Flirting with billable hours

There are, of course, many ways and contexts in which we can define the word integrity. The most succinct and elegant one I heard was “Doing the right thing even if nobody is looking”. This explains why we do not jump a red light in the middle of the night, even if we know there is no cop or surveillance camera around.

And then, there are many ways to interpret the word freelancer — in a way, all of us are freelancers, whether we get paid for a unit of time or a unit of work.

20140119_133634 = Dollar symbol gold ?

In this context, I am reminded of a freelance writer that our software firm had once engaged. She was tasked with writing some website content and marketing material. She charged on a time basis, stipulating a minimum of X hours per month, for which she would charge Rs. Y per hour. She did not specify the minimum duration of each of her visits to the office; they were typically 2-4 hours long.

One day, I told her that I would need to brief her on something — could she come by the next day, for a couple of hours? She said that it would be tight — she would be able to arrive at 2 p.m. but she would have to leave for a 4 p.m. appointment, so she would not be able to spend much time. I thought about it and then explained to her that I could discuss only the urgent part; my discussion would then be only about half an hour long, an hour at most. She said this suited her just fine, because our office was anyway en route to her 4 p.m. destination.

The next day, she arrived at 2.20 p.m. (she was always a bit off schedule). As promised, I finished with her in 40 minutes. After this, I noticed that she was hanging around at the desk of Jay [name changed], my next-seat colleague. She started chatting with him — on software and technology in general, but nothing to do with the work on hand. I was worried that I had not made myself clear enough, so I once again told her that I was through with her and that she was free to leave. She nodded but did not budge.

Now, Jay was attractive, friendly and extremely interesting to talk to. He was anyway not exactly busy at the time, so he saw no reason to shoo her away as she spoke with him. She made herself really comfortable by plonking herself on his table. Gradually, she moved closer and closer to him, making her eyes large and taking her face close to his. I was amused to see this, and I was even more amused that Jay, busy playing with some cool graphic, did not even realise what was going on! [And I could not help wondering if Jay too had noticed her bad breath.]

Crossed legs = Dollar symbol gold ?

When she finally left at 4.30 p.m., it set me thinking: I had seen her hanging around on several occasions at people’s desks, usually Jay’s. Surely, she was not going to charge for the time spent this way? I got the answer in a few days when she sent her invoice to another co-worker, who was in the US at the time of this meeting (she did not copy me, even though I was the new point of contact). Sure enough, she had billed all of two hours for that day!

I had no issue if she wanted to flirt with Jay — that was between the two of them. And if Jay was not terribly busy, it was up to him to decide whether or not to encourage this chat during office hours. What annoyed me was that she billed for all of two hours. Even if she had to bill in multiples of an hour (rather than for 40 or 45 minutes), she could have billed an hour — certainly not two! To me, this showed a lack of integrity — how could I trust someone like this in the future?

At the time, I was quite new to the organization, and nobody asked me to certify whether she had actually spent those two hours working — they made the payment, and I kept quiet.

A few months later, when the subject of renewing her contract came up and my opinion was sought, I felt it was my duty to let my boss know what I had noticed. Because we had not found her work up to the mark anyway, it was easy to take a decision not to renew the contract. But if she had been really good, it would have been a difficult call. Maybe I would have suggested our moving to a more ‘measurable’ computation, based on time (spent on meetings) and pages (the number of pages churned out).

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