Time out

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I was away for a few weeks and I enjoyed some of the things that are different than what we are used to here, like culture and food but also infrastructure and the consistent supply of utilities and services like water, electricity and fast internet connections. I also missed all the things that we have in Ethiopia, like real coffee, time for each other and the calendar, making us seven years younger and giving us thirteen months of sunshine. We also have the opportunity here to celebrate holidays twice, like Christmas, the upcoming Easter and New Year. Wonderful! Especially those who work in international organizations or companies are privileged as both calendars are respected. Add this to the numerous other national holidays that are celebrated in Ethiopia and you hardly find the time to take up some of your annual leave days. From the employees’ perspective, that is. From the employers’ point of view, things may look somewhat less rosy though. Quite a number of productive days are lost or subjected to claims for overtime. Come to think of it and I realize that workers seem to find it rather easy to claim overtime. They find it a lot harder though to apply for a day off or for annual leave. Annual leave is preferably capitalised instead. “What to do?” or “Where to go?” are responses that I get when I ask somebody when he or she will take leave. There is a monetary factor involved here as well as many will not have been able to set aside enough money to take the family out for a holiday. This is a pity as it is important to rest and spend quality time with family and friends.
On the other hand, I observe that workers find it very easy to stay away from the workplace at any given time, without requesting for it or explaining the reasons for their absence. If given at all, the reasons are expected to be accepted without further questions. Some of the reasons for absence are more justifiable and verifiable than others but even then, little effort is made to inform the office sufficiently and in time.
I have noticed that employees find it very easy to leave their work on their desk and leave the office for any personal reason. They may be away for a few hours without anybody knowing where they are and for what purpose they left the office. Ever wondered about all the people who go to church during week days to pay respect to their church’s Saint? The whole street is blocked by parked cars and believers dressed in white to pay their respect. They can’t all be jobless, can they?
In some offices this has developed into the interesting habit to report for work twice a day, i.e. early in the morning and just after lunch. And after attending to some urgent matters, the coat is left on the hanger behind the desk, to be picked up again at the end of the day. Where the office bearer is during the hours in between, nobody knows.
While the existence of non-commercial organizations will not be directly threatened by such behaviour, this is different for companies that need to make a profit out of their productive hours. All the more reason to take the issue far more serious than is normally done, as examples of productive hours lost are plenty.
I cannot help but conclude that when it comes to ethics related to observing working hours and putting in the time and energy required to do the job, we face a culture in Ethiopia, which negatively affects business. And where this is so, management needs to deal with such culture and bad habits. Here follow some suggestions:
Have a policy, regulating leave, holidays and overtime. The policy will include the requirements to apply for permission for any leave or time off in writing, written justifications for any absence and the consequences for not following the regulations.
Don’t only have the policy; apply it consistently. Where you allow exceptions, the policy will become obsolete.
Set a number of compulsory leave days, for all workers to take, like for example the Easter Monday.
Have a system recording workers coming to and leaving the office.
Install cameras in the workplace.
I know some of these measures will be difficult to introduce as many workers have gotten used to relaxed working hours and they will feel restricted, while using Ethiopian culture as an excuse. Don’t worry about the excuses but remain consistent in applying the new rules will be my advice. After all, it is your business. In time, the resistance will make way for acceptance. In the age of globalization, when we have to compete with companies who carefully consider their productive time, what chance do we stand if we continue to be as relaxed as we are?
To remain productive though, it is important for workers and management alike to take time off and a number of leave days per year is normally included in anybody’s contract. Management has a responsibility here to make sure that the leave days are taken and not consistently carried over to the next year or capitalised instead. We all need to balance our lives if we are to be effective people, not only at work but also at home and in our social environments.

Ton Haverkort