Ask 100 people to define Change Management, and you'll get 100 different definitions. At the end of the day, the definition is just semantics. What really matters is whether you can implement a Change Management program in a practical way that allows you to support your organization in successfully achieving its goals. Whether you're a Change Manager, a consultant, or the tech. guy who was told to "figure out some Change Management stuff," this blog will help address common issues and topics you're likely to run into along the way.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Negative Impact of Ghosting Hours

Forgive me, Readers, I'm about to get on my soapbox.  Over the years, dozens of new consultants have listened to my speech about the dangers of ghosting hours.  Today, I'll share the speech one more time.

First, let me describe the phrase "ghosting hours."  Unlike the legal profession, where new associates are encouraged to work as many hours as possible and bill them all to a client, in the consulting profession, consultants are often encouraged to work as many hours as necessary, then only record 40 hours at the end of the week.  The hours that were worked but not recorded are "ghosted."

Even on projects where ghosting is never explicitly discussed (and most managers know better than to directly tell their team to ghost), it is implied.  Too many weeks with too many hours recorded generates frowning leaders and hard discussions.  The expectation, however, is that the work still get done...usually without any additional resources.

The benefits of ghosting are obvious.  Keeping (recorded) hours under control helps projects make their margins.  It makes the client happy.  It makes the consulting organization believe that the project is running smoothly - on time and on budget.

These are only short-term benefits, though.  In the long-term, ghosting has a negative impact on the organization, the team, and the individual.  And I firmly believe that the long-term negative impacts far outweigh any short-term benefits.

Five Dangers of Ghosting Hours

  • Estimating - Many consulting firms have an estimating model they use to determine how long a project should take, how many resources are required to do the work, and how much they should charge the client.  These estimating models are typically based on extensive review of past projects.  Even firms that don't have a set estimating model will look back on their projects and use them as a guideline for bidding on new projects.  Despite these estimating models, projects consistently run over budget and miss deadline after deadline.  Teams are constantly asking for more resources.  It has gotten to the point where many consultants assume from the start that every project they're on will be extended.  There are a hundred reasons why this might happen, but one of the root causes is ghosting.  When team members hide the true number of hours they are working, the historical record of the effort required to complete a project is wrong.  This leads to inaccurate estimating models, which leads to low-ball bids and project timelines that can never be achieved.  It might not seem to matter if a low-level testing resource shaves 10 hours a week off of his time report.  But if every tester does the same, you are quickly looking at enough hidden hours to support an extra full-time resource.  Multiply this across all of the teams on a project, and it's easy to see how a "little ghosting" can lead to a grossly under-estimated project and a large time and money over-run.
  • Finances - The short-term financial benefits of ghosting are obvious.  Recorded overtime eats into a project's hours and budget.  The Partner can either choose to eat these hours, which kills his margin, or he can pass the hours along to the client, which leads to a very unhappy client.  When you consider the cost of missed deadlines, project extensions, and budget over-runs discussed above, however, one or two projects that miss their margins in the short-term are a small price to pay for better estimating models and more accurate bids that lead to consistently more successful projects across the organization.  What would your consulting firm save if it could reduce the number of projects that required an extension?  What would you gain in repeat business from clients who were happy to finally work with a consulting firm that met all of its deadlines? 
  • Quality of Work - I'll keep this one brief.  No one does their best work after 5 straight months of working 60 hours a week.  On many occasions, consultants will ghost hours without letting their managers know.  They don't want anyone to think they can't handle the job.  Or they've received the cultural signals that overtime is frowned upon, so they hide it.  Whatever the reason is, let me pass on this advice I once received from a very good manager, "No one can help you if you don't let them know you need help."  Clients pay a lot of money for consultants.  They expect top notch work.  Ghosting degrades the quality of work.  This upsets clients and makes them less likely to pay for your company's work in the future.
  • Trust - Many companies have policies against ghosting.  When the company policy states that ghosting is not allowed, but a project is asking team members to ghost, the consultants are put in a tricky situation.  Do they ghost, and go against company policy?  Or do they record all of their hours and risk the wrath of their immediate leadership?  This situation degrades the trust between consultants and their leadership, and reduces the team's ability to work together as a cohesive unit.  When a team can't work together, it takes longer to produce lower quality work.  I direct you again to the cost of missed deadlines and poor output.
  • Burn Out - Consultants burn out at an alarming rate.  When I tell people I stayed at one firm for five years, they're usually surprised.  That's a long time to stay at a consulting firm.  Studies have shown over and over, though, that there's a huge cost associated with losing an employee.  Not only are you losing all of the time and money you have invested in that person - think training and mentoring - but now you have to spend time and money to find a replacement and get that person ramped up to a comparable level.  Ghosting directly contributes to burn out, which directly hurts your organization.
The short-term benefits of ghosting may help an individual project, but the long-term negative impacts affect the entire consulting organization.  It becomes a cycle that amplifies the damage over time and is increasingly hard to break.  Considering the cost of ghosting, though, the question isn't whether your company can endure the immediate pains of breaking the's whether it can afford not to.


  1. Very good commentary, Em! This is definitely a very relevant conversation that I think we need to have at my firm, so I just forwarded to my boss. Thanks for writing about this issue so clearly!

  2. Thanks, Kris! I'm glad you found it helpful! I really believe clients, consultants, and consulting firms would all benefit from eliminating the practice. Good luck with that conversation!

  3. True, but I think this doesn't reflect most consultants experience. I have worked with two Big 4 employers and its rare when a budget is actually priced at what it would cost. The downward pressure on billable hourly rates, and maybe even the selling of underpriced engagements tom compete comes at the cost of consultants burning out and not charging what they work. In the end not charging what is actually worked hurts the consultant immediately as the percentage of time we are utilized (chargeable hours)is largely what our bonuses are based on. Its the dark side of consulting...

  4. Jstrategy - Thanks for your comment. I agree - the pressure on consultants to work more and bill less is common. I've seen a lot of great consultants leave their firms as a result of burning out. It's bad for them, and bad for the consulting firms, which are losing many of their best people.

    My goal with this post was to point out how ghosting actually hurts, rather than helps, consulting firms. This trend of ghosting hours and burning out employees needs to be addressed if we're going to see improved customer, employee, and firm satisfaction.