On-the-job strategy: When contract parameters are impossible to meet

This TechRepublic member's company has a contract to provide 24x7 production support to another company, but has only 12 people on the project. He has nearly two months of vacation time accrued but can't take it. Our workplace issues expert offers some advice.

Here's another edition of our career series in which we offer advice to members who are currently dealing with troublesome work situations. Thanks to Emma Hamer of Hamer Associates, a career and performance management company, for providing professional advice to the TechRepublic members who submitted the questions.

Question: I recently read another post from an individual who was experiencing problems with his boss and unrealistic deadlines for software development. I completely understand his position and am in a similar situation myself, however, the issue is due to lack of people on our project. Let me explain.

My company has a contract to provide 24x7 production support to another company, but we only have 12 people on our project. The company we are contracted with wants us to cut two people by mid September due to cut backs and budget constraints on their end.

Here is the dilemma: We (people on our project) never get any time off. I personally, being the senior member on the team, am on-call 24x7 to answer questions from junior team members and have not had a "real" day off in more than nine months without getting a call.

I have been on this project for nearly two years now, and quite frankly I'm burned out. I have almost two months of vacation time built and have been told that I cannot take any of it due to the nature of the project, yet I am not compensated (allowed to cash it in) either. I average 50 to 60 hours per week as it is (on salary) and would really like to get away for awhile.

How can I get free time in a situation such as this? I really like my job and the people I work for, but I need some time to myself as well and with my better half. She's getting really annoyed at the situation too.

Can anyone give me some good advice that will get more time without having to quit or look for another job?

Emma's response: Based on what you're telling me, I'd say that one (or both) of the following things is going on:

1) your company, who committed to the 24/7 support services, bid so low to get the contract originally, that it now finds itself without much profit margin; the only way to make any money is to squeeze 50% more out of each employee ... this turns into your 60-hour work week.

2) The amount of work - and the number of resources (staff) - required to do the work your company has the contract for was grossly underestimated (your bosses made a mistake calculating the costs vs. the contract fee) and/or the work has unexpectedly ballooned, requiring much more than the originally projected number of person hours.

Whichever scenario is the case, what we have here is the simplest case of "more work than people to do the work." Your company should either go back to the client, and renegotiate the original contract, allowing for more resources, or swallow the loss for the duration of this contract, and try to renegotiate when the contract is up for renewal.

Of course, if your (US-based) company is bidding against a call center in - for instance - Cambodia, there is no way your company will win the bid on price alone. Quality, and in particular customer service quality, is worth a higher contract fee.

I must say, that I hear many of these stories; some employers don't seem to understand that it's self-defeating to overload their staff this way - it doesn't make for happy, cheerful, friendly people on the support phone, now does it? So what's the end-user's experience going to be like? Perhaps you, or with a couple of your colleagues, might invest in a copy of "Experience Marketing" and offer it to your company's CEO or VP of Sales.

In most cases, however, you really don't have much influence on contract negotiations. You can slog on, slowly killing yourself, or you can "vote with your feet" and find a more reasonable employer who values his human capital more.