Discretionary Effort is Theft

The holy grail of employee engagement. Get better at it and what do you get? More discretionary effort from your staff. Get better and better at employee engagement and you get more and more discretionary effort.

Work Life Balance

Except…the last time I looked we only have 24 hours in any one day, and we can only function productively and meaningfully for so long. So for employees to give more of that discretionary effort to their employer, well that means they have less to give to themselves, their family and their friends. and that doesn’t sound much like a balance to me.

Unpaid Overtime

How much is enough? Workers in the UK already work among the longest hours in Europe. And according to the TUC, around five million UK workers contribute over seven hours extra a week without pay. They estimate that to be worth upwards of £4,500 ($7,200) a year in extra pay.

If employers are really serious about engaging, then more consideration should be applied to binning bonuses and distributing some of that pot and the savings that come from no longer having to frig the figures, sorry I mean administer the bonus scheme, as an increase in pay. And perhaps overlay an across the company flat rate profit share scheme to distribute part of the extra benefit gained from better work?

Acceptable Discretionary Effort

So if there are only 24 hours in a day, and we’re already working long hours and making unpaid contributions already, is there a case for acceptable discretionary effort? Perhaps there is. Let’s say your team has a major project to deliver within a certain time, and things are tight. If you work for an employer who already treats you right then perhaps being asked for a burst of extra effort to get something specific done is fine, so long as a) we can be clear on how much extra we think is needed and b) for how long. If discretionary effort becomes any more of an expectation that that, then it’s not discretionary effort, it’s theft.

photo credit

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

11 thoughts on “Discretionary Effort is Theft”

  1. Doug, I agree with the challenging question and I certainly do not subscribe to working longer hours on a regular basis. Its the old utilisation verses effectiveness argument I used to have in my manufacturing days.

    To me, discretionary effort is about what motivation we bring to our work, not how long we work. Its about the degree of challenge and risk we take, the degree of question, and how much we are prepared to go outside the formal expectations. Going beyond one might call it.

    I agree there needs to be some form of “contracting” around that, and has some recognition for exceeding expectations. I do feel its too easy for management to keep demanding more, their role is to prioritise at all levels, and focus people on whats important, rather than just work!

    All of the current discussion on engagement ought to achieve greater discretionary effort, only longer hours if thats what is chosen by the individual.

  2. Discretionary effort – is that when front line employees on a few pounds an hour are expected to chip in with half an hour a day for no pay to demonstrate their passion for their employer?

    The ‘he who works longest works hardest’ culture breeds theft from the frontline rather than drive engagement.

    Ian, if only your ‘discretionary effort’ viewpoint was more widespread. I fear many middle management would carp at an industrious, smart, efficient and effective employee that clocked off at 5 every day.

  3. Discretionary effort should not be about additional hours. It is wide ranging but can be very basic. Will I try and make it in to work when the weather is bad? Will I offer a helping hand to a new colleague? Will I be proactive or wait for instruction? Will I suggest my new idea or stick with the status quo?

    Over worked and exhausted workers are unlikely to remain engaged and discretionary effort will be short-lived.

    In my experience, those who work long hours (consistently) are those who feel least secure, not necessarily those who are most engaged.

  4. Organisations should not be encouraging more from employees with lovely little tidbits, like ‘here’s a bit of bonus’, or ‘you’ve still got a job’.

    They should be using their vast cash reserves (some diminishing due to quite light fines and no prison sentences for past misdemeanours) to employ more people, pay interns and generally not trying to squeeze more blood from their staff. And perhaps redistributing some of the senior pay – after all, how many of the top team have other jobs as well…….just like our dear MPs.

  5. Discretionary Effort is not about working longer hours, it’s about giving more of yourself: giving more effort. It’s about the person who answers someone else’s phone that is ringing, and does something about the problem, rather than keeping their feet up and thinking its nothing to do with me. It’s about employees pushing themselves towards a hundred percent while they are working, rather than the 60 percent that is typical. It is also a good feeling, as it feels like you are doing the right thing. If your having to be asked to do it, it’s not employee engagement

  6. I agree with Ian and Perry’s comments earlier …. discretionary effort should, in most cases, be seen as the additional enthusiasm, effort and creativity which people can bring to work if they are engaged, committed and motivated by their colleagues and managers.

    If there are times when some voluntary time is also offered (beyond any time flexibility an employer grants people normally) that’s a bonus that should not be too eagerly exploited.

  7. Thank you everyone for your comments, they are very useful. I agree with your observations about how so called discretionary effort should not relate to extra hours worked, and yet for a lot of people – that is still exactly how it plays out.

    A point of this post was to try and provoke a conversation – and you have all helped hugely with that, and added lots of interest to the matter too. Cheers – Doug

  8. If you work in media as I do, discretionary effort is pretty much written into the contract.
    I have a basic number of hours but then a clause which says I must work the hours required to complete the job. With a side note saying I have to agree when the hours exceed 50 in a week.if I don’t agree however…. then there would be trouble.
    This is all without extra compensation if any kind. Time back isn’t practical or possible most of the time due to workload.
    During the Olympics, I and most of the team I work with did in excess of 70 hour weeks. With zero extra compensation. It was expected we would be delighted and honoured be producing all of this fantastical material because we’re in love with our jobs and subject matter.

    When I pointed out to one of my seniors that in fact I’m there because I’m good at my job and have a mortgage to pay and a life to live it was met with a blank look. That’s just the nature of the industry I find myself working in. Like it or get out!

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