By Shanice Nkathazo and Samuel Iuliano, MSc in Business Strategy & Consulting students at Audencia.
In consulting, there is no room for mediocrity. The normalized perception of a good work-life balance where employees equitably distribute the time they dedicate to work and hobbies or wants is a scam. At least in consulting. For years, the up-or-out model has placed junior and senior consultants under so much pressure to perform that there are accounts of employees fainting or seeing a serious reduction in the quality of their work due to exhaustion. Issues such as these have caused many consultants to be frustrated with their position and lack purpose within their work. To mitigate these concerns, it seems consulting firms have decided that tricking your employees into enjoying long, strenuous work hours through recognition systems is the new trend to follow.
“Sometimes you are stressed or tired and you don’t get the time to go and rest because you are expected to deliver a lot of work the next day.”
~ Dina Garza (alias)
Consultants are promised that in this field if you work hard and continue to produce successful projects, exponential growth (and wealth) is waiting for you. However, the work that consultants put into projects tends to contribute to 60+ hour work weeks. An interview with Dina Garza (alias), team lead management consultant at Accenture, highlighted a few key insights. The most imperative being that she believed consultants are “supposed to be available 24/7… [and] have work as [their] priority.” These requirements drastically limit the amount of personal time consultants come by. Dina went on to further discuss her manager who is quite harsh, aggressive and “mean”, and refuses to give her any positive feedback. As a result, her work in consulting is much less enjoyable, and her motivation during projects is seriously dwindling.
A New Wave of Change
In 2019, the Gartner Performance Management Benchmarking Survey showed that 81% of HR leaders are trying to change the system of performance management, in order to relieve some pressure on employees, and consequently, mitigate some of the competition amongst them. This phenomenon affects the overall job market, and consultancy firms, such as Deloitte and Accenture, are not excluded from this review revamping process. An anonymous senior associate at Oliver Wyman confirmed that the company implements a feedback system every two weeks, and provides performance considerations at the end of every project (approx. every 3-4 months) while still also conducting yearly evaluations.
The traditional annual review is antiquated because setting 12-month periods for goal setting and improvement does not fit with the fast-paced nature of consulting firms anymore. According to the research, performance ratings can even be seen as counterproductive. It seems that performance ratings stress workers so much that when they don’t get the best rating, they tend to focus more on defending themselves and end up not paying attention to the constructive feedback they receive.
Pressure relief systems are one of the most concerning topics when deciding to follow a career path in the consulting industry, and the young generations’ growing concern about this issue is probably the reason for this change. There are benefits of shifting from a rating system to an ongoing, forward-looking recognition system. First, managers can dedicate more time to analyzing an employee’s past performance and provide useful feedback to enhance future performance. Second, the simplified bureaucratic system allows managers to allocate more time for informal and continuous feedback that boosts employee resolve. Third, managers will have the ability to differentiate workers’ remuneration as their selection process is not tied to ratings that could lead to unfair decisions.
These advantages foster a new engagement among workers and should relieve some of the pressure of the evaluation process, while allowing employees to better manage their work-life balance and perceive their working environment in a better light. In her interview, Dina claimed that she intends to stick around at Accenture for the next two to three years, but the only way she will be able to get through this period is with a new manager who gives positive feedback, makes time for stress relieving activities and is a bit more gentle in the workplace. In her opinion, this restructuring would invoke a sense of purpose in her work, and motivate her to get through the extensive hours spent on projects.
“I was aware that my work-life balance was not balanced… Last week I stopped working at 5 am, the week before on average at 11 pm. There is no work-life balance.”
As confirmed by Anonymous, the reality is that even if some companies implement recognition systems in the workplace, such as rewards or less stressful weeks after an important project, the consulting industry remains a stressful, high-work, intense environment. The condition of workers does not change. To him, this new system of feedback-provision and evaluation seems to be an escamotage to make the industry appear more attractive. We see this at Accenture, where a reward/recognition system has begun to be put in place. However, as Dina mentions, people do not have time in their schedule to attend company run reward activities, like the cooking class that she was forced to miss because her manager suddenly dropped more work for her that day.
In summary, a new trend in management consulting is for firms to switch up their old, worn out, performance management systems, and trade them in for recognition systems. Recognizing and rewarding employees for their hard work and long hours invokes a sense of purpose, and allows consultants to strive for excellence, while releasing some of the pressure they feel during a project. Although consultants must be forced to overexert themselves at times by diving headfirst into a project and putting the client’s needs before their own, this new system allows them to feel good about prioritizing their work schedule and producing projects worthy of positive feedback, making their rest time between projects that much sweeter. The research and supplementary interviews conducted also support the idea that firms who implement this system but fail to restructure the way management provides constructive feedback will be unable to boost employee motivation. Thus, diminishing their healthy perspective of work-life balance.