Paralegals Paid to Watch TV Demand Meaningful Work

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 12, 2014
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Employees want more than a paycheck. They want a sense of purpose, too, according to whistle-blowers who revealed millions of dollars spent to compensate paralegal specialists who were being paid to watch TV or surf the Internet at home. Meaningful work is a strong driver of employee retention and engagement—sometimes stronger even than compensation.

This “cuts against the conventional view that people simply want to be paid to take it easy and not do much,” said career analyst Dan Pink in an e-mail interview with HR News.

“These paralegals were given that golden opportunity—and they complained about it. That’s a great example showing that people come to work not only to get a paycheck but to use their talents and make a contribution,” said the best-selling author and frequent speaker at Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conferences.

Paralegal specialists employed with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) logged 50 to 70 hours of nonwork time per 80-hour pay period—and received compensation for that time. Anonymous whistle-blowing employees registered complaints; one of them told the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) that he/she “did not want to sit on the clock for 60 to 70 hours while doing nothing.”

But that’s exactly what the employees did. The OIG investigation found that for more than four years, dozens of paralegal specialists cost U.S. taxpayers more than $4.3 million in unearned wages and bonuses.

While the OIG noted that a number of factors contributed to the problem, including workers who “gamed” the system and not enough judges to assign work, it laid some blame on managers who knew about the problem but didn’t capitalize on workers’ strengths and skills and failed to take ownership of the problem.

Some paralegal specialists with law degrees had “clearly stated” their interest in taking on additional responsibilities, the report from the OIG’s Office of Investigations noted.

“Although PTAB management recognized the strengths and skills of some of their paralegal specialists,” the report said, “they failed to practically apply their strengths and skills by providing the paralegal specialists with work best suited for their abilities.”

Instead of directing those employees to bill nonproductive hours to “other time,” the report noted, PTAB management should have looked for other work for the paralegal specialists to perform.

It wasn’t until the OIG investigation that the problem was addressed. Some paralegal specialists were trained for re-examination and trial work or assigned to areas where more staffers were needed. Others were given special projects that some assignees saw as busywork designed to justify their hours.

“Once people are paid fairly, the three key motivators in any job are autonomy, mastery and purpose,” Pink said. “Busywork fails on all three counts. It’s not autonomous; nobody would choose to do it. It doesn’t lead to mastery; who wants to get better at something that’s not very challenging? And it’s devoid of purpose; few of us want to dig a hole only to refill the hole and then dig it again.”

At a time “when every organization, public or private, seems to be struggling to do more with less, it’s hard to imagine that the PTO didn’t have enough total work to go around,” he added. “They just needed to be more imaginative—and work to liberate their employees rather than control them.”

The value of Meaningful Work

Having meaningful work to perform is a powerful hiring, engagement and retention tool, experts say. A 2014 survey by Business Insider and News to Live By found that meaningful work was second only to pay when U.S. Millennials were asked what matters most to them in a job.

“People’s everyday work lives are greatly enriched when they make progress at work that they find meaningful,” Teresa M. Amabile, Ph.D., and Steven Kramer wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post.

Amabile is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School; her current research program focuses on the psychology of everyday work life. Kramer is an independent researcher and writer. They are co-authors of The Progress Principle (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011)

Amabile and Kramer pointed out in their blog post that even so-called menial work can be meaningful if employees understand how they are contributing to the employer’s goal or mission, citing a 2010 TED talk by hotelier Chip Conley.

Conley recalled a maid who had emigrated from Vietnam and was working in one of his San Francisco motels. He was puzzled that she seemed so happy cleaning toilets and making beds for a living. What he learned was that she found a deeper meaning in her work.

“She didn’t find joy in cleaning toilets. … What gave her inspiration and meaning,” he said, “was the fact she was actually taking care of people who were far away from home because [she] knew what it was like to be far away from home.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

Related Resource:

Purposeful Work, Managing Smart

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