Limits on How Fast We Have to Work: The Company’s Space, So the Company’s Pace?

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REWARDED PER SHOE, OR PER HOUR? (Kenya)/Photo: Michael Moffa

In most Western jurisdictions and jobs, there are legislated limits on how long an employee can be made to work per day, week, month or year. Even where the hours are long, mandated work breaks are the rule rather than the exception. But how about limits on work-rate, on how fast employees have to work? Do the property rights that are associated with company ownership of the workspace allow employers to impose whatever work-speed standards that they want, however grueling and exhausting that work pace may be?

Work Length vs. Work Speed

Note that work length and work speed are not the same. Whatever work breaks are mandated by law are defined as so many minutes of rest per day, hour, week, or days per month or year, and not in terms of rest per item, unit or task completed.  Limiting the number of hours an employee can be asked to work is one thing; limiting how much has to be done during those hours is quite another. In fact, the latter can be manipulated to compensate for the former: An employer forced to comply with laws specifying longer breaks than were previously granted can deviously protect his bottom line and maintain production levels by demanding off-setting increases in output per hour.

Hence, work-time-per-day regulations say nothing about tasks-per-day limits or lack thereof, except that they may tempt employers to pressure workers to do more per hour or per day. That noted, does it follow that companies are allowed to try to squeeze as much out of a worker per man-hour as they wish to and that the worker mind, spirit and flesh can bear?

The fact that mandated time-based work breaks do not at all address the issue of task-based breaks suggests that employee protection from unreasonable task loads may be inadequate or altogether lacking in any concrete job situation. An anxious or overbearing call-center supervisor tells staff that they must make 40 calls an hour, every hour, when, given the nature of the sales pitch, 20 is barely manageable. Can an employee refuse without risking his job? A machine operator at a parts plant is told he had better crank out 30% more inventory per day, even though that increases the risk of industrial injury. Must the operator comply and risk life and limb?  Are such stressful, unreasonable or hazardous demands permitted or enforceable by law?

Where firing without cause is allowed by law, e.g., in most states in the U.S., it would appear that company demands to pick up the workplace pace or pack up and leave will be allowed as well—a case of “the company’s space, so the company’s pace”.  If no cause need be given for termination, it follows logically that failure to keep up and meet company hourly, daily, etc., output quotas will perfectly qualify as one of the reasons for termination that do not have to be given.

Work-Speed Tort Risks

However, one work-speed limitation that seems likely to have the presumptive or punitive support of the law in any given case is that in which the heavy work load and high task-rate creates a hazard to the employee or others on-site. One reason such a hazardous work-rate may lead to litigation is that it may constitute a wrong under the law of torts (civil wrongs, allowing filing suit for damages), to the extent that the owner or manager of a worksite is required by law to make the venue safe for any business invitee (including employees and customers) or licensee (an invited, non-business guest)—individuals who have permission to be on-site, just as you must post a “Beware Dog” sign near your pit bull’s dog house and make sure there are no dog-sized breaks in Growler’s chain-link fencing.

Moreover, if, because of high work-rate-induced fatigue or other severe impairment, an employee causes an accident that injures others or goes berserk and attacks a client, it stands to reason that the company may be liable under the laws of vicarious liability, which specify company liability for the actions of a company’s designated agents.

“My Space, My Pace”—Maybe Not

Accordingly, because property ownership rights come with corresponding tort obligations, it can be argued that whatever rights that companies have in virtue of owning the workspace, those property rights do not entail the right to demand with impunity and legal immunity whatever work pace they wish to impose on their workers. Given virtually universal workman safety legislation, “my space, my pace”, is unlikely to be, without limitation, the law, even if, within the company, it is the (unwisely) imposed rule. The direct and vicarious liability implications of imposing such an onerous regime on employees should make employers think twice about increasing the task load to the breaking point or beyond.

Even though clear, legislated guidelines regarding work-speed are not widely promulgated, that employers need to be cautious about ramping up work-pace performance too vigorously is suggested by these European Union guidelines:

“Article 13: Pattern of work—Member States shall take the measures necessary to ensure that an employer who intends to organize work according to a certain pattern takes account of the general principle of adapting work to the worker, with a view, in particular, to alleviating monotonous work and work at a predetermined work-rate, depending on the type of activity, and of safety and health requirements, especially as regards breaks during working time.” (Note: underlining is mine.)

Is Rewarding Per Task Smarter Than Rewarding Per Unit Time?

Legal red flags aside, is it possible that giving employees rest breaks based on output rather than on elapsed time may be the smarter employer strategy? So, instead of demanding as much output as possible in a unit of time, e.g., an hour, the employer might offer a work break as a secondary incentive for task completion.

That would mean, for example, allowing employees to take a five-minute break after completing a certain number of tasks or producing a certain number of units. The legally mandated time-based breaks would not be disregarded, especially since they legally could not be ignored. Instead, a second tier of incentives would be laminated over the time-based rewards of hourly pay and daily breaks.

Ironically, by backing off from ratcheting up work-speed requirements, the employer could conceivably achieve the same thing, as workers work faster and more efficiently to get the task-based time outs. This kind of scheme in effect capitalizes on the presumed equivalence of time and money (“Time is money”) by offering     secondary payoffs in units of time on a piece-work basis. The faster the pieces are completed, the sooner and the more often the rest breaks come.

In the terminology of behavioral psychology, this second tier of rewards represents a “fixed-ratio reinforcement scheme”—a pattern of reward that provides behavioral positive reinforcement (a work break) that is triggered by the completion of a task or specified number of tasks, in a fixed one reward-to-specified completed task-number ratio. (The conventional time-based work break, by contrast, represents a “fixed-interval reinforcement schedule”, i.e., a reward scheme that is purely a function of the time elapsed between rewards, exactly as an hourly wage or hourly work break are.)

One argument for the superiority of the fixed-ratio scheme is that the fixed-interval schedule encourages slacking off, since interval rewards of work breaks and pay will be provided purely on the basis of elapsed time, irrespective of rate of output and efficiency.

Hence, an employer can boost worker output and efficiency by providing positive break-time-as-reward incentives rather than punitive threats of dismissal and simultaneously discourage employee goldbricking. Of course, a key limitation of fixed-ratio reinforcement is that it is impossible to apply to jobs for which unit tasks are not easily identified, require variable amounts of time to complete or are embedded in a multi-tasking environment.

For example, if reading this article has been a chore, should you be rewarded for completing it on the basis of how long it took you to do so, or on the basis of how much you accomplished in finishing it?…

….assuming you weren’t multi-tasking and doing your real job at the same time.

Read more in Personnel Management

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).