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Personnel Decisions: Discrimination against Back Office Staff?

In my last blog post on age discrimination, I touched on the concept of how people in the operating department of a company were more likely to be promoted than people in back-office functions. Since then, I had a coaching conversation that resonated with me. The individual works as a manager in a back office position at a law firm. I asked what the organizational culture was like and she told me that there were two distinct organizational cultures: one for the lawyers and one for everybody else. More specifically, that the lawyers - i.e. the ones who make the money for the firm - are treated better by management than the back office staff who make the business run, e.g. human resources, information technology, finance, and facilities.

This hit home in a number of ways, as I recalled how back office staff at my old job were generally overlooked when it came to promotions. In 16+ years, I watched as people in departments that directly worked on generating revenue for the company, specifically those in the operations and marketing departments, as well as certain areas of information technology that directly supported projects, were consistently recognized year after year, some getting promoted 3-4 times in a 5-6 year period. On the other hand, areas like HR, finance, legal, and IT network operations were often ignored. In other words, if you were chargeable, you were given the run of the house, but if you were non-chargeable, nobody cared about you.

As a financial systems manager, I was often tasked in creating reporting on utilization, i.e. a percentage of hours worked on client-chargeable matters. Senior management scrutinized utilization closely, and if your utilization numbers were low, you were less likely to be considered for promotions and merit increases. People who were 100% non-chargeable - like myself - could not be measured in such a manner, and in many cases were downright ignored. These departments were not given adequate budgets and thus could not hire and develop staff as well as the "chargeable" departments.

On a related topic, while I was writing this, I did some scrolling on LinkedIn and came across a post about billable hours in law firms and their impacts on mental health. This opens up a new can of worms related to chargeable hours. I recall many people at my old company stressing out about not having enough billable hours (and many people didn't like recording time in the first place - especially those who were lawyers by trade). Billable hours were tracked even when we offered flat fee services to clients (rare) because it was needed for utilization purposes. Many people found they had to work overtime in order to meet their billable hours quota, and for those who were exempt (i.e. not eligible for overtime), it gave them no real benefit and cost their time, work-life balance, and possibly their mental health.

I would be curious to study some literature on this to see exactly how widespread of an issue this is. Not sure this will be a topic for a research project later on, but it is an issue that does need to be addressed in the workforce, especially in law firms and legal services companies.

Be healthy!

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