. If I log my hours, I'm in trouble with the project manager, and if I don't log them, then I'm violating a major company policy and I could be fired. Anyone checking the project schedules could easily see that I'm putting in extra hours that the client isn't being billed for. Any advice?



Dear Martin,

This is a bad and unfortunately common practice, and also an unethical one. Your project manager seems to be implying that you should work off the clock, but you need your hours on the clock. It's his decision—or that of someone higher up—whether to bill the client for all of them, but your company needs to be aware of how many hours a client's work is taking. I'd send your project manager a very polite and professional e-mail message explaining that you are at the clients' disposal all day throughout the week, and executing the special assignments at night as a result. Create some documentation that you're only doing what you've been instructed to do and that client satisfaction is a high priority for you, as you've been instructed it should be.

If your project manager continues to give you a hard time, seek out the overall practice manager and share your concerns with him or her. It is never the right decision to play fast and loose with the firm's time-and-projects reporting system to stay on your project manager's good side. I hope that you can avoid unpleasantness with your project manager, but if not, you'll still be making the right call for the long term by hewing to the company's process.



Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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