how can I avoid jobs that expect 70-hour work weeks?

by Ask a Manager on February 2, 2011

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A reader writes:

What’s the best way to get across to potential employers I’m not willing to work 70 hours a week without sounding like a slacker?

I work in IT and accept that every job I have is going to have some after hours and weekend work (sometimes with no notice) and I will occasionally be on-call. If a server or application only I know goes down, I might also get calls at 3 AM even when I’m not on-call. In addition, there might also be a few months here or there when someone quits and everyone needs to pick up the slack until a replacement is hired. I think I’m relatively well-paid and have no problem with those things. They’re part of the IT industry and, while some companies handle them better than others, it’s an expected part of the job.

I now find myself, yet again, in a job where I work 70+ hours including every weekend and several evenings each week without exception. To be clear, this isn’t the result of a “busy period” – we’re grossly understaffed and will be for the foreseeable future. And my entire team of about 30 works those hours so it’s not poor time management on my part. I’m starting the job hunt again and want to avoid this from happening in my next position. How do I get this across in interviews without it being a red flag for the interviewer(s)?

I would wait until you’re offered the job before you ask about this directly.

Yes, ideally you could talk about this as part of a discussion of workplace culture in the interview itself, but I would really rather you not give them any reason to misinterpret that question that stage. (The risk is that they’ll think you’re asking because you’re going to be a pain in the ass about working anything over 40 hours, ever.) So it’s safer to wait until they’ve already decided that they want you.

Once you get an offer, when you’re asking whatever other questions you need answered, ask about typical hours too. Say something like this: “What are typical hours in your culture? I.T. needs can pop up around the clock, of course, but I’ve worked places where 70-hour weeks were standard and places that were much closer to 40. Where did the person previously in this job tend to land on that scale?”

You could also come out and be really straightforward about it, if you wanted to: “I’ve worked plenty of 70-hour weeks in the past, but now I’m at a stage in my career where I’m seeking more balance in my life. The nature of I.T. work is that there will always be some after-hours and weekend work, sometimes with no notice, and I’m fine with that — but I’m looking for something where that’s more of the exception than the rule. Is that something that sounds like a fit with your culture or would I be setting us both up for problems by having that mindset?

The first framing is more of a question, and the second is more of a declaration … so I would only use the second if you’re willing to lose the offer if what you describe is, in fact, at odds with their culture.

You can also try to talk to the person who held the position previously and/or your would-be co-workers and get their take on this, but I’m a big fan of asking directly when something like this matters a lot.

Good luck!

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 38 comments }

Sara February 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Good advice! I too ran into that problem before, in the training and development field. I switched jobs because 17 hour days 7 days a week for store openings made for a very lonely life! I switched to a classroom based environment, asked about expectations, hours etc…. and while I am fine to work hours to complete a project, I noticed overtime on the first day, and 60 hours were the norm. When the hiring manager was quitting a few months after I was hired, I inquired why I was told 40 hour weeks were standard with no expectation of overtime only in very dire situations, but even then, they strongly believed in work/life/balance (ironically selling a work/life/balance product)… her response? If you know anything about the industry, you know there’s no such thing as 40 hour work weeks.

Ugh. Best of luck, I think the advice and how you pose the question will be very helpful, and of course if you get a chance to have a panel interview, the expressions would be priceless if they know the hours are much longer than stated!

clobbered February 3, 2011 at 12:24 am

The question to ask is: “What processes are in place to ensure the uptime targets of the organisation are met?”

The reason to ask this question is that it does not go directly to hours (and therefore avoids the slacker worry) but the answer will undoubtedly tell you what you want to know.

“We all pitch in” == demands on your time may very well be infinite

Something that sounds like a sane plan (“we have 2 staff on call every night, each staff member is on call for a maximum 3 times a week, you get time off in lieu for any work you do out of hours”) is what you are looking for.

“We have such highly engineered levels of redundancy that we cannot remember the last time we needed out-of-hours cover” – well, if that is true, take the job right there and then :-)

Anonymous January 29, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Talk to a lawyer and have them send an anonymous letter to your employer… This can be from “the majority of employees” this way no one person can have there job threatened for speaking up.

If your boss is unresponsive, then send another- lawyer drafted anonymous letter – above your bosses head. This letter can mention your direct bosses inability to do their job.

Ask a Manager January 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Except that there’s nothing illegal here, and thus nothing for a lawyer to write about. I’m also not sure that a reputable lawyer would be on board with sending an anonymous letter, or one that claims to represent the majority of employees unless it really did.

Josh S February 3, 2011 at 2:19 am

Off-topic:

I really like the new size for the logo. Looks much better. Thanks for making that tweak!

/off-topic

Ask a Manager February 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Good. Thanks for giving me feedback!

GoOctopus February 3, 2011 at 5:15 am

It’s smart and safer to refer the over-work question in the offer stage. Thanks for your advice.

Stephen February 3, 2011 at 8:13 am

I’m a bit confused. If they are calling and offering you a job, in my experience they are looking for a yes I’ll take it or a no thank you response.

How do you segue into asking questions about the job that could have been asked before this point?

Adam V February 3, 2011 at 9:33 am

@Stephen: When they call to offer you the job, saying “yes” just means you can begin final negotiations about salary and benefits (with the assumption that once you work it out, you’ll be hired). A lot of times companies won’t bother discussing certain things until they make an offer, so at that point they’ll probably start giving you this additional information, which is a perfect opportunity to get your questions answered.

Stephen February 3, 2011 at 11:09 am

I guess I’ve simply never been in a situation where that is how it’s worked.

Thanks.

Chuck February 3, 2011 at 8:15 am

I would also look closely on LinkedIn to find people who used to work at that company. I’d network w/ them and ask them about working conditions, the hours, management style, etc. Facebook and other networking sites may be another source to find such people.

Possible question you could ask: “I believe I am a team player and am willing to cover off-shifts in an emergency if someone can’t make it. How often does that sort of thing occur?”

Mike C. February 3, 2011 at 9:48 am

This sort of thing happens at place of work all the time. Lab techs leave due to being forced to work 6-7 days/week 10-14 hour days then rather than staffing properly they must pick up the slack.

Here in the United States I continue to see this expectation that everyone must always be happy working more than 40 hours a week (especially if salaried!) and that for many it’s a badge of pride. “I’m a team player” or “I do what it takes to get the job done” they typically boast. Obviously many here disagree, but I have to wonder why so many are willing to put up with it. Do they not care about their partners or kids enough to say, “I’m done for the day and I’m going home”? When did we as a society become ok with this?

Laura February 3, 2011 at 11:48 am

I’ve noticed that, too, and it’s frustrating. I am more than willing to work a little over 40 hours a week, or more if it is infrequent. But at my company there is a culture of “if you don’t work over the weekend/after hours/at home, you aren’t contributing enough.” I think these expectations are completely unreal and awful, but they have truly been accepted by the majority, it seems.

Mike C. February 3, 2011 at 11:52 am

Can I also point out that the OP was afraid of looking like a slacker for only wanting to work 40 hours a week? Unless you’re a head of state or an emergency worker of some kind, you aren’t a slacker for wanting that.

Jamie February 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm

It’s not a fair assessment to infer that because someone puts in ridiculously long hours that it’s because we don’t love our families as much as those who leave each day after eight hours and a lunch.

There are people who bury themselves in work because they are avoiding going home – I’ve seen it, but it’s not that common.

My old boss used to say there are typically three reasons people work 15 hour days. They are either too incompetent to do their job in a normal day, are avoiding going home, or are understaffed and/or trying to meet unrealistic expectations set by management.

I can assure you in this economy the number of us basically living at work is increasing due to #3.

There are certain positions where a solid 40 is just never going to happen. IT, operations, engineering are three that spring to mind. You have to be available off hours – and it’s not always possible to make up the time when short-staffed.

Personally I am proud of the hours I put in – because I think I do a good job, but also when your life balance tips where work dominates everything it takes on more importance. But I work so hard because I love my family, because I’m trying to build a career so I can continue to provide for them….not because I don’t want to be home.

Mike C. February 4, 2011 at 2:47 pm

But there’s a distinct difference between working hard to provide for your family, and simply bragging about the amount of hours worked with the implication that anything lower should be seen as slacking.

I certainly understand the need and desire to pick up a bit of extra work for the family, that’s great. I take issue with the attitude of many workplaces that expect everyone to make work their entire lives and do nothing to stand up against it. By making it a badge of honor, they contribute to the expectation that overtime should be the norm and that everyone should live to work, not work to live.

Jamie February 4, 2011 at 3:03 pm

If someone is putting in their required hours and doing their job, I don’t consider that slacking – it would be stupid to log time at the office just for the sake of logging time.

Where I make the point about the hours I work is to those I work with who rarely hit 40 hours per week and I do resent picking up their slack when I’m already buried with my own work. It’s a management problem – I know. But I will point out how many 70 hour weeks I’ve just pulled when Mr./Ms. 35 hour week-two hour lunches needs bailing out.

That’s not moral superiority – it’s pointing out the disparity to try to maintain boundaries.

If managers would correct the problem rather than apologizing for it and allowing it to continue – there would be far fewer slackers or martyrs – and we’d all be happier.

Anonymous February 5, 2011 at 12:30 am

Working over 40 hours has become expected; especially during the last decade. Doing more with less is looked upon as “good management”. Unfortunately, Americans always step up when the bar is raised; perhaps because of fear of losing a job during a recession or just plain greed. I know from a lifetime of experience that 60 and 70 hour weeks are the norm – not the exception. (I’ve been a pharmacist for 30 years). Everyone I know who has a family and loves their family hates this mentality and expectation; but feels in some way or other helpless to do anything about it. It makes for a dejected and demoralized workforce. We’ve done it to ourselves. I don’t see it getting any better, either. I feel extremely anxious for my children who are now college graduates and are trying to start their careers. Jobs are scarce and arduous if you get and keep one. This is the ugly truth.

Anonymous February 3, 2011 at 10:34 am

This also depends on how “well” is well paid. In IT scale varies greatly. If you are making 150K and working 70 hours doing non manager tasks (actual IT work) you are well paid and there might be some expectation for long hours. If you are getting 90K and working 70 hours then that’s just hell. When I started in IT I was making 35K and working 50~60 hours weeks. As my salary went up hours got less and less; now I’m at around 90K and rarely work over 40 hours, and we have comp time so if I work late one day I can come in late or take a whole day off depending on hours – the only limitation is that it has to be within same pay period.

Anonymous February 3, 2011 at 5:43 pm

It would also depend on where you live. 90k in Arkansas isn’t 90k in DC.

The gold digger February 3, 2011 at 8:41 pm

A recruiter asked me, “How do you feel about long hours and short deadlines?” My silent answer was, “They’re a sign of poor management.” My out-loud answer was, “Sometimes it’s necessary to get the job done.”

It was a huge red flag for me about the job, and indeed I was right: it was an SAP conversion job (which I had sworn I would never get involved with again) even though the term “SAP” had not appeared in the job posting once. (I would not have applied had I known.)

I had the interview, but I think my distaste for the whole culture (tiny cubicles, HR’s shocked informing me that everyone, everyone! started at 2 weeks’ vacation, even if the new hire had many years in the workforce, one interviewer calmly informing me that they had 70 installations planned for the year and of course everyone involved was expected to work all weekend for the go-live) must have shown because they did not offer me a job. Tante pis.

If you have not already gotten cues about work hours, it is fair to ask! I left a job where I routinely worked until 9 or 10 each night after starting at 7:15 a.m., and no, I was not making $150K. It is not unreasonable to expect a 40-50 hour week for non-emergency times and it is not unreasonable to expect that emergencies are not frequent.

Dan February 4, 2011 at 8:20 am

Heh. I actually like my job — we’re all exempt employees who do the 40-hour grind, and when duty calls, we get our regular rate for each and every hour past 40. I like it from both angles — the extra cash is nice, and if you don’t want the extra cash, you get to go home at 5. (Or leave early on Friday when you’ve hit your 40.)

Mike C. February 4, 2011 at 8:43 am

I’m sorry, if you have a regular 40 hour grind, you should be receiving overtime pay. It’s simply ridiculous that you don’t.

Ask a Manager February 4, 2011 at 10:31 am

Well, if you’re exempt, you’re exempt from overtime pay (in return, you get paid the same amount even if you work 30 hours one week).

Anonymous February 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

But, realistically, what company allows you to work 30 hours for the 40 hour rate these days?

Ask a Manager February 4, 2011 at 10:41 am

As a matter of routine? None. But we all have weeks where we’re sick or away or whatever, and in those cases, an exempt paycheck does not change. Nor does it if you come in late, leave early, etc.

The idea with exempt jobs is supposed to be that you’re paid to get the job done, as opposed to being paid for how many hours you work.

BadMovieLover December 30, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Coming in late to this post. As a salaried IT worker, I just point out that if you’re sick or away in most companies, they just make you take a vacation or sick day off. If you take an hour off very very (extremely) occassionally the boss might just wave it away, but more often than not, if you take time off, you are expected to make it up.

The flexibility in schedule overwhemlingly cuts only one way, and it’s in the favor of management.

BadMovieLover December 30, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Also, whenever a worker is paid hourly, I’ve noticed that management makes sure said worker leaves home on time.

Something similar is true for off-hours calls. When the business has to pay hourly rates for off-hours calls, the urgent issues that could not wait for the next morning in the past, suddenly and mysteriously stop being so urgent.

Jamie February 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Some do. I personally have no problem when someone is sick or has a real emergency…but places where it’s lax and some people take advantage by routinely logging 35 hour weeks do exist.

Management may not notice, but trust me, co-workers do. Over time this can cause a real morale problem. I don’t understand why grownups can’t be fair and accountable and meet minimum requirements for their job – but it happens.

Mike C. February 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm

To clarify, I do understand the difference between exempt and nonexempt. I took the phrase “40 hour grind” as the type of job that wouldn’t normally be exempt. I could be reading way more than I should into that comment, but I’ve had a lot of friends that find themselves in exempt positions that by law shouldn’t be so their employer didn’t have to pay them overtime.

Heck, where I work, the exempt folks are expected to work a minimum of eight hours/day (plus weekend time). If they work seven hours on Monday and nine hours on Tuesday, they’re penalized an hour of PTO.

Laura February 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Um, as far as I know (which could be incorrect) you can’t deduct time for less than a full day from an exempt employee, so what they are doing is illegal.

Anonymous February 5, 2011 at 12:36 am

Wow! Where do you work? What kind of job do you have? I want one of those jobs! I don’t know anybody with that kind of job. Thanks for sharing…….

Mike C. February 4, 2011 at 9:20 am

By the way, here’s a chart from the OECD showing the amount of productivity generated per hour worked of various nations:

http://img.waffleimages.com/1716ba4097fc57aeebdceb183faccf198f49482b/800px-OECD_Productivity_levels_2007.svg.png

This data is from just before the recession in 2007.

Due note that right in front of the United States is France, and they have something like 30+ days of vacation a year and average 35 hour weeks. Perhaps there is something to be said about diminishing returns here?

Jane February 4, 2011 at 11:17 am

It very easy to find out whether IT personnel works ridiculous hours on a regular basis – technical people tend to be truthful in the interviews. Just don’t bring it up with the managers or the HR staff.

It is absolutely expected to talk about the on-call schedule, time spent in urgent support for vital systems, any regular work that happens outside of regular hours. How often the person on-call gets a call and how long it usually takes to clear that call, and how often people get calls outside of working hours when they are not on-call. It is also normal to ask about release schedule – how often, how much pressure, how much overtime in every cycle.

Then it’s up to the candidate to decide whether s/he wants the particular job. It is generally nice to let the HR or the hiring manager know that you are not interested before they put together an offer – they might actually listen to your reasons, since they still like the candidate at this point.

Jamie February 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Absolutely! Jane is right – ask one of the technical staff.

They won’t hold it against you for asking (we’ve all been there) and if they aren’t able to speak freely at the moment just look for the clues.

There is a certain air about someone who’s done one too many 70+ hour weeks…the stooped shoulders, unconscious rubbing of the head to try and stave off a migraine, the eyes either desperate or deadened – depending if one still has hope or has accepted their fate…

Kidding (but not really) but seriously, ask if mandatory OT is the exception…the involuntary snort should tell you everything you need to know.

HM February 4, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Some software companies put an emphasis on the number of hours put in even if all you’re doing is watching youtube, surfing the net, etc. The last place I worked at, said they wanted senior staff to put in more time to get higher “productivity” and convince junior staff to do the same.

Brian February 4, 2011 at 7:56 pm

I’ve done a few interviews where I interviewed with or went to lunch alone with a technical staff person. They always tipped me off to long hours, no training or crappy benefits. Not in a run-away-as-fast-as-you-can way, more just being honest. I really appreciated it and it didn’t rule out the job for me. Every job has it’s negatives and I like to make informed decisions.

lorrwill February 13, 2011 at 12:52 am

This reminds me of a blog post about working for Google and the like. You basically are completely discouraged from going home at all. So work/life balance means no life.
Not an environment most people could thrive in.
I don’t blame the OP for having concerns.

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