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Is it reasonable to restrict the activities of key people in a project outside of work (e.g. non-essential personal travel) as we head towards crunch time. The intent behind this being the minimizing of the risk of something happening to key people at a critical time.

If so what might the key person ask in return?

How do others manage or implement this?

This isn't about a specific company policy or legalities, but reasonableness or how to manage the situation in general.

Edited to add: It's an IT project type of scenario (not professional athletes etc).

Some contracts include a "conflict of interest" clause (not to engage in activities that may interfere with performance of duties) Could it come under this? Unnecessary activities (that introduce risk) as a conflict with completing the project?

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    Do you have restrictions on who can travel together with who? Wouldn't be the first time that two critical people would die in the same accident. – Pieter B Nov 6 '15 at 15:14
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    Are you asking as someone who is being restricted or as someone who wants to implement such restrictions? – Martin Carney Nov 6 '15 at 16:11
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    I would first question the effectiveness of such a measure. A significant part of all non-trivial accidents actually happen while doing everyday stuff. A broken back is a broken back, no matter if it was due to slipping in the shower, a car accident while commuting or a rock climbing accident. And while trying to address potential risk, such a measure would definitely create real resentment if not agreed beforehand and appropriately compensated. – thkala Nov 6 '15 at 19:40
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    Also, why is there "crunch time?" Are you letting employees work half-weeks, giving them large bonuses, letting them take sabbaticals, etc. for several weeks after crunch time? Or is this just a unilateral thing where management gets to abuse employees for a while then pretend it never happened. – user42272 Nov 7 '15 at 19:26
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    It's unreasonable to even ask this, let alone consider it a viable strategy. Note that all of the (quite valid) answers below name the many reasons this is true, yet not a single person seems to agree that it is A-OK, whether ethically or with respect to risk mitigation. Just think, if you were such a key person at a workplace making these demands, would you not be the first to jump ship and find an employer who actually treats you with the value the former employer purportedly placed on your talents and paramount importance to success? Haven't companies yet invented enough abusive methods? – tjbtech Nov 9 '15 at 19:11

10 Answers 10

23

The problem is you have a key person, if the person gets hit by a bus, catches the flu, finds a better job, all your restrictions are useless.

If you don't have a hog staff, the best mitigation strategy is to always have several people involved in the technology, don't build up specialists, build generalists.

They don't need to understand the whole project, but should be able to take over at any time. This also means documenting everything, so that the next person knows what to do. Start with the following scenario: Your key player and his laptop are gone, fell into a volcano while rock climbing or whatever. Then a "new" guy comes in, gets a fresh PC/Mac an tries to setup the system so he can work on it. Does he have all the information he needs? If this is not done in let's say a day or two, you have a serious risk problem.

The not-any-more-key persons should be instructed to always work for the next person who will work on the project after them. This will also benefit themselves when they do maintenance and they can sleep better at night and be more productive because they know that not everything depends on them and they have more flexibility planning vacation or taking a day off.

If you think that is not possible and it would risk completion of the project, then your project management is sub-optimal, you should always have buffers for people dropping out and needing replacement.

Theoretically you could put restrictions on the key players, but only if they agree and it would definitely not reduce risk. The risk is that the whole knowledge is bound to this one key player. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can start to mitigate it.

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    This. "Hit by a bus" is n absolutely standard project planning scenario. You should never be in a pisition where there is someone you absolutely can't succeed without. If this does happen, your highest priority is for them to train others or document things to eliminate that risk. – keshlam Nov 6 '15 at 4:54
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    What is a hog staff? – stannius Dec 3 '15 at 20:32
  • @stannius: I stumbled over that, too. Maybe it refers to a staff hogging (i.e. not sharing) knowledge and responsibilities. That would make it hard to implement the solution described. – sleske Feb 12 '16 at 9:30
75

I don't think it's appropiate to limit what people do outside working hours. It's their private life, and if a person wants, for example, to go skydiving the weekend before you are supposed to deliver a project, he/she is entitled to. It's a different scenario if by contract this kind of risky activity is forbidden (e.g. a professional football player and the restriction to play football with friends during the season).

It's a manager's job to come with a proper risk management plan, which should include different scenarios, how these would impact on the project and what to do with these risks (avoid, control, accept or transfer).

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    If your processes don't support these kind of contingencies, you're doing it wrong. What if key employee "Bob" wins the lottery and decides he's not working anymore and he's not taking your calls? Is your solution to forbid employees from playing the lottery? – DLS3141 Nov 6 '15 at 18:02
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    @DLS3141: nah, it's to sue Bob ;-) – Steve Jessop Nov 6 '15 at 21:27
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    The way I see it, if you want to restrict my activities outside the office, then I'm still on the clock, and you're going to need to pay me, at appropriate overtime rates for a 168-hour workweek. – Mark Nov 7 '15 at 20:17
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    @user43744 They're forbidden because it's considered a form of gambling, like NCAA tournament pools or having a poker game in the lunchroom. The enforceable policies only extend to actions at work, if the employees conduct their "gambling" off premises and off the clock, the employer has no say. – DLS3141 Nov 7 '15 at 20:59
33

No.

a) There is a fair chance that this is not legal in whatever country you are in or at least not legally enforceable.

b) There is no way to verify that the employee abides by the rule, which means you have not mitigated the risk, you just have replaced it with a different kind of hope:"I hope the key person has no accident." is replaced by:"I hope the key person stays at home." Hope is not a risk management strategy.

c) The proper way to mitigate the risk of a key person becoming unavailable for whatever reason is to invest the funds and time to have a replacement. Note that this does not necessarily mean to train another employee, but you could for example look for a contractor with similar specific knowledge and prepare a support contract on an hourly basis.

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    a) It's certainly legal in some places, by contract, if not law (in the U.S. some employment rules can be overridden by contract). b) Somewhat true, but there can be punishments if the employee is found to have done something he was prohibited from doing, or incentives for avoiding it. c) Can be cost prohibitive for a small organization. – GreenMatt Nov 5 '15 at 22:06
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    @GreenMatt a) The only way to enforce this outside the contract would be to threaten the employee with dismissal, which is kinda pointless if your goal is to not lose the employee. If it would be part of the contract, the question wouldn't exist. b) Punishing the employee after the risk turned into a problem is not risk management in project management. There is no way to determine the effect of incentives on the risk. The risk stays a risk, even if I pay the person a million dollar. Actually, I have increased the risk by spending a million and still being able to lose the key person. – John Hammond Nov 5 '15 at 22:34
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    Why do you think dismissal is the only possible punitive action? You could, for example, make it clear that participating in the risky behavior will reflect poorly at raise or bonus time. Your logic doesn't follow regarding the incentive, because you don't spend the million AND lose the key person. – GreenMatt Nov 5 '15 at 22:43
  • I like this answer. It is an answer from the point of view of a project manager, without any morale reasons behind it. And still shows the same thing : it is not appropriate. – Puzzled Nov 6 '15 at 7:57
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    @GreenMatt about your c), risk is always present in life, and reducing it is always an expensive luxury. The company doesn't have the right to offload the cost of risk mitigations to its employees just because it likes to have risk mitigation and can't pay for it itself. – rumtscho Nov 6 '15 at 10:49
15

I think you have it backwards. Rather than restricting key people, give them an incentive to be available. Fundamentally the company isn't in a good position to even try this, by the very nature of the problem. A "key person" has essential skills that can't be replaced within the timeframe required. Your solution seems to be: give them a reason to quit the job.

In many industries these restrictions exist, and they are almost always built into the job and the contract right from the start. "wanted: night fill operator"... must work nights, "wanted: tax accountant"... must work lots at tax time, and so on. If your company hasn't done that they can only try to persuade the key person/people to do the work required.

Normally that persuasion is specific to the individual, whether it's positive or negative. Offering a bonus only works if the person is in it for the money and believes that the bonus will be paid and be a worthwhile amount. Threatening to fire someone or constructively dismiss them (by making work unbearable) only works if the person can't quit (no other jobs, family reasons, whatever).


If you're the one being asked, work out what you want and ask for it. As you ask for more you risk being told no, and damaging your relationship with your management. In the USA particularly that relationship is normally worth nothing (they will fire you in a second if there's a dollar in it for them) so employees quite often ask for ridiculous things... and get them. In other countries it varies, I've had companies outright bribe me to do things they couldn't force me to do (fly back to work from holiday etc), and at times I've demanded they do those things as the price for having me work.

In the past I have worked for "overtime at time and a half in leiu" on a stupid project, and enjoyed a long holiday afterwards. Admittedly at the cost of nearly three months of 80 hour weeks, and a week on the client site where I worked almost 120 hours (yes, a total of 48 non-work hours over 7 days). In that situation I did seriously think about how the company was managed and eventually quit.

8

Many companies, industries and departments have some sort of critical time and many employees are not allowed to take time off during them. Usually, everyone is aware of this and take these jobs with that understanding in mind. There's tax season, holiday retail shopping, end of quarter accounting, or selling fireworks on Independence Day.

If you're working on different projects where these times aren't as predictable, that can be tougher. Try to have as much advanced notice as possible. If you don't have to have absolutely everyone all the time, create some sort of rotation to allow for coverage.

The bad part is, you'll lose good employees if these crunch times occur too often or intrude on personal matters. No one will say this until it is too late because they don't want to jeopardize their job. I had a job that locked me into the month end accounting batch processing whether is was a weekend or not, so I was constantly looking for a job that didn't have that requirement and unfortunately for that company, it wasn't that hard.

  • Thanks, to clarify I mean that when they are in "off" times (weekends, vacation time if allowed, etc) to restrict what they are allowed to do during those personal times? I totally understand that there are some critical times and personal time isn't a good idea. Glad you moved on (?) – user43744 Nov 5 '15 at 21:39
8

Lots of workplaces have restrictions based on the person's job.

These are often industries with high salaries where the people do physical activities and need a certain level of physical ability to do their jobs. Or where they have to be healthy for certain competition dates.

Other industries are ones where classified data is handled. I know that you once could lose a high clearance for traveling to the wrong countries, being gay or having a marital affair or even marrying the wrong person. Anything that might put the classified information at risk. These restrictions are generally known about before hand however.

And other industries might make personal life restrictions based on a travel schedule or critical time period at work. For instance I know of a local company that does tax software and they have limitations on people taking vacation during the Christmas holidays when they are in a time crunch to get ready for tax season.

Medical professionals might be restricted from working in countries with serious contagious disease outbreaks. Senior business and government employees might eb restricted from traveling to certain countries deemed dangerous.

If per your question, you were asked not to travel before a crunch, I might ask for additional days off afterwards or for the person to pay for my vacation costs if I had to cancel existing tickets. This certainly happened to me once and I got an extra week of vacation in return for rescheduling a trip at the last minute. If you have nothing planned (and by planned I mean actually have the tickets and reservations) however, you have very little leverage to get something in return for the travel you weren't planning to do anyway. Is is unreasonable to ask? Likely not. I certainly didn't think it was when a deadline moved out and into my planned vacation. It would have been less reasonable if the vacation was something that could not easily be rescheduled like your brother's wedding.

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    I think the key here is that such restrictions have to be negotiated and accepted by both sides. – Agent_L Nov 6 '15 at 13:48
  • I think for pro athletes, yes they are negotiatied. For most of the others likely not. You accept or you leave. – HLGEM Nov 6 '15 at 14:24
  • What I meant is the OP can open negotiations about anything he/she wants. Worst case - employees won't take the deal. – Agent_L Nov 6 '15 at 15:41
5

Assuming you don't have an existing policy already in place and this isn't a legal question.

You could offer to have the company pay for the vacation itself. If you can entice the worker with an upgrade to his existing vacation plans, he may be willing postpone them, or possibly alter them.

The company can do a lot of things if it's willing to pay for them. If the worker is going to a distressed region, the company can offer to pay for a security detail. If the worker is going sailing on an ocean, the company could offer to pay for a satellite phone and an emergency gps beacon.

And if the company doesn't like the idea of a prize employee going back home to his home country to visit relatives, the company could offer to pay for the relatives to come visit the employee in a different safer country.

4

i) It is never reasonable to get more than you pay for. So if you pay for 8 hours per day of labour, then decide how much of a bonus or stock options are reasonable for the other 16 hours per day, plus weekends, plus sickies plus holidays.

ii) If you cannot afford those then you can try telling your key worker that you're almost broke and please please could they do the work of the extra three staff whom you should have hired. To such a manager I'd give my notice and be gone.

iii) To a more careful manager, who tries to get my whole life without directly asking, I'd assess the situation, conclude that it is indistinguishable from ii, and leave.

I figured out a while back that ip v4 with seven levels of gumph between the machine and the international comms network was a big example of bloating a technology to make sure that one wiseguy always depends on the goodwill of somebody else before his thingamajig will work.

2

The answer is key person insurance - you insure the risk.

-1

No, restricting the personal activities of employees is not reasonable. However, corporations do pretty much what they want nowadays considering the wider economic and employment situation. As jobs are not easy to come by, employees are more and more willing to go along with anything at all that management imposes on them under the rubric of 'professional' behavior. Managers and executives take full advantage of this.

If anyone wishes to retaliate, the best option is to resign 3 weeks before crunch time and give 2 weeks' notice.

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