update: my new office works torturously long hours

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who had started a new job where everyone worked ridiculously long hours — like routinely working past midnight? Here’s the update.

First of all, I want to say THANK YOU for publishing your response to my letter. I also want to thank the readers who commented and shared their own advice and experience – I read and appreciated every single word.

I honestly wasn’t expecting your reply, nor the opinions expressed in the comments, to be so unambiguous. Hearing from so many people that the situation was definitively not okay really helped me reframe from “I can’t handle the heat in this kitchen” to “when the kitchen’s on fire, getting out is the right move.”

So what happened next? A few weeks after you published my letter, I ran into a younger coworker who was crying – to make a long story short, she’d essentially been given an ultimatum to cancel her (weekend!) trip home if she wanted to keep her job. (This person is also one of the most caring and committed people at the company – someone who regularly stays past midnight not because she has to, but because she offers to help so others can go home a little earlier. Grrr.) As I was trying to tell her that was truly not okay, it hit me that it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I decided right then and there that if I was kept past midnight that night, I’d resign the next morning; I was there until 1, and I resigned the next day.

After I made the choice to resign and, in effect, stopped forcing rose-colored glasses onto my face every morning, I let myself acknowledge things at that company are out of control in many more ways than work-life balance…I won’t get into it all here, but think ritualistic public shaming, actively pitting people against each other, criticizing individuals for things that shouldn’t even be mentioned in a professional environment, and so much more. I am so happy to have gotten out of there quickly, before my own norms and expectations got twisted.

While I was really scared to leave with nothing else lined up, particularly because my partner was looking for employment himself at the time, I knew it was the right thing for me to do. And this story has a happy ending – I’m thrilled to share that I am now at a wonderful company – still in the ‘prestigious’ field I wanted to be in! – where literally everything about my life is better: the (actual) work-life balance, the culture, the values, the commute, and even the salary. So if there’s a broader lesson or takeaway from my experience, I offer: know that leaving a toxic job – though it can feel terrifying in the short term – might actually be less risky than staying put.

{ 105 comments… read them below }

      1. Bigintodogs*

        Yeah true. She said boutique though, and at some of the boutique ones people say they have better work/life balance. I’m glad she left!

    1. Managing Director not yet*

      I think that, in fairness, before if we’re going to condemn the firm, OP should tell us what her salary and seniority were.

      Elite consulting firms pay significantly higher salaries than most entry level workers can command. (The only industry that tends to pay more is investment banking, where hours are even longer.) The tradeoff, of course, is that they expect you to live at the office.

      I agree that they can overboard with this, and I do think that *regular* (as opposed to “night before big client presentation”) work past midnight is excessive, but the reality is that these are never going to be 9-5 jobs, particularly if you’re aiming to be a managing director potentially compensated in seven figures. Those people work hard.

      I think it’s up to each person to decide whether those tradeoffs are worth it, and it’s completely legitimate for OP to decide they’re not.

      1. Observer*

        Did you actually red what the OP describes? They were very clear that these hours are a regular thing – and that they often are not necessary. They also make it clear that EVERYONE is expected to pretty much give up their lives – see the note about the junior person who was basically being told that if they have the audacity to go away for a *weekend* they would lose their job.

        Add that to the original letter where the OP says that they took a pay cut, and this letter makes no sense.

        1. Managing Director not yet*

          “They also make it clear that EVERYONE is expected to pretty much give up their lives ”

          But at consulting firms, junior staff are still professionals and expected to be available. At big law firms, this is often true even for paralegals (who are typically non-exempt and get paid overtime). I can see it being a non-starter for support staff, and in my experience professional services firms don’t usually demand those hours from support staff, but not for fee earners.

          None of this is to say that all professional services firms are equally bad, or that there’s no room for improvement, etc. But I don’t think working at a professional services firm, particularly one with a nationwide or international footprint, is ever going to be a 9-to-5 job, and fee earners shouldn’t expect it to be. That’s why they get paid so much. If OP in her original letter stated that she left for a lower-profile firm at a lower salary, then I commend her for recognizing the tradeoff and making the choice that’s right for her.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            Professional junior staff should not be expected to be on-call literally all of the time, that’s absurd. And I think you are misunderstanding the pay cut comments. They aren’t saying she took a tradeoff of a pay cut to get away from the long hours, the job with the long hours WAS the pay cut.

      1. VivaL*

        Was wondering this as well- sounds like she might be a person you could recommend at your work (or elsewhere?)

        Good for you for defending yourself and doing what was right for you. Best of luck at this place!

        1. OP*

          Unfortunately, she hasn’t left yet. (While the norms and expectations at that place are truly toxic, for someone without any other full-time post-grad work experience, I can imagine that must be much harder to confidently recognize.) But I’ve connected her a friend my age who works in her specific field, and that friend has been blown away by how wonderful she is and is actively keeping an eye out for possible new roles for her – so I’m staying in close touch with her, and hoping something persuades her to leave soon!

          In better news, since I left, more than a quarter of the company has quit as well – which I’m hoping leads to a continued domino effect. (Of course, from what I hear, it hasn’t incited any change within the organization; if anything, the CEO has doubled down.)

      1. OP*

        Unfortunately, she didn’t. (While the norms and expectations at that place are truly toxic, for someone without any other full-time post-grad work experience, I can imagine that must be much harder to confidently recognize.) I’ve connected her a friend my age who works in her specific field, and that friend has been blown away by how wonderful she is and is actively keeping an eye out for possible new roles for her – so I’m staying in close touch with her, and hoping something persuades her to leave soon!

  1. Jaybeetee*

    “I decided right then and there that if I was kept past midnight that night, I’d resign the next morning; I was there until 1, and I resigned the next day.”

    Not working past midnight is a pitifully low bar to set, and they still couldn’t do it. You’re right to get out of there. Place reminds me of Wolf of Wall Street.

    1. Managing Director not yet*

      The Wolf of Wall Street made millions of dollars, of course. (His problem was breaking securities laws.) If I had the opportunity to be that wealthy — in a legal way — and the cost was working past midnight for a couple of years, I’d take it. YMMV.

      1. Linda Evangelista*

        Same, but yes only for a limited amount of time. Save as much as I can and bail once I feel comfortable!

      2. gmg22*

        Which is fine for you, but not for the OP. She specified in her original letter that she was falsely promised “work-life balance” and took a pay cut for this job, and specifies in this one that her new job has both a higher salary AND a less insane schedule.

        1. Managing Director not yet*

          “Which is fine for you, but not for the OP.”

          Please tell me where I said otherwise. I am reacting to the comments to the effect that “no workplace ever should demand long hours.”

          1. Rhiannon*

            I have yet to find in the comments where anyone is even implying that, but maybe that’s just me. Can you point some out as examples?

      3. Observer*

        That’s a choice people get to make for themselves. It is NEVER a choice that is legitimate to make for someone else. Nor is regularly working past midnight (on a “daytime” job) a reasonable expectation for anything but the really highest paying (as in millions of dollars within a few years) jobs. Otherwise, “pathetically low bar” is kinder than the place deserves.

    1. Kbell*

      This is what I was thinking! Good for you! And maybe you can help your sweet coworker find something else too ;)

  2. animaniactoo*

    Congratulations! Yes – when companies start acting like employees are component cogs with no right to a life and priorities of some of that life outside the office over the job – it is time to run fast and far far away. Congrats on finding somewhere saner, OP!

  3. RJ the Newbie*

    LW, I am so happy you got out of that situation! Best of luck at your new place and congratulations for standing your ground and having the strength to move on. Friends in my field (analysts) are in jobs similar to your old one and I read about their unhappiness. Read because they never have the time to catch up in person with friends as they’re constantly putting in 80-90 hour weeks.

  4. mr. brightside*

    Hearing from so many people that the situation was definitively not okay really helped me reframe from “I can’t handle the heat in this kitchen” to “when the kitchen’s on fire, getting out is the right move.”

    That’s a really great way of framing it, and I’m so glad you were able to get rid of that kitchen!

    1. Lady Phoenix*

      It’s like the difference between Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmare.

      You are generally safe in HK because Gordan keeps the kitchens in tip top shape (and will throw out people that make it unsafe).

      You are NOT safe in KN, since the owners and managers are nowhere near as good.

    2. CastIrony*

      “When the kitchen’s on fire, getting out is the right move.”

      I love that framing, especially because I work in food service!

  5. Utoh!*

    I think a key takeaway from this is that there ARE other jobs that don’t treat their workers like this! I think some employees use the excuse of the “Devil I know” not to make a change but to keep putting up with ridiculous (and not sustainable!) requirements.

    1. RabbitRabbit*

      Yes! I put up with a crap position for way too long because I had my own office and a good amount of flexibility in taking time off. That let me ignore a lot of the crap, mismanagement, low pay, etc. I currently have a cube, yes, but in a pretty decent cube farm – and with a window, lots of flexibility in time off, better pay, and managers I respect and trust at least for the two levels above me.

  6. AnonEmu*

    So glad you got out of that situation! I was in a similar situation at my last job and I know it can be nerve-wracking to leave but I am glad you saved yourself and were able to get out. Congrats, OP!

  7. Lady Phoenix*

    I forgot if OP mentioned what to work in, but there have been accounts of video game companies forcing their employees to work extra long hours in recent years.

    People are expected to work well over 12 hours, have no overtime pay, and not take sick days to finish a game—with games have rushed development in order to get coveted release dates.

    And game testers don’t even get benefits. If they can’t coen in, gamig conpanies will kick then out.

    And they can do all of this because video games companies are NOT unionized. They are also infamous of swooping in and grabbing more… younger employees with little experience, which ingrains in their minds toxic aspects of work.

    Also, sexism. Lots and lots of sexism.

    1. Just little ole me*

      Unionized is not the reason…the reason is that the employees let them. If people started pushing back and not accepting the situation, it would change.

      1. Urdnot Bakara*

        respectfully, i think lady phoenix’s point is that unions allow you to do these things. it’s easier to push back as a group, as alison is always reminding us!

        1. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

          I would like to take this opportunity to quote “Newsies.” “We can’t go on strike, we don’t have a union.” “But, if we go on strike, we *are* a union!”

      2. Iris Eyes*

        Yes, and one of the historically effective and efficient ways to garner wholesale changes in an industry is for that industry to unionize. Which is the people pushing back and as a group not accepting the situation.

      3. Coder von Frankenstein*

        If one person pushes back, they fire that person and nothing changes.

        If the employees all get together and push back as a group, that’s a union.

      4. Lady Phoenix*

        The problem is that because these ompanies like the rake in more… young employees, they instill in these people that long hours and frankly unhealthy working conditions and dedication to the job is “a thing”.

        And those that DO decide to put their foot down are often on the list of lay offs, firings, and poorer treatment.

        And the outside… doesn’t care. Gamers only care about the game being published and avaailable for retail (and will be the loudest voice at the DIrECTOR and conpany should there be any bugs or glitches) and non gamers think of the gaming indistry and gaming as “just for kids”.

        The “Triple A” game companies, or big game studios (Bethesda, Blizzard/Activision, 2K games, EA), are only in this to please investors. They think can and will exploit the “peons” because, guess what, for every tired grouch there are 10 bright eyes begging for a position right out of college.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          They think they can exploit those bright eyes out of college because they have successfully been doing it for a long time. They know taking someone right out of college, using them up, and throwing them away is a sustainable model, and there will always be fresh ones who want to work at a cool video game company. Loudly denouncing that exploitation is worthwhile, too.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            I’ve also seen this in a couple of other places – the “cool” entertainment newspaper in my city – and generally in the arts. Millions of new art grads wanting a cool job in their field… but it starts even before that, charging a fortune for art supplies while paying store associates minimum wage…
            I think generally any company or industry that people think is “cool” will have opportunities to take advantage…

            1. P*

              Yes exactly, it’s more supply and demand. There’s tons of people who want to get a job doing [cool thing!] so employers can keep going through them. One tends to think the overall quality of the product would suffer but… I guess if they have enough talented people throwing their heart into things for a few years the result will be good enough to keep going.

        2. Wintermute*

          I think you see this sort of dynamic any place there are way more people that want into the field than there are available jobs in the field. You see it in Big Law and madison avenue ad firms too, because they have thousands of applicants for every job, so to them, yeah, the labor is mostly disposable. If you don’t want it someone else will, someone else will take a pay cut and work longer and harder.

          It’s a complete labor monosody (the consumption-side version of a monopoly) where there are only so many highly-coveted jobs.

          Though to be honest, it’s still probably worth it for many people. You’re not going to learn the nuts and bolts of the industry elsewhere, once you’ve put in some time and learned the ropes you can strike out on your own (in fact, most of the biggest design houses today were founded by people that did just that) or go into indy development. But the most successful indy developers tend to have some industry experience before they set out on their own– with a few very notable exceptions that were really a lightning in a bottle situation of being in the right place at the right time with the right clever idea and substantial personal skill to make it all come together.

      1. Lady Phoenix*

        You could try Inpendent studios, who may have better employee ethnic than the big games studios who are INFAMOUS for atuff like this.

        1. Wintermute*

          Most indy studios are basically one to three developers that are owner/operators. Few employ much outside talent because they just don’t have the money to. They work no less hard but when you’re seeing the profits yourself it’s easy to write off all the late nights– plus founders are a special breed, I don’t know any company founders that work less than 60 hours a week.

    1. JM in England*

      I was about to ask the same. IME, leaving a job without another lined up is usually a huge red flag in the eyes of employers….

      1. OP*

        I was, and I was super honest, though I led with the (true) fact that I’d joined this company to do X type of work, and between the time I was hired and started, they decided to pivot to Y – an area still suited to my skill set, but one I find far less compelling. (Got the idea for this strategy from Allison!). I also spoke about the hours as matter-of-factly as I could, making sure to stick to the facts.

  8. RedinSC*

    Ahhhh, I like this update! Good for you LW!

    Perhaps if there’s an opening in your new company you can encourage the crying coworker to apply and get her out of there too. Thank you for writing in.

  9. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    This is awesome. I’m imagining OP is like the opening scene from The Sound of Music—arms thrown wide open as OP twirls around enjoying the greener grass on the other side of their Old Job hellscape.

    1. Snickerdoodle*

      Haha–When I quit working overnight stock, I deliberately set my alarm at three a.m. as usual just so I could roll over, turn it off, and enjoy a proper glorious night’s sleep.

  10. Salty*

    Happy for you OP!! Curious what you said in interviews for the new gig – were you forthcoming about the toxicity or just fudged the timelines on your resume?

      1. Antilles*

        But even if they don’t this behavior is sufficiently far over the line that OP absolutely could have gotten away with a (nonjudgmental, purely factual) answer explaining that you know long hours on occasion are part of the industry but working 8 am to midnight every day of every week just was not feasible. No sane interviewer is going to hear “16+ hours a week every week” and count that as a strike against you, outside of a few very specific industries where it’s so well known that “yeah, first year lawyers always spend 97 hours a week.”

  11. Marthooh*

    Low salary, non-negotiably long hours, emphasis on teamwork over personal life, “ritualistic public shaming, actively pitting people against each other, criticizing individuals for things that shouldn’t even be mentioned in a professional environment…”

    I think OP will find it enlightening to look at Issendai’s “Sick Systems” post, which is linked in my username.

      1. Radio Girl*

        Or an organization controlled by sociopaths. I worked for a small radio station with a boss who created chaos and problems between employees, continually lied and cheated everyone. It’s more pervasive in small business, I think.

      1. JulieCanCan*

        But can’t a “consultant” consult in literary ANY industry? I’m curious as to the specific industry he/she is in, because I’d imagine consulting in politics is very different than consulting in, say, farming equipment or furniture ergonomics. Different paces, different deadlines, etc.

        1. ket*

          A lot of the consulting firms I know about consult in any industry. Like, 3 weeks on farm equipment company, then 8 weeks on pharmaceutical, then 4 weeks on furniture, then 12 on flocculation….

  12. El Esteban*

    There are very few scenarios where you should quit your job without something else lined up, but this definitely sounds one of the exceptions.

  13. Michaela Westen*

    “ritualistic public shaming, actively pitting people against each other, criticizing individuals for things that shouldn’t even be mentioned in a professional environment, ”

    This sounds like active, deliberate destructiveness to me. Deliberately pitting people against each other? Public shaming? Criticizing things that aren’t normally mentioned? This is active abuse by an abuser or group of them. So glad you got out! Hope everyone else does too!

    1. Mongrel*

      “But we’ve always done it like this and it’s never affected us! You young ‘uns suck it up and get back to work”

      Which handily ignores the wasteland of a social life, divorces and stints with substance abuse (probably).
      The pitting people against each other and other F’d up behavior is probably half abuser mentality and half power play, keeping the subordinates properly subordinate, “Only the strong survive! And we only want the strongest!!” mentality – which normally ends up with emotional cripples in perpetual willy-waving contests

      1. Miss Arc*

        There has been a huge shift at my company [huge tech consulting firm] in the past 5 years to shift to more work/life balance (that walks the talk), more control over where you are deployed (types of projects, roles, or clients), & access to employee resources to help with these issues (our insurance covers rehab, therapy, etc.). Specifically because of the attrition & the belief from younger workers that the money is not enough of a motivator past a point.

        I am so glad to see this shift happening & thankfully some of the higher-ups even at our clients who publically shame their employees as being (slowly) phased out. One delivery lead whom I supervise would want me to add the caveat that some are just being phased out by age & the relentless march of time & progress past them coupled with their lack of ability/desire to adapt.

        (sorry, I feel like that became venting a bit on my part)

  14. Bulbasaur*

    Good for you, OP. Glad to hear it worked out well.

    Regarding your caring, committed colleague, I’ve found that in that kind of environment those people are often singled out for special tortures, because they have a tendency to show the leadership up (if only by example) and they perceive it as a threat. I hope she manages to find her way out as well.

  15. JulieCanCan*

    I love this update! I am a very strong believer in leaving a toxic job as soon as you realize it’s effecting your mental and physical health negatively, even when you don’t have anything lined up. And I know people will say they can’t do that because of finances, but believe me, when you’re forced to deal with it and need to figure out a way, you will. There’s always Freelancing, temping, signing up with multiple recruiting companies and placement agencies, etc. You have no choice but to hustle – your survival depends on it!

    I moved across the country without a job or apartment lined up 20+ years ago, and I’ve always quit toxic hellholes without a new position lined up, because when you have no option but to figure it out, YOU WILL. You’re forced to. To me, it’s almost easier in a way, because you don’t allow time to pass since you need to support yourself, you’ll work your tail off to figure out what needs to happen. There’s no excuse.

    It can be terrifying yet exhilarating.

    Congratulations OP, on leaving that awful company and on the new, better-in-every-way position! It was all meant to be, because if you hadn’t been at that toxic place for the period of time you were there, the other new better position would not have been open. Whoo hoo!! Excellent update!

    1. SarahTheEntwife*

      I agree that it’s important to get out of a toxic environment if at all possible, but plenty of people *don’t* find a way, and not for lack of skill or effort. Freelancing and temping isn’t a great option if you need your job’s health care plan, and I’m not going to judge anyone for staying in a hell job if the other option is being out on the streets.

      1. Fabrica*

        Yeah, I couldn’t just up and leave my job because it is WAY easier to get another job in my field while being employed in the field, and almost impossible to jump in once you’ve stepped out. With my degree only relevant to my field and hanging over my head at 100K worth of student loans, I can’t just say goodbye and work at a minimum wage gig until I find another open position. Switching locations in my field also typically means relocating to another state, so I would just deal until another job offer came through. Plus, quitting before I have another job lined up means the new job can call and chat with old job about me, whereas if I were still employed, they would be less likely to do that because they would tip off that I’m job searching. So a current bad boss has less of a chance to sink my new job prospects if I am still working with them.

  16. Avalon Angel*

    Something about both of your letters has been striking to me: simply put, you have a way with words. Have you considered writing about this experience (taking the necessary measures to protect yourself legally, of course)? If an article on your experience feels daunting, you could channel this into fiction.

    1. OP*

      Wow, thank you! I actually have thought a lot about it and I think I’d like to…just trying to figure out exactly how. (Also, the CEO has a reputation for vindictiveness…so I’d like to hold off until I feel 100% secure in this new role.)

  17. Seeking Second Childhood*

    This reframing is resonating with me today… thank you for it, OP!

    “when the kitchen’s on fire, getting out is the right move.”

  18. Miss Arc*

    I work in consulting (not in a tiny boutique firm but of the multinational tech variety).
    I’ve had long nights but staying all night regularly can be a management issue within a small firm. The margin should allow you to hire more staff to divide the work & you can work with flexible subKs if your staff is truly not able to handle the workload within a reasonable time.
    It’s better in a lot of these firms to manage clients well rather than having so many clients that they cannot serve them – those people will move to other firms with a burnt taste in their mouths.
    [I worked freelance & in smaller places during my MBA/MSIS & the hours were definitely worse than they are now & it was harder to get extra help from flex workers so that may also not be an option if it’s an 8 person firm or something]

  19. Big Biscuit*

    I’m sort of curious if this consulting gig had clients in other countries? Otherwise, what the hell is there to do at 11pm that can’t be done earlier? I did business consulting for a couple of years and there were a few 7am to 7pm days, but my clients were probably fast asleep at midnight. Very cool, that the OP said enough and got out.

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