can I ask about flexible hours in a job interview?

A reader writes:

I have a tight time window to work since I need to bring my son to daycare every morning and pick up him every afternoon (I am a single mom and nobody can help me with this). My previous job’s work hours were suitable for me, but I got laid off and need to find another job.

I got several interviews, and one company gave me an offer, but I had to reject it because their work times can’t fit mine and they won’t allow flexible work hours. To save my time, I want to know if I can ask work hour questions during an interview so that I will know if I can accept the job at the beginning. Is it okay to do that? Is there any difference to asking an employer or a recruiter? What is the best way to ask this kind of question?

Theoretically, you should absolutely be able to ask this sort of question right at the start — along with salary and everything else that could be a potential deal breaker about a job. In practice, though, many employers frown on employees asking this type of question right at the start of the hiring process, feeling that it reflects a focus on the wrong things when they want to see that you’re focused on the work itself. That’s silly and unrealistic, but it’s the convention — and so you do put yourself at risk by bringing up benefits and hours early on. Plus, you’re more likely to get them to agree to flexible hours once they’ve already decided they want you, so to it’s your advantage to wait.

There are two exceptions to this:

* Recruiters. You can often ask external recruiters this kind of thing up-front, when you wouldn’t if you were talking to the employee directly. For whatever reason, the conventions are different with external recruiters.

* Retail, food service, and other schedule-driven jobs. In jobs where varying schedules are a big focus, it’s pretty normal to start discussing hours right up-front.

Aside from these two exceptions, I’d wait until you either have an offer or are at least at later stages of the interview process (not the first interview) before raising this stuff.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Sandra

    I think this also sorta falls into the same category as finding out of the work day is a 9 hour work day or an 8 hour one. Like, 8 to 5? or 9 to 5? 8 to 5:30? For me, something like that wouldn’t be a deal breaker, but something I’d want to know in advance. Also, like does the job require 40 hours? 50 hours? A ton of overtime? I’ve only really ever asked these questions at the job offer stage. And sometimes, a late afternoon interview that runs into the 5:00 hour is the best way to find out!

  2. Jean

    Oh, my sympathies! I had the same restrictions until very recently when our child acquired enough age and common sense to manage the exit-school-bus-enter-home-and-stay-there-safely transition without me. (I’m not a single parent, but the nature and location of my spouse’s work simply doesn’t allow mid-afternoon breaks or an early-to-work, early-to-leave-for-home schedule.) It’s so frustrating to hear a potential employer lose interest. During one conversation I imagined icicles forming under the other person’s speech balloon.

    Can you find anyone (family, friends, neighbors you know well) to take over your son’s pickup or dropoff? I know this is a tall order, because the person has to be safe, sensible, responsible, reliable, and affordable; also because you may need a different way for the day care to communicate news or concerns or requests for more supplies for your son. (Maybe they can do this by email.) Could you share pickup and dropoff with another parent at your day care center? Re affordability… perhaps a social service agency or a volunteer time bank/barter exchange could help you find a solution. (If you’re a member of a congregation, maybe that organization can help you find someone.) Don’t forget about word of mouth from other parents working outside the home. Somebody may well know somebody who knows somebody who can solve your problem!

    Of course, once you’ve got the child care totally covered, what happens when the pickup-and-dropoff person gets sick / has an emergency / gets married and moves out of state ? AAAH!

    It really stinks that every family has to make up its own solutions for child care and/or transportation to and from the child care provider. Most of us muddle through imperfectly unless we have flexible work times, a super-understanding employer, or enough money to pay for assistance on top of the child care. I don’t know what else to say except to give you lots of moral support. There’s usually a manageable, but not ideal, solution but it takes a while to find it and you usually need a backup plan also.

  3. ExceptionToTheRule

    I hire for very specific hours, so they’re one of the first things I bring up in an interview, because if the interviewee can’t work those hours, well, there’s no point in offering them the job.

    I, personally, tend to ask about hours in interviews because, as has been discussed here before, I’m interviewing them as well. It usually comes up in a second interview and I tend to ask my workplace culture-focused questions with it. Something like “can you tell me what hours of a normal work day are here?” which leads to follow up questions about overtime, travel, flexibility, etc.

    Good luck on your job search.

  4. Jessa

    I never understood why hours, etc. weren’t something to talk about up front. It’s one of those things where people can instantly self select in or out on, whether it’s an 8 hour or 10 hour shift, whether you work every weekend or only some, etc. Whether you get a choice of shift or not. Is it 40 hours or 30? I mean this is basic, even more basic than salary even.

    1. Ruffingit

      Totally agreed! Discussing hours and salary range up front would save a lot of time and money in the long run.

  5. Same boat

    I had the same issue in my most recent job search. I have a two year old whose daycare closed by 6 pm. So any job I accept would have to work around that schedule plus commute. I raised the schedule issue on the second interview. And I got the job and have been working the past ten months and it has worked put well

  6. Anonymous

    Ask about the workplace culture thing. That will usually open the door to the conversation with respect to working hours without you having to specifically mention it…you can get a sense if they promote that fable called “work life balance”

  7. HR Personal&Confidential

    I think the schedule is a fair topic to discuss. Our latest hired position is from 0630-3:00 (In Seattle with East Coast customers). I communicated that info and in the pre-screen phone interviews.

    Fortunately it was well received and only one candidate had to declime because of it.

    1. Ann Furthermore

      I wish more companies would do this, because it saves time for both the employer and the potential employee. If an employee is an outstanding candidate but for whatever reason cannot work the hours needed by the employer, then why waste time going through the whole interview routine, only for both parties to find out at the last minute that it’s been a complete waste of time?

      1. Chris

        I wonder if it’s possible for the potential employer to allow the employee to come half hour later in the morning, especially if the job is temporary. It’s not like the position will be there for a long time, according to them. There’s a job I’m interested in, but it’s 45 mins away, and it’s right after my other job. I’d like to work two jobs if I could. These places are not rival companies – that I’m aware of at this point.

  8. Brandy

    You may be able to raise this earlier on in the process–carefully. At the end of an interview that went really well, you could ask, among lots of other questions, about the hours– say something along the lines of “I know this is somewhat putting the cart before the horse, but as a single mom, I have to think about all aspects of this role. My current childcare arrangement requires pickup by X, which has been a deal-breaker for some of the firms I’ve interviewed with–can you give me some insight into if that schedule could work here?” Carefully consider how you’d react to the answers. I would also NOT ask this question to HR; they’ll have no idea. This is a question for the hiring manager.

    However, proceed with caution. If I were interviewing you, my first question would be, “couldn’t this person find alternate options if this were the right fit for her?” Meaning- a local high schooler to do pick up/drop offs, an afternoon nanny, etc. Not that it’s your first choice, but again- from the interviewer’s perspective it seems like your childcare situation is inflexible. Of course–we all know how hard good care is, but your interviewer may see it as inflexibility.

    1. SC in SC

      Great comment Brandy I think that’s the best way to handle it. In cases where a flexible schedule is desirable but not required, I’d wait until an offer has been made. However, in those where it’s an absolute deal breaker then it should be raised in the later part of the interview even if it’s just to plant the seed for further discussion. As a hiring manager I would prefer to hear about it then as opposed to waiting until I go through the effort of making an offer only to be told “I’ll accept your offer but I have to have flexible hours”.

    2. Elaine

      I don’t know that I’d mention that I was a single mother OR had young children in care during an interview–the interviewer can’t legally ask these things of candidates for a reason. However, I might say that I had commitments that require X hours and see what the answer was.

      Just a thought.

      1. Brandy

        I specifically mentioned it because when hearing a candidate sound “needy” about hours, I would prefer to have the rationale: a single mom having to work around pickup hours versus someone that can’t be bothered to work past 5:01pm because they “have” to get to the gym, or they don’t like the traffic, is different to me.

        But I agree that it depends on your industry and job level.

  9. KellyK

    I think it depends a lot on what kind of position you’re in and how selective you can be, as well as how many interviews you’re getting. If you’re getting a lot and you’ve already got one offer, it may make sense to ask it during the interview (especially if it’s a second interview). I like the wording Brandy came up with, or the idea of making it part of a general discussion of normal working hours, work-life balance, etc. It might go over better to just ask generic “What are the standard work hours?” and “How common is it to have to work late unexpectedly?” questions rather than mentioning your childcare situation.

    Basically, as long as you’re in a position where you *can* turn down offers that won’t work with your schedule, it seems reasonable to me to ask about schedule so that if they don’t really have any flexibility there, you’re not wasting your time or theirs. If you can’t find what you need and you’re going to have to take some job, any job, that’s the point where I would stop mentioning it until after you get an offer.

    1. KellyK

      Also, the calculation would change a little bit if you’re receiving unemployment, depending on how your state’s rules work. If you’re not allowed to turn down a job that’s offered, I would be up front about your schedule to allow the company to decide if it’s not going to work for them.

      (Note that I’m not in any way suggesting being dishonest or gaming the system. But if you don’t have the option of turning a potential job down, it might be better for the company and you for them to know your schedule issues up front.)

  10. Yan

    Hi, Alison
    Thank you very much for your answer. I didn’t expect that I can see so many comments here and it really helps me to make my decisions.
    Thanks for the great help, to all of you.

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