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It appears to me that my department has been running dangerously understaffed for quite some time now. The work that used to be done by 8 people is now being done by 3. I've raised my concern a few times, but the attitude from management seems to be:

"The job is getting done and we're saving money with fewer people on the payroll"

This has been the "status quo" for a little more than a year now and so far the remaining members of the department have been able to put a shoulder to the wheel and get things done, but lately it looks like everyone is getting burned out and most everyone is looking for employment elsewhere.

How can I convince the management that the situation is turning from bad to critical?

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What makes you think they don't know? And what makes you think they might care? If all three of you leave and they hire 8 new people, they saved five annual salaries in the last year. –  gnasher729 Jun 30 at 17:32
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@gnasher729: yeah, but if they hire one new person now to bring the total to 4, thus giving the 3 a slightly reduced workload to shut them up, then they've saved 4 salaries next year compared with your plan. And so the brinksmanship begins ;-) –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 0:42
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The best time to point this out to management is during an exit interview. Best of luck! –  Bob Jarvis Jul 1 at 2:10
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To me this seems on-topic, and the close vote doesn't seem applicable here. We have a community of different members with different opinions, which is why it takes 5 people agreeing to close a question. I wouldn't worry about one close vote when you have 8 upvotes. –  jmac Jul 1 at 2:12
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A side note: when a company does this, they are actually giving you more leverage. The knowledge redundancy gets reduced, resulting in an extremely low bus factor. This means you as an individual have a much higher value and can push for a raise. –  bengoesboom Jul 1 at 4:42

8 Answers 8

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The best/only way to convince management that you're both understaffed and that they need to do something about it is to stop enabling them to get away with overworking the staff they have. Really, what you need to do is stop killing yourself to get the job done, because you're only hurting yourself by doing so. You've found a way to get the job done with a third the staff that you "should" have, and because of that, management sees no need to add extra staff.

You say that you guys have been able to put a shoulder to the wheel and get things done, so of course management isn't going to feel the need to add extra staff. The staff they have is getting it done. And by powering through and over-working yourself, you are enabling management to save money and not hire extra staff.

That changes really fast when things stop getting done, because that creates a cost for management. Right now, it's all upside for them - they're saving a lot of money, but the work that needs to be done is still getting done somehow. If you stop artificially insulating management from the costs of being understaffed, there is a chance they'll do something about it. If not, they won't, because they really have no reason to.

For what it's worth, this situation is not sustainable, and will come to a head one way or another.

There are three basic ways this happens.

  1. The people they have will find new jobs, and you'll be so understaffed that no amount of "shoulder to the wheel" will get the job get done.

  2. You'll all burnout, and productivity will plummet, so the job won't get done.

  3. You guys will see the light, stop enabling this behavior and restrict yourselves to reasonable workloads.

That last one is probably the best approach for all involved, so that's what I'd advise you do - dial back on the extra work so that management starts to feel the consequences of being understaffed and has time to make the needed adjustments, because the other options create a much more rapid change in your department's ability to do work, and that tends to go badly for everyone involved - management and the employees.

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There's another way for the unsustainability to manifest: some small unexpected circumstance will perturb the current balance between flat-out capacity and work to be done. Projects will overrun, probably in a chain reaction such that everything is late or fails. If you're lucky this can actually be a good outcome for the staff, since the problem is demonstrated to management without you having to all start working-to-rule or whatever. If you're not lucky I suppose management blames the staff and the situation becomes even more stressful and chaotic. –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 0:47

The best way I've found is to maintain a healthy work life balance (The thing that being horribly understaffed causes) is maintain a professional, but reasonable balance.

Generally speaking when the time comes to put in long hours to prevent a deadline from slipping I consider the following:

  • Is the deadline slipping my fault? (If so I put in the hours, period)
  • Is the deadline due to bad planning? (If I say I need until Friday, and they say Wednesday, I'm not putting in extra hours to meet unrealistic deadlines)
  • Is the tight deadline due to unusual circumstances? (If the deadline slip is due to circumstances well outside my employer's control, I'll put in the hours)
  • Is deadlines needing extra hours the norm or the exception? (If hours run long only slightly, or on the very rare occasion, I'll put in the time. If unrealistic deadlines are a regular problem then I won't put in the extra time.)

The simple way I look at this is what is reasonable and fair.

Is your employer being unreasonable? It sounds like yes, if you play ball then they will continue to be unreasonable, or even get worse. Really your only choice is make them aware of the problem (which you've done) If nothing changes either stop enabling this behavior and/or seek new employment with a better company. (Not enabling this behavior is simply doing as much is would be considered reasonable, but not putting in unpaid overtime and long hours to meet unreasonable deadlines.)

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I don't think having everyone revenge-/rage-quit at the same time is the best route, as one answer suggests. Yes, it would feel great for everyone to resign at the same time and leave the management in a lurch.

Before I doing that, though, I'd communicate clearly to the management that your coworkers/employees are overworked, and you get the sense that they may be looking for new jobs as a result. Don't mention any names, and if they ask for them, instead defer to a general feeling of low morale you've sensed.

Upon communicating this to management, feel free to line up new jobs and resign (though, if you all did it at the same time, it wouldn't look very professional to management). Bear in mind that management could wake up and realize the time/money cost of training up an entirely new team in existing process. They could realize that indeed you are overworked, and make changes.

Take the professional route that won't tarnish your reputation with them--you'd be surprised how easy it is to work with the same people in the future. You want to be remembered fondly.

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+1 For always being professional even if your colleague/boss/manager/etc. isn't. –  Radu Murzea Jun 30 at 20:00
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Note that if the management really is abusive, then they will also make it clear that nothing short of obedience will avoid tarnishing your reputation with them. It doesn't really matter what they think looks professional, it matters what they're willing to retaliate against by holding a grudge. This will include certain kinds of wholly reasonable and professional behaviour. So if it's that bad you can give up on looking professional to management, and just decide whether for your own self-respect you prefer to look professional to yourself. –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 1:11

I was once in a situation where the top management did not get the point until my entire practice including myself as the acting head of the practice lined up our job offers and synchronized our resignations so that we all handed them in over 24 hours.

Your management knows what's going on. They made their calculation. They are big boys and big girls who know what they are doing. There is a price to be paid for the decision they made. Let them pay that price. Paying the price may be the only thing that will get to them.

I suggest that you keep mum to your management about your colleagues' job hunting. It's not going to buy you any good will with your colleagues if you spill the beans and it's not as if your stature with management is going to be enhanced.

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This seems overly petty to me, and something that I wouldn't do. Mutinies rarely end well for the reputation of the mutineers. –  Garrison Neely Jun 30 at 18:56
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@GarrisonNeeley You go your way and I go mine. I am not apologetic that I was not around when the firm practically went out of business later. If you are my CEO and I lose confidence in your leadership and executive judgement, all bets are off. You are on your own and you can continue by yourself. –  Vietnhi Phuvan Jun 30 at 19:17
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I do not see a purpose in "synchronizing resignations" except spite. As you were in a leadership position, this comes off as you attempting to sabotage the company. This cannot possibly help you in the future, but could definitely hurt you (reputation wise). I agree with the act of "voting with your feet", but doing so as an individual. –  bengoesboom Jul 1 at 4:31
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@bengoesboom I am fed up with the smug, sanctimonious preachifying I am being subjected to by those who did not experience the garbage that we experienced. Having said that, we held the management in utter contempt and we synchronized our departure to make a statement. The CEO hated my guts for what we did to him but the message got through to him. He never did again what he had done to us to anyone else at the firm. Right up to the point where the firm practically went out of business 10 months later. As for us, we all went on to better things, your lecturing notwhistanding. –  Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 1 at 4:44
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@bengoesboom And one key reason we synchronized our departure is that I was extremely concerned that top management would seek to retaliate against anyone left behind. –  Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 1 at 5:13

Start forcing management to assign priorities. Have them pick which tasks are going to slip. Have then be responsible for the critical items (but non-urgent) not getting done. (Backups for example) And be reasonable about how much time you work. You should work to live, not live to work. If you are unable to live a reasonable life, if you can't go to a doctors appointment, or see your kid in a play, or go to the PTA meetings, or hang with your friends, or take a vacation, you are getting overworked. When you start quantifying the work and then get management to assign priorities, they will start to realize that there is a problem. The problem is IT is overhead. It doesn't help the bottom line. So any money spent on it has to be made somewhere else. Until management understands what it really costs to support the rest of the company, they won't think it's important. Another sad thing about IT, is if you are doing it properly, you are invisible. It's only when problems start appearing that you get noticed. And if you are overworked they will appear. To managements mind this indicates you are not doing your job properly, your job is to prevent problems. That is why you need Management to set the priorities. (With proper knowledge of costs and benefits)

So break down what you do into tasks. Write up each one as a separate item and put down why it's important, what could happen if it's not done, and how much time it will take to complete (Be generous with the time because you WILL underestimate it) Then lay the tasks down for management to set priorities. What I've found when over tasked is I let un-critical items slip and do the bare minimum to keep things running. However, this is like running a car without putting maintenance into it (Like changing the oil, or replacing the wiper blades.) Eventually it breaks down and even if it doesn't, the car picks up trash and wear and tear that take a lot longer to fix than doing the proper maintenance when it was needed.

And, if nothing else, having all the work defined will help you with your resume.

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From a (bad) managers point of view there is no problem. Three people getting the work done of 8 people + unpaid overtime = maximum profit. You and your colleagues are enabling this kind of behavior, and you are being taken advantage of. Temporarily (say 1-2 months) taking on some more work because a replacement has to be hired is ok, but this kind of understaffing is far beyond that. Have you told your boss that this is simply unacceptable, and that you want it to stop?

If this does not improve after you escalating this slowly, there is nothing else to do than simply stop doing the overtime. From that moment onwards, keep your manager in the loop that projects will not be done in time due to lack of resources (people). Then one of these things can happen:

  • The manager will pressure you to continue working overtime and get things done. If you do not comply, this would probably mean you get fired (which might or might not be legal depending on where you live).
  • The manager ignores you, customers don't get what they want in time, and the business will probably go under in a few months.
  • The manager finally get's your point, and hires more people.

I listed the options in the order I think is most probable given the details in your question.

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Nothing else do do? What about the obvious of simply working for the time you get paid, and what gets done gets done? Then it's up to management to do something about it, if they even think it's a problem. –  Olin Lathrop Jun 30 at 21:00
    
@OlinLathrop: big company culture difference. To some people (and employers) it's completely obvious that you down tools at 5pm and go home, or at least if you work late you'll be in late tomorrow. To other people, it's completely obvious that you work beyond contracted hours as the job demands. I'm going to take a flying guess that this is the second kind of company. People who expect the first kind of employer simply cannot work for the second (and wouldn't want to). –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 0:54
    
... it can be difficult to conceive that there are employees out there willing to work regular unpaid overtime if you haven't seen it for yourself. But I assure you they exist. Naturally they find it much harder to draw the line when they need to, because the line they want to draw isn't written down in their contract, it's somewhere between 5 and 40 hours a week beyond that. They have their own techniques. People who support this style of work call it "dedication" or something, but personally I don't have a lot of time for it. –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 0:57
    
@SteveJessop - I know what you mean. I've worked places where people valued themselves more if they got called every night because of system problems - and management agreed, rewarded them, and promoted them! –  Bob Jarvis Jul 1 at 2:17
    
@BobJarvis: Ignoring the issues of the dependence on a specific person to be available and the clearly buggy system that fails nightly: at least if they get rewarded and promoted, then (although their contract might not accurately reflect it) they're simply getting paid more money for working more hours. That seems broadly reasonable and both parties are content. It's when management bait-and-switches employees by making arbitrary changes to the expected level of unpaid dedication that it becomes abusive... –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 2:23

Chances are, your most effective solution to this problem is to seek employment elsewhere. Please see my reasoning below.

Based on my experience & observations there are likely 3 reasons for your departments problems:

  1. Management isn't competent enough to know how to effectively determine when they need more staff (I have seen this in most larger companies I've worked for & tends to lead to a few highly paid hires in "strategic" new positions who provide little value over time while those in the trenches see no relief).
  2. Management knows they need more staff but there is either: not appropriate funds allocated for staff for your department OR there is simply not enough money in the company to staff your department properly (when your company is not in a high growth situation).
  3. You are in a startup or high growth company and the money & capabilities for adding staff are not currently capable to keeping up with staffing.

In scenario 1 or 2 there are no realistic ways for you to influence or fix the problem... staffing appropriately is either not seen as a priority or the company is having money problems.

In the last scenario, you should definitely mention it to management... backing up your opinion with observations you've made, including how adding more staff will provide value to the company. In the one startup I was employed by, suggestions were valued from all employees & often acted on.

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Please see this Meta question: Is Quit you job an Acceptable Answer? –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jul 1 at 2:56
    
I'll take the fact that my answer has been voted down as evidence that there are enough managers in this stackexchange variant, who are uncomfortable with points 1 & 2. And just to re-iterate: YES, finding a better job elsewhere IS the actual best answer under those conditions. –  MER Jul 9 at 3:38

What exactly is the problem? Having a lot of work available to do is not in itself a problem. As long as you do the amount of work you can get done for the time they pay you for, there is nothing wrong here. What does it matter if a lot more work could have been done if more resources were available to do it?

The only potential problem with what you describe is if you are doing a lot of extra work that you are not getting paid for. However, if that's the case, then it's squarely your fault. Going above and beyond occasionally when the company has a particular need is a good thing, which will usually be rewarded down the road in other ways. However, this is always at your option, and is not a good idea to do on a sustained basis.

You haven't said that management is insisting you stay late to do extra work, so again, what exactly is the problem here? It is management's job to decide how much resources will be applied to each task, and therefore trade that off with how quickly they get done. You can ask, you can advise, but in the end it's not your call.

As long as you're getting paid for what you are doing, there is nothing wrong here. If management is pushing you to put in extra time, simply decline to do it. They are still getting what they are paying for.

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Come on, don't pretend that there's no problem here. People getting burned out from being in understaffed workplaces is a very common problem. When a team delivers during a "crunch-mode" pushy PM's will invariably set that as the new standard of expectation. Refusing to go "above and beyond" will very directly impact performance reviews in an era where employees are required to demonstrate on a continuous basis how they've "exceeded expectations". –  teego1967 Jul 1 at 0:07
    
@teego1967: the trick is for people who want to work set hours to find the employers who don't demand hours above contract every week, and vice-versa those employers should seek those employees. The employers do exist, I assure you (just as I assured Olin in a comment above, that employees willing to work unpaid overtime every week exist). What you can't do, though, is flip your employer from one kind to the other just by working to rule. As you say, they'll consider you a failure. –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 1:06
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This really does not address the question of how does one convince management they are understaffed. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jul 1 at 2:56

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