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.