how can I avoid jobs with horrible hours?

A reader writes:

I’m currently working in a job that requires what I can only describe as a soul-crushing amount of overtime just to keep my work afloat. This is common in my department and shows no signs of changing any time soon (if anything, it’s probably going to get worse). My field is very deadline-driven, but I know from conversations with others in similar roles that the sheer volume of work on my plate at any given time is not normal.

I’m starting to job hunt, and I’m incredibly nervous about taking another position, only to end up in a similar situation. What kind of questions can I ask in interviews that will help me gauge what kind of overtime will be expected once I’m up to speed without sounding like I’m not willing to go the extra mile? I don’t mind working late now and then, but right now I’m on a bullet train to Burnout Town.

This can be tricky because some managers will give you a sugarcoated version of the truth — which is ridiculous because misleading candidates is how you end up with dissatisfied employees who leave sooner than they would otherwise.

But you can try asking, “Can you tell me what hours the person in this role typically works?” Then, once you get an answer to that, follow it up with, “What about during your busiest times? What does that usually look like?”

It’s also okay to say, “One of the reasons I’m thinking about leaving my current job is that I’m working 60-hour weeks nearly year-round and I’m looking for something with more balance.” You’re not going to sound like a slacker when you explain the hours you’re working now; the fact that you’re working that much now makes it clear you’re willing to go the extra mile when it’s needed. And trust me, people at companies with more reasonable hours will 100% understand why you want to get out.

Beyond that, though, don’t just take your interviewer’s answer as the final word. Ask other people there similar questions. You’ll sometimes hear different — and more realistic — answers if you talk to others on the team or people who have been in the job previously.

You should also watch for signs of good or bad management more generally. Good managers are more likely to prioritize work in reasonable ways, set goals that are aligned with the resources to achieve them, understand that people have lives outside of work, and see the value in not burning people out.  Bad managers … less so.

And last, read between the lines when you observe the culture. If you’re seeing foosball tables and are told pay for dinner every night, those are often signs you’re going to be spending a lot of time there. (And if they offer to pay for you to freeze your eggs, like some Silicon Valley companies have done, you probably won’t be going home much.)

{ 172 comments… read them below }

  1. Nicki Name*

    After they tell you reasonable-sounding typical hours, you can also try to verify that with “How often do you stay late?” or “When was the last time you had to stay late?”

    1. Foreign Octopus*

      Yep, I agree with this. I asked that question entirely by accident when I was applying for jobs to get out of retail work, and his answer was “well, really good people come in early and stay late”. I noped out of there. If the job can’t be done within reasonable working hours then it’s not a reasonable job.

      1. Just Elle*

        “If the job can’t be done within reasonable working hours then it’s not a reasonable job.”

        Love this. Companies who think that hours worked somehow correlates to passion or capability are the bane of my existence. I promise I’m more focused and productive the 8 hours I’m here, than the guys “working” 14 hour days.

        1. Nanani*

          My first real job after graduating, I was honestly shocked at how some people showed up extra early and/or left late. Then I realized those same people spent a lot of time chit-chatting, reading newspapers at their desks, etc.
          “Seat time” is not a good measure of productivity.

          1. SAHM*

            One of my jobs the boss wasn’t happy when I left on time-regardless of whether my tasks for the day were done, she literally called me into her office one day to talk about me leaving early when I left at 5:30 and she called the office at 5:40 with a question. I was dumbfounded because I’m scheduled 8:30-5:30. So when I realized she didn’t care WHAT I did as long as I looked productive and left after 6:30, so I started wasting time on FB every day around 2:30/3:00 ish (when she left to pick up her kid) to 4/5 and then finish up whatever tasks between 5&6 then goof off until 6:30-7:00. It didn’t help that I worked with scientist that didn’t have a lot to do while their experiments were running or while they were waiting on data from another company.

            1. Ada*

              I had the same thing happen to me! Apparently some people had to stay late to work on something that popped up near the end of the day. No one said anything about it by the time I’d left a good half hour after our official EOB, but somehow I was the one in trouble because they waited until almost 6 to ask for help. After that she wanted me to check in with her and/or my direct manager every day before leaving because it was apparently unreasonable to expect them to ask for my help (which of course of give happily) *before* I was scheduled to leave for the day.

              1. Jadelyn*

                Wow. I’m suddenly so thankful for (most of) my coworkers, who understand that if you wait until 4:30 to send something you can’t expect to get it back same day, who know that we all have quitting times and respect that, and who are actually pretty good about not pitching a fit if they need help after someone’s already gone for the day.

            2. Kat in VA*

              Pff if I didn’t leave until all of my tasks were done, I would literally – literally! – never leave the office. Partly why I login at home and also on the weekends (and I’m salaried) and that mountain never goes away. It just magically replenishes itself. I do not live for work. I know some people do, but at some point, I have to have time to…I don’t know, live my life.

            3. 653-CXK*

              Yup…I work 8:00-4:30pm, and former boss often showed up at 4:15 with regularity. Most of the time, it was to catch up on things, but still a little annoying.

            4. Quill*

              Old thread but yes, so much lab work is “attempt to look busy while you wait,” and there’s only so many times you can sterilize the lab.

              I ended up learning Excel tricks in my free time when I was a lab tech, because you’re either on your feet 8 hours a day (or more, which is how I learned that I can’t hack a 10 hour experiment schedule even when there’s flex time involved,) or there’s nothing to do but make your lab notebook VERY neat indeed.

      2. Clisby*

        That’s it. It’s one thing if salaried people stay late a dozen times a year for really crunch periods, but routinely? No.

      3. TrainerGirl*

        Exactly. I avoid job listings that say that they’re looking for “aggressive, enthusiastic go getters” or “someone who thrives in a fast-paced environment” like the plague. And those that want someone who “thrives with changing priorities and is an excellent multi-tasker” just means that you’ll constantly be asked to change your focus or management doesn’t know what they want.

    2. KHB*

      I once had an interviewee ask me how often I pulled all-nighters. (This was for a job where “staying late” means leaving at 5:30 instead of 5:00.) I don’t know if his expectations were really that far out of whack or if he was deliberately overshooting as a way to get an honest answer out of me.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        Yeah, it sounds to me like he was coming from a work environment where working well into the night was common and was trying to make sure you guys didn’t have that same expectation.

      2. MK*

        People’s perception of what is a reasonable schedule and work-life balance can vary wildly. That’s why it’s important to ask multiple people and look for other signs about what the schedule is like, as well as naming the number of hours. Often you get people who are not being deliberately dishonest, but honestly believe 12-hour days plus half the Saturdays each month is a great deal, because they have been used to 15-hour days and taking calls all weekend every weekend.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        I used to have a job where it was normal to work 55-hour weeks *in four days*. It took me years to adapt once I didn’t have to do that any more.

        1. Roja*

          I didn’t even pull all-nighters in college. I can’t even imagine how much someone would have to pay me for me to think that was okay at work.

          1. Jennifer Thneed*

            I think I did that once. And it was to finish a paper that was due at the beginning of my 8am class. I handed it in and went home to sleep.

            1. TardyTardis*

              I did that once, but couldn’t go back to sleep–instead, I tried desperately to look like I was awake, so of *course* that was the day the prof discussed the Federal Reserve. (I hope I didn’t drool…).

    3. Just Elle*

      Another good one is “how often do unexpected emergencies come up that cause you to stay late?”
      I’ve found, personally, I really don’t mind fairly frequent 12 hour days when they’re planned. But if I expect to leave at 4 and get stuck in an ’emergency’ meeting until 5 or 6 that mucks up my evening plans, I resent the heck out of it.

      I think its important to identify not just what hours you’re willing to work, but what type of OT you mind the least – unexpected/planned, late nights vs weekends, etc.

      1. Washi*

        Ooh I like this. I work in nonprofits and it’s so hard because you have to telegraph “I care deeply about this work” and also suss out whether it’s the kind of place where you completely abandon your personal life in the name of service.

      2. kittymommy*

        Good point. I frequently work late, 30 min – 1hr, but there are specific nights every week I have plans. If I’m cancelling them, I need to know. For weekends, I don’t mind coming in as long as it’s a significant amount of time to make it worth it. I’m not driving in for an hour meeting on a Saturday.

        1. Tabby*

          I do miss that clinic where, if you had to attend a meeting on your day off, they have you clock in for it. They tried to schedule meetings for days when everyone was already working, but inevitably it was someone’s day off. But they also scheduled them and told us well in advance, and weren’t obnoxious about it if you really couldn’t make it. They’d just have a quick catch-up with you on your next scheduled day AND made the info covered available in writing. But then we had a lot of students/people with lives, which they understood.

      3. Lynca*

        I think it also helps if you outline what is considered an emergency and whether you expect people to drop everything for them. Because an emergency where I work is something pretty catastrophic, like a flood for example. And it’s not a situation where you leave before the job is done. Sometimes it’s not clear how long you’ll be working.

        It’s not for everyone and if you look at our jobs on paper you’d assume we’re just in an office 100% of the time. But we are upfront that when you’re asked to work OT it’s typically for a big deal event that is going to interrupt your life.

        1. Just Elle*

          Ooh good point. When I worked in production, emergencies were, you know, emergencies.

          Now, I should just have an auto bounce back on last minute meeting invites that says “poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” One boss in particular schedules an “emergency” slide review from 5-7pm every month, with less than an hour’s notice…. To prepare for the same meeting that happens the same day every month. Every single month he forgets (despite me begging him daily to schedule a review leading up to the meeting) that he will want to review the slides ahead of time. This month I was like, nope, sorry, prior plans, can’t make it, and he looked shocked and appalled.

          1. Jackalope*

            Tangent, but I once broke up with someone partly because he worked for a company like that. (There is a non-zero possibility that he was actually cheating on me instead, but for this example let’s take him at his word…). His employer would constantly make him stay late for “urgent business” that was “all hands on deck” and so he ditched plans with me over and over again for work stuff. The worst one for me was when we had plans for a minor holiday (think something like Valentines Day or St Patrick’s Day, not a holiday with vacation time but people often have serious plans for that day). About an hour or two before we were supposed to get together he texted to say that his new boss had called an all hands on deck meeting with them that evening at 6-8 or something along those lines to talk about the new team priorities and set goals, or something non-urgent like that. I was so mad at his company! We hadn’t made holiday-specific plans but this meant that I no longer had that option since it was so late the night of, and I was angry as well at a boss that would call an evening meeting last-minute like that on a day that it should have been expected that people might have plans. It was a global company so maybe that was the best time of day for the mtg or something but calling it last-minute like that was way out of line.

            I finally decided that I was not interested in being with someone who a) chose to work for a company so disrespectful of boundaries and b) was so unwilling to put me before his job. He mentioned a few times when we were dating that he had missed various milestone moments in the lives of his loved ones because he was working long hours. He always went for that sort of job from what I could tell, and liked having his life be work. Not for me. So just some comments from someone on the other side of that sort of faux emergency schedule.

      4. That Girl From Quinn's House*

        Yes, this. I had a service sector nonprofit job where this was a huge problem. I never minded coming in really early (say 6 am) or going home really late (say 11 pm) or working Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays. But I did mind when I came in early and then someone went MIA and I had to stay late, or that I’d taken off because it was a paid holiday and got a last minute call that I needed to be in and thus lost my paid holiday, or that I’d agreed to work Saturday morning and then got trapped there until 4 on Saturday afternoon, etc.

    4. Goose Lavel*

      I was asked by an interviewer (a potential peer) about the hours I was working at my current engineering job at a medical device startup. I answered that my hours depended upon the current deliverables and sometimes I would occasionally work 60 hours a week. He then grinned and boasted that they typically worked 16 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week, to meet their deliverables.

      Later in the interview, he mentioned that his VP was angry because the medical device prototypes they had built last week malfunctioned at a critical fundraising event. I looked him straight in the eye and said “so how are those 16-hour days working out for you?” He said “not so great”.

      I dodged a bullet without even needing to inquire about their workload and hours!

      1. Just Elle*

        Lol oh jeez, this sounds suspiciously like the biomed startup I once worked at. And yes. “Passion” does not a safe product make.
        I don’t think I’ll ever work at a startup that makes biomed devices again, the startup culture and product safety requirements are just fundamentally a bad fit for each other, IME.

        1. Wintermute*

          “go fast, break things” is great for your new guacamole-on-demand gig economy app “Guacr” where you can book someone come to your house and make guacamole any time of day or night. It’s NOT great for anything health-and-safety critical.

          Though to be fair, even THEN startup lean-and-mean culture can cause issues when you realize no one is running background checks on your “independent contractors”, you have no insurance, the city of Seattle is coming at you for not having a caterer’s license, and you have a class action suit over employee status.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Agreed, and I encourage OP to talk to regular staff (not just the hiring folks). Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what management thinks is happening and what the on-the-ground experience entails.

    6. Cheesy*

      About 10 years ago I started work at a factory job that had told me up front there were occasional mandatory overtime but that it didn’t happen very often. (we worked (4) 10 hour days and then had 3 days off).

      So of course my very first week we not only had to work a 5th day, but a 6th day too, and then a 5th day the next week.

      Turns out it really was just random bad timing – we had to redo a big production run due to testing positive on one of the microbial tests we ran (bulk food processing plant) and had to scrap everything made from a certain shipment of ingredients.

  2. Spreadsheets and Books*

    I work in a field where late nights during busy season are very common but shouldn’t be an issue the rest of the year. I usually ask what the normal hours are, and add that I obviously know that long hours can be the norm during budget and reforecasts so that an interviewer doesn’t think my expectations are out of line with the industry. This usually gets me a relatively honest answer about both day to day hours and busy season hours.

      1. TardyTardis*

        During the season or year-round? I would clock 10 hours straight (with only the occasional bathroom break and a munched sandwich) during peak, and sometimes on Sunday I was by myself–some days were slow, some days were ugly–but there were slack times I caught up on Publication 17. There’s a reason why April 16th is National Tax Preparers Go To Reno Day.

        But I feel for you if it was year round.

  3. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I’m also a fan of asking about their approach to work-life balance. You can suss a lot of information out by that answer, too:
    A gleeful, “Work hard and play harder!” That’s a pass from me.

    A nod and an understanding, “Yep. We’re big on that. If you need to be an hour and a half late once in a while in the morning because your kid has a school function, need to take your dog to the vet, there’s a repair guy coming…that’s no big deal.” That’s where I’m at now.

    1. Jellyfish*

      Oh yes, that phrase is a huge red flag in my experience. At least from where I’ve worked, it says a lot about both expected long hours and and company culture. Definitely one to avoid when looking for an organization with better balance.

      1. Wintermute*

        The “party hard” part of that phrase usually either means techbro frat environment, or, in financial sector, cocaine.

    2. Amariy*

      I asked this question in an interview once and the panel of three actually laughed at me. I didn’t get an offer, but even if they had I knew then that I didn’t want the job. My industry is notorious for long hours and overwork but the least you could do is take the question seriously and offer a serious answer.

    3. Kiwiii*

      Yes this!! I was part of a state agency for a bit, and while you could sometimes get approval to work from home because of inclement weather (we’re in the northern midwest, so serious snow or flooding) or illness, it was more or less like pulling teeth in that you often had to provide “proof” that you had enough work to do and that you were managing your time. They were working on a specific work from home policy, to write rules about how often and in what circumstances for a formal guidelines, but from the glance I had at it, it was mostly still something that would have to be seriously negotiated for unless you had a really trusting or flexible manager.

      I just moved to a research nonprofit where I know that for a week before and after a large training or project launch (about 1x/quarter) I’ll probably have to pull 10 hour days in-office, but the rest of the time I can roll in late or roll out early or work in a coffee shop for 2 hrs and then code in bed, as long as my work is getting done.

  4. TCO*

    I ask questions like, “What does full-time typically mean here? Is that 40 hours? 60 hours? Something in between?” and “How often is evening/weekend work expected?” As someone who really values not having to work frequent overtime, I’m listening for answers that praise work-life balance, talk about comp time or flexibility during/after a busy week, etc.

  5. Erin*

    I asked this question when interviewing for the job I had before this one and the two people interviewing me looked at each other and said that work-life balance was something they were making improvements on. I should’ve known then, but I was really anxious to leave the job I was at. It was a rare day I left before 6pm after coming in around 8:15am, with no formal lunch break taken. I know that’s nothing compared to what some people work, but it was soul-crushing for me.

    1. Angwyshaunce*

      I always found the phrase “work-life balance” to be suspect when used by employers. If a job has reasonable hours, it seems there would be no reason to come up with a special phrase for it.

      It’s kind of like “team player”, which sounds like it means “works well with others” but often seems to be used as “do what I say”.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        OMG all of this. You don’t need a catchphrase for something until it’s out of balance.

      2. Life is Good*

        And, if you’re a true team player, you don’t need the silly “life” part of that equation. ;)

        I truly hope OP can find a job that will allow them the ability to enjoy time away from work.

      3. Moray*

        At my job “work-life balance” means that they’re great about making accommodations for parents. Everybody else? We can give you as much hell for going home on time as we want.

        1. MissDisplaced*

          I hate places that take that attitude. Yes, parenting is important but so are everyone else’s lives! Grrr!

        2. No Coffee No Workee*

          I used to work in a situation where a co-worker with kids left every day at 4pm, and the rest of us left at 6pm.

          I dont have kids, but I know they are a lot of work, esp. when they’re young. I dont see it as a ‘freebie’. Of course, if I needed to leave early for a concert, etc. I would. If I got hell for that, then that would be where I push back…

          1. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

            It is a freebie–if parents can leave early and no one else can? Nope. Parenting is a choice and someone’s life choices are no more important than the person next to them.

            1. Wintermute*

              Exactly, they may not be using it for just having fun and goofing off, but they’re still getting flexibility that others are not. There are lots of reasons someone might need or want that.

              Also, for what it’s worth, you had my vote for Mayor.

      4. Working in the coal mine*

        Back when I started working after college, the phrase “work-life balance” didn’t exist. Why? Because almost every job had reasonable expectations of what employees were expected to give. Occasional overtime. Yes. Late work nights during crunch time. Yes. Giving over your body and soul for your job. Not back then!
        Oh I miss those good old days!

        1. Hope*

          Serious question: when were the good old days in this scenario? Is there a point in time when employer expectations started to get out of whack with human needs?

          1. X. Trapnel.*

            Yes. IMHO it broke out in the late 70’s/early 80’s with the advent of Thatcher and Reagan and the whole “greed is good”, Wolf of Wall St way of life. I was born in 1964 – just old enough to remember just enough of life before these two characters to realise that they were not, on the whole, forces for good.

            1. Anonomoose*

              Gotta say, this is generally a bit better in the UK. It’s sector dependant, and it’s not as good as the rest of Europe, but there’s EU rules on hours you can work in a week.

              I do think we should all be in unions, and be militant about protecting our free time, though.

            2. TardyTardis*

              It was like that before in some utilities–my father-in-law worked insane hours as an office manager when he was lent out to an office in trouble, and at one time had to be replaced by three people, because they refused to do that. Of course, my husband’s family never saw him for three weeks after the Columbus Day Storm (what Cuban missile crisis? Portland was already laid waste).

      5. Sun Tzu*

        Another phrase I’m wary of in a job ad is “looking for people willing to go the extra mile”.
        To me, it translates to “we expect you to do a ton of non-compensated overtime”.

      6. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

        “Team player” means do what I’m telling you to do even though you and I both know that it’s not remotely within your job description. In fact, it might well be within someone else’s job description, but that person is completely incompetent but for some reason has not been fired.

  6. Orange You Glad*

    If you interview with multiple people at different levels, ask each of them the same questions about hours/culture/etc. You’ll be able to get a big picture of how all the different levels of management view what type of hours they expect from your position which will hopefully help you understand what you’ll be doing if you accept the position.

    1. sacados*

      Yeah, especially for people who are used to nothing but a high-stress/long hours type of job, it”s weirdly easy to get kind of blinders about the whole situation. You’re just so used to thinking of it as “normal.”
      At my last company, at one point I interviewed for an internal move from Department A to Department B. Department B was a project management type function and very deadline driven, so with lots of busy periods during crunch times. My role in Dept A was more of a support position with set hours, but working closely with Dept B so I was very aware of the realities of their day to day.
      At one point I had an interview with the heads of HR and Dept B, where HR made a point to ask me whether I was prepared for the potential workload and hours if I made the move, since it would be much different from what I was used to in Dept A. There was a really funny moment where the head of Dept B starts to say, “Well, you know, there can be busy periods when we’re on deadline but really most people don’t stay super late, it’s not that bad….”
      During which HR guy is giving me this look like “wtf, are we talking about the same department here?!”
      So I had to assure him that I had seen firsthand what the actual workload/hours of Dept B was, I was going into this with fully open eyes as to what the situation would be, and I wanted the position anyway.

  7. Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves*

    Avoid any manager who says, “We all have to help each other out!” In a previous position this was code for, “Prepare to stay late if others can’t handle their duties in a reasonable amount of time and you’re never actually not on call.” Or any variation of “the clients come first.” My last two positions that meant you came last, no matter what was going on in your personal life.

      1. irene adler*

        Thanks for confirming something for me.

        I had an interview last month and “we all help each other out” was the repeat refrain. I tried to get a feel for their idea of work/life balance, how many hours in an average work day, etc. “We help each other out so that everyone gets their work done” was the best I could get out of them.

        Well, they ghosted me after the interview, so it’s moot, but my gut kept saying ‘no’.

        1. Antilles*

          Your gut was right.
          If you ask for more details repeatedly and they remain frustratingly vague, there’s a near-100% chance they know the details are highly unpleasant.

      2. OP*

        I did run screaming from a job posting that said the ideal candidate “views your team as family and go above and beyond for them,” aka “we’re going to make unreasonable demands of you in the name of teamwork and not compensate you for it because we’re family.”

      3. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

        Ugh, I worked on one of those “we’re like faaaaaamily” teams where we were expected to ask if anyone needed any help once we were finished with our own soul crushing projects. We couldn’t enjoy the slightest break after a project was done. And got called out on it if we took longer to complete a project (but still on deadline) and therefore weren’t available to help others with their work. Glad to be out of there.

        1. TardyTardis*

          When I hear ‘we’re family’ I remember those two horrible ghost sisters from KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      Yup, I’ve had this manager (my last one), and I still took my ass home on days where I had plans after work. Sorry. I’m not skipping my yoga class or my gym time because somebody else’s time management skills need work. Next time, they’ll learn to plan better and put contingencies in place when they’re dealing with flakes the way I do.

      (On days where I already planned to stay late anyway [usually because I came in late], I had no problem helping out coworkers with production tasks. I just tried not to make it a habit because then people would start slacking because they’d think, “Why not? Fortitude Jones will save me.” [No, she won’t.])

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Didn’t that manager ever threaten to fire you if you left on time? Because that’s often the case. Years back I worked a place that said you could only refuse OT 3 times during a year. But that was hourly so might be a different rule.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          Nope, wasn’t threatened at all. She just made passive-aggressive sighing sounds as I flounced out the building to go run at the gym, lol. Then when it was time for our reviews back in April, she gave me high marks in everything except the teamwork category saying I could offer to stay and help people more. I laughed to myself because I knew I was leaving that place in a couple of weeks (in fact, my review was on a Friday, and I put in my two weeks notice the following Monday) – I didn’t give a damn about mess.

          1. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

            That’s obnoxious that not offering to help was in your performance review. So petty. Teamwork is one thing. Doing someone else’s job for them is quite another. Good for you that you gave notice so soon after that last t review!

    2. RC Rascal*

      Early in my career I arrived a few minutes early for a job interview. Close to half the office was standing outside the front door, smoking. My interview started late because the HR Manager was one of the smokers. Once the interview began, she chirped “We all stay every night to help each other out!”. I sat there thinking, “So I’m supposed to stay late at night and help others who don’t get their work done because they spend their time smoking? Nope.”

      1. Tabby*

        Exactly. And I say this as a smoker. If I can’t manage to do my job properly even though I smoke, that’s a me problem.

    3. Constance Lloyd*

      If that’s all they will say then it’s absolutely a red flag, but my current position (1 week left!) has a variation of this that works pretty well. Everyone’s work has different busy and slow seasons, so if you’re in a slow season you pitch in to help out the coworkers in a busy season so overtime can be avoided or kept to just an hour or two on occasion. The extra context makes a huge difference, so definitely ask for clarification and run if they won’t give it!

  8. A Person*

    I try to self-opt out by saying up front that I’m not willing to work 50-60 hours a week on a regular basis. Sometimes I feel like that works better than asking them what the job is like, since people also don’t always fully think through things or want to admit how much they work.

    I’m forever grateful to the job that admitted up front that not only did we often need to stay an extra ~3 hours in a night, but we wouldn’t know until the day of. I’m pretty sure the only reason they admitted it was the last person left after a few months! Didn’t take that job.

  9. Jane*

    I had a lot of success with something similar to Alison’s second example when I last moved jobs – being upfront about the hours I was currently working and that I was looking for something more sustainable, and then asking about typical hours worked etc.

    I think I brought it up near the end of the first in-person interview, by that point I was fairly sure they were impressed by me but I wasn’t sure if it would be the right fit for me yet.

    It’s worked out well for me. I still work longer hours and the odd weekend during busy patches but it’s not constant – there’s also quieter times, and most importantly to me a lot of flexibility during the day. Nobody cares if I take 90 minutes to go to the gym at lunchtime or take care of personal business during the day as long as my work is done.

    There is life on the other side, OP, and places with good balance will more than understand why you want to move. Good luck with your search!

  10. Magenta Sky*

    If you tell them you’re looking because you’re working too many hours at your current job and they don’t hire you because of it, they’re not offering a job that’s better than what you have now. It’s one of the ways *they* can fail the interview. Use it as a filter.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      Exactly. I don’t mind working the occasional long hours, or doing the occasional night/weekend/holiday, but the key word is “occasional.” If my jobs start to require more than that, I start looking for something else. I’ve done the 60 hour weeks, got burned out, and developed nasty chronic illnesses because of it – I will never put myself in that situation again.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        I can imagine circumstances where I’d be willing to do that for an extended period of time. They would all involve a) a *lot* of money, b) it being made very, very clear up front, and therefore, c) it was *my* decision.

        In my experience, companies that want you to work those kinds of hours will fail on at least two, and almost always three of those criteria.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          A *lot* of money is key. I need enough money to cover paying for the things I usually do for myself. If I’m away from the house 12 hours a day, I am *never* cooking from scratch, and I need to be able to afford that without second-guessing myself. I need to be able to treat that as an ordinary expense, not something that’s cutting into what I plan to save.

      2. SI*

        I’ve been there before. My previous position was at the local airport. I was working early in the morning, with the occasional late night. Towards the end, between unreliable coworkers and an absentee manager who left me to pick up all the extra work, my body physically couldn’t handle it anymore. Every sniffle turned into a raging sinus infection. Everyone told me to find a new job, but couldn’t do it and keep working at the same time. Potential employers would have easily seen how physically and mentally exhausted I was.
        So I quite. It was liberating.

        Occasional long hours are fine. but for me personally, anything over 45 hours is a no go.

    2. nnn*

      That’s what I was thinking. Since you’re currently employed, there’s no harm in specifically stating that you’re looking because you’re working too many hours at your current job. What are they going to do? Not offer you a job where you have to work 60-hour weeks?

  11. Joielle*

    I just recently (within the past few months) left a job because of this! I was VERY specific about choosing a new job that wouldn’t have the same problem. In interviews, I would be very clear that one of the major reasons I was looking to leave my job was the hours, and ask what the work-life balance was like. A couple of times the answer started with “Welllllllllll….” and it was clear that I wasn’t going to be happy there. I don’t want a job where someone has to carefully tiptoe around discussing what the hours are like.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      You can tell when they’re hedging it or lying. And it’s stupid of them to try.

      I was so burned once years ago, and now ask. Because in that job, I took slightly lower pay because of the account. But with the overtime it was below minimum wage!

  12. Just Elle*

    This was a big part of the reason I recently changed jobs. One thing that helped me evaluate companies was to ask questions like “How do you handle busy times?” “What do you do when a department/person falls behind on work?” “What is your process for prioritizing work?” “What is your attrition plan?”

    Busy periods come up in any job, what I really care about is that the company recognizes it as a problem and sees value in addressing it. By asking more behavior-based questions, it was easy to see what companies were like “lol when people quit we just wait and see if anyone is willing to themselves into an early grave for the same pay before we give in and hire a replacement” and which had an actual functioning Plan B.

    1. CMart*

      “How do you handle busy times” is a great one I think.

      The answer I got from my current employer, “we have naturally busy times in the accounting cycle of course, month end close and quarterly reporting. We usually plan to stay a little later during those few weeks since deadlines are crucial, but that’s typically evened out by some slower times in the weeks leading up where we can lay the groundwork for a smooth close.”

      The answer I got from a company I promptly sent a “thank you but no thanks” e-mail to, “*(nervous laughter)* busy times? Oh, we’re always busy. Never a dull moment! Being able to stay focused and juggle many priorities is a must for this position!” and then when pressed as to if there were busier times than others as is typical in an accounting role, “oh well perhaps but really we run on full steam every day! *(more nervous laughter)*“.

      1. Filosofickle*

        I used to work in advertising, which often has shifting deadlines, last-minute rework, and a generally fast pace. It’s something everyone knows, you don’t really have to say it. So when I saw a job ad emphasizing the pace and saying a successful candidate must be (and love being) a master fire juggler, that immediately told me they are much worse than normal, and I need not apply. No, thanks!

        1. CMart*

          Yes! When people in a field known for being slightly hectic start twittering about how busy they are it’s a bad, bad sign.

      2. Tabby*

        Ahaha I had a boarding kennel tell me similar weirdness, along with whether I would quit petsitting entirely with a company I’ve worked with since it started because they “want my loyalty”. No. No I’m not. I may shift things around, but the company owner earned my loyalty, you hipster. Not to mention these people could not stay off their computers. I didn’t really want that job once I met them. Because the first thing was we work full time (code for open to close every day. Nope.) here. Add in the dark waiting area… I pretty much went hru the interview because I agreed to do the interview, but ah nah honey I’m good.
        Now, I’m just happy doing petsitting, although I did recently put in for a weekend only position at a boarding kennel. With my chronic joint issues I can’t do more than 10-15 hours in a more high impact job anyway.

    2. Goliath Corp.*

      “lol when people quit we just wait and see if anyone is willing to themselves into an early grave for the same pay before we give in and hire a replacement”

      Did you interview at my company?

      1. Relentlessly Socratic*

        I’d ask if that was my company, but we don’t have any open positions LOLOLOLOLOLLLL
        Also, I’m typing this on my way to my grave.

  13. Alianora*

    My office, which handles contracts for a large university, is currently hiring. Most of our candidates come from law firm backgrounds, and they usually mention work-life balance when we ask why they’re interested in the position. That naturally segues into us talking a bit about what the expected hours are and the workload, and the candidates didn’t have to actually ask the question.

    But also, if for some reason we hadn’t already talked about it, I highly doubt any of us would ding candidates for asking politely what the typical hours/workload are. I suspect that most hiring managers who would consider that a negative are the ones who do expect overtime, and those jobs aren’t the ones you want.

    1. Sara without an H*

      When hiring, I usually try to describe the typical schedule/workload early in my conversations with the candidate. It saves the candidate the trouble or possible awkwardness of asking about it themselves.

  14. CMart*

    Alison’s last point about foosball tables and free dinners was exactly what I was going to suggest to look for.

    My experience was a little different (college finance/accounting recruiting events vs. traditional application/interview as first impression) but I quickly learned to ask the less experienced people “what do you like about working here?” The ones who raved about company expensed dinners and Ubers home after late nights and really liking their team since they spend so much time together were the ones I mentally crossed off my list with a vengeance.

    Because yes, it’s very nice that their company does those things to take some of the burden out of the long hours, but I was looking for a place where the company never pays for dinner because they don’t have to.

  15. M*

    My current role has a busy season and a regular to slowish season. During the busy season which is about 3 months you can work long hours, but you are able to work from anywhere including home. If you are efficient it can also be a 40-45 hour period where you can work from almost anywhere. You only need to go into the office occasionally (two or three times a month) for data and such. The other times of the year are normal hours and there is a period that is slow so I give comp time or allow people to leave early. The organization also knows this and is fine with allowing comp. time. It is normal and known in our profession. Depending on your role a lot of travel is involved during other parts of the year but that is also know up front. There are hard deadlines during the busy period so if you can get it done in 40 hours great but most people take longer. If you can’t meet the deadlines (because your deadlines impact other people who need to do their portion) you shouldn’t be in the profession. It’s not for everyone, but I love it. There are also members of the team who are 40 hours for most of the year and only do longer hours for a few weeks during the busy season.

    But this career is a lot easier than another one I had where I was working very very long hours and it usually was all the time or last minute. At least now the team knows when you’ll be busy and when they have a more relaxed schedule. But I agree ask the questions and hopefully everyone is up front because the manager isn’t helping themselves by not being up front about the hours from the beginning.

  16. Lisa*

    Regarding the egg freezing, free dinners, and foosball tables – those kinds of perks have somewhat become the norm for Silicon Valley companies, and I don’t think it necessarily means that the hours will be rough. Especially at larger tech companies, your hours will just depend a lot on your job function/team. Some teams have fairly normal 9-5 schedules, while others have long hours.

    Agree that the best way to get insight on the hours is to ask other team members or former team members. Not only are they less likely to sugarcoat, but you also don’t have to worry about what they might think about the fact that you’re asking about hours, like you might with a manager.

    1. Fikly*

      Regarding egg freezing – there is a difference between a company reimbursing you for egg freezing, and a company paying you over the costs to freeze your eggs. The first is a good benefit, in my opinion – there are lots of reasons people with eggs want to freeze them, yay for companies helping with this massive expense – and the second is super not cool.

      1. Baru Cormorant*

        I don’t know, to me it seems incredibly inappropriate coming from an employer and weirdly specific (do they also pay for kidney transplants or other specific medical procedures? Or do they just offer health insurance like a normal (US) company?). Plus it’s reeeeally not subtle with the message towards women: enough female workers here have decided to delay having children for some reason that we decided to offer it as a perk! Any kind of reimbursement scheme = encouragement and endorsement. Why not just offer retirement plans and tuition reimbursements like a normal company?? Yeesh.

        1. Elsajeni*

          Well, I will note that fertility-related treatments and procedures are often 1) poorly covered by insurance and 2) enormously expensive; I don’t know how often the story is really “we offer special coverage for egg freezing and egg freezing only,” versus “we’re making an effort to offer financial help with fertility stuff that is important to employees but not well addressed by our health insurance options, a prominent example of which is egg freezing.”

    2. zora*

      I was coming to add this exact comment. The presence of those things doesn’t necessarily tell you anything at this point, you need to still ask questions and hopefully find some peers to ask. And agreed that it’s often team/function dependent, too.

      Honestly, the move toward more comprehensive insurance for fertility is really great, and often includes IVF, egg freezing, adoption fees, etc, lots of different family expenses that aren’t covered by standard health insurance. I get the point Alison was trying to make, and ‘tricking’ people into working crazy long hours is still a huge problem in Silicon Valley. But, I think more companies should provide support for various fertility/family planning options!

    3. Mongrel*

      Our CEO did some tours of some corporate offices (or read about the in a trade magazine, that just makes it more Dilbertesque) that had scored highly in employee satisfaction, his takeaway was that a Ping Pong table & beanbags in the break room were the obvious choices…
      …respecting your employees, decent raises, clear plans, realising that there were other offices across the country etc. were nowhere in sight.

  17. autumnal*

    It’s a problem, that’s for certain. I took my current job under the false pretense that is was 25hr/week, which is what I wanted. It’s more like 60 and that’s still not enough. Now I have to look for a different part-time job and try to figure out if it’s really part-time or more like “part-time.”

        1. Mongrel*

          You generally have less benefits by being a part time employer; health care, holidays even pay and that’s generally understood by everyone concerned and should be covered by employment law (I’m in the UK so check wherever is appropriate for you).
          By employing a person as PT while making them be a de-facto FT then it means they’re missing out on benefits they should be earning as full timer. I imagine it’s similar, conceptually, to an incorrect classification of exempt\non-exempt, as I understand it

    1. boop the first*

      I’ve never had to work overtime, but every part time job I get very quickly turns into full time, and it’s frustrating! I was under the impression that the reverse is usually true, but nope!

  18. lnelson in Tysons*

    There was an interview when the hiring manager said that the team came in all the time on Saturdays. This job was not retail. While the money might have been good (it would have good. Time and a half on a job that paid US$25-27/hr) But I didn’t want to lose 6-8 hours every Saturday (people forget commuting times as well).
    I told the recruiter that I was going to give that job a pass.

  19. Cobol*

    As many have said, determine what is too many hours for you, and then (assuming you’re not in a field with a busy season) stay from there.

    I’ve been somehow working in how I don’t mind 50-hour weeks, but am trying to about 60-hour weeks. I usually wait for in person to see how the interviewer responds. I think it’s been working.

  20. Catsaber*

    If you are doing the interview with a group of people, pay attention to their interactions with each other when questions about the culture come up. While working at my current university, I sat in on almost all of the interviews for the non-manager positions. With my former manager, if someone asked about the hours or culture, me and my teammates would shoot furtive glances to each other and get really quiet while our boss prattled on about “helping each other out” and “it gets busy…sometimes…but we’re like a family here” etc etc. And it was not a good place to work, even with reasonable hours. Our nervousness about saying anything negative around our boss was noticeable.

    But with my current team and boss, everyone is much more relaxed and open during the interviews. My boss doesn’t mind when we talk honestly about some of the downsides of this job to potential hires (he even brings up most of them on his own). So that is one way to get an overall picture of the culture, if you happen to interview with the team and not just the hiring manager.

    1. Antilles*

      Another thing to note is how they talk about the hours. Even if they carry it off as a joke.
      They may act like it’s kind of funny that “haha, yeah, we sometimes work a little hard around here, we once had cots here” or “haha, nobody really works that hard, we just like ordering dinner here”…but it wouldn’t even cross someone’s mind to make that kind of joke if it wasn’t partly based in reality.

      1. Catsaber*

        That is a good point too – with my current team, we don’t really joke about the downsides, we just talk about them in a pretty neutral way. We’re not super stiff and formal about it, but when we talk about the negatives it’s very much “this is just a reality of working here”.

  21. OP*

    Thank you all! I was having a tough time navigating this because I work a sales support role in an industry where “busy season” is a natural occurrence. I was always pretty OK with this, because it was balanced out by a slow season. I also work remotely full time, which is a major perk, but also has the consequence of making it even harder to separate work and my real life when I’m busy and can “just get a little more done” before logging off (which is a whole other issue that I need to work on for myself, I know). I like the work I do and don’t particularly want to leave my company, but over the day few years, busy season has gone from lasting 5-6 months per year to more like 9-10, and it’s just unsustainable. I will definitely be using all of these scripts to try to week out companies that actually care about work/life balance and ones that just say they do.

    1. Krickets*

      All the best, OP! Wishing you strength as you develop ways to circumvent the optimistic “just get a little more done” tendency. And I hope you also find some time to relax and unwind from all the stress.

    2. Sara without an H*

      Good luck, OP! There’s a difference between an industry with seasonal rushes and one with chronic under-staffing. Hope you can find one that works better for you.

    3. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

      Definitely ask the questions Alison mentioned. And run the other way if the interviewer gives you an indignant “well, we work as long as we need to, to get the job done” type of answer. If the interviewer seems offended that you’re asking about hours, they aren’t worth working with or for.

    4. Just Elle*

      Good luck! While you’re looking, may I offer a bit of advice to help you get through? As a type A overachiever I totally understand the ‘just one more minute’ and its a big reason I don’t WFH full time. But one thing that helps me is to set an alarm for quitting time, and then obey the alarm. No really, seriously, obey it. When possible, I’d schedule gym classes or whatever for right after quitting time to further push myself. My mom is the same personality type and does WFH full time. Last month was particular hell for her, so I set an alarm to call her at her quitting time (which, mind you, was after 12 hours of work) and would not get off the phone with her until she’d logged off, left the room, and closed the door. Can you get an accountability partner to help remind you of (1) the importance of life outside of work and (2) the fact that the overwhelming mountain of work will always be exactly the same size and doing more today wont give you a better tomorrow?

  22. Krickets*

    This is very helpful–the post and the comments. Companies like to squeeze you dry of your value and effort by presuming that anything over 40 hours a week is ok. Maybe on occasion but frequently? That’s very unhealthy for a person. We know how many hours we have in a day and how much we use that for sleep. It’s sad that even when salaried people calculate their crazy hours and pay…that it comes below their “hourly worth”. It makes me wonder for those who choose to work at places where you work 45+ hours a week, do you negotiate a higher salary because of the longer hours? Do you justify raise requests with the amount of hours you work + your qualifications?

    Just wondering out loud. :)

  23. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I would ask, “What is the plan for business growth in the near- and far-term?” or “What sort of business/sales growth do you expect in the next year, 5 years and 10 years?” A company that has a plan for slow and steady growth (like 5% growth in the next 3 years) probably won’t require extreme hours unless they have a lot of attrition; a company that thinks it’s about to double it’s sales (or whatever) in the next 3-5 years IME always meant that workload will outpace hiring and therefore they will be trying to keep up by working extreme hours. Start up companies don’t always mean bad hours, if they have a plan for steady growth over a longer period of time. It’s the ones that want instant mega success that expect everyone to sell their soul to the company.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Just thought of something else: you could ask if they consider themselves to be fully-staffed. Obviously a healthy business still always has some attrition but if they consider themselves to be fully-staffed, minus the position you are applying for, then that should be a good indicator that what they describe as a typical workday is what you can really expect if you hire on, and it shouldn’t change drastically within the next year. If they’re hiring 10 new people, asking them what a typical workday looks like probably won’t be very helpful.

  24. Arctic*

    One thing (and I do mean just the one thing) bigger law firms do right is they schedule interviews with both partners and associates. All solo not as a panel. Usually at least one associate who is lower in the food chain. It helps because I think it is easier to get genuine answers from people doing the same work you’ll be doing.
    Sometimes hiring managers aren’t intentionally misleading but they genuinely don’t realize how much time their people are putting in to meet their expectations.

    1. ilisa*

      If you are applying to work at a big law firm, your exepction should be that long hours are the rule and not the exception unless you are doing residential transactional work or probate. Anything else, especially any work involving litigation, the hours are brutal. I did 30 years at big firms as a trial/litigation paralegal and completely changed the type of work I do now specifically to get out of the “normal” 60 hour week. It comes with the territory. You want to do that work, you need to understand the demands of the job.

  25. SheLooksFamiliar*

    When I worked for a Huge Global Company, Inc., 65-70 hour weeks were not unusual. We were going through major acquisitions and reorg, so there was always time-sensitive work to handle. We typically had 30+ hours of meetings to attend weekly – I counted – so returning calls and emails at night, and working weekends to catch up, was the only way to make it happen. Did I mention I traveled a lot, too?

    You just know I asked about typical work hours before I took my current role, and they were honest: they try to keep it to 40-ish, but sometimes business needs require extra attention. For corporate staffing this is pretty typical, and I was fine with their response. I’m still putting in more than 40 hours a week but nowhere near what I was. It’s all relative.

    Also, my boss isn’t a clock watcher, and he doesn’t care if I take long lunches or come in early/leave early – this is a huge plus. I have other issues with my organization, but this area is not one of them.

  26. RC Rascal*

    One way to approach this is to ask everyone you meet in the hiring process to describe a typical day and a typical week. If multiple people are working lots of hours, that’s a good indication you will be expected to work lots of hours. Another approach is if you see any obvious signs of an outside activity in someone’s office (i.e. non-profit paraphernalia, lots of pictures of a soccer team, etc.) dig around and ask questions about that. If someone tells you they spend their free time on the Habitat board, or coaching kid’s soccer, those are positive signs.

    1. JustMyImagination*

      That’s a great question! When interviewing, I’ve been asked about interests outside of work. I never thought to turn that around to make sure current workers have time for outside interests.

      1. Tisiphone*

        Yes! Especially interests that require them to be somewhere on time regularly. Community theater is one example.

  27. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    In my experience, when I was interviewing to leave a place that I was grossly overworked, I was always asked “Why I’m looking for a new job.” And my go-to was to explain that I was working absurd hours and that I’m looking for work life balance.

    This really put them on notice that I will leave if they tried to get me in there and do the same thing. It usually was met with the shock and “OMG, they have you working 60 hours and doing 3 jobs, that’s not at all how we operate here.”

    If that doens’t organically fit, I would ask about what their busy times are, what their weekly schedules looked like. I would just drive home the work-life balance that you are looking for. Worst case, they need you to be available always and therefore you’re not their pick. Most reasonable places understand wanting to work only OT on occasion doesn’t make you lazy or unreliable.

    1. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I took that approach once in an interview and it backfired on me. The would-be boss laughed when I told him how many hours I was working per week, and said, ‘That doesn’t sound out of the ordinary to me…’

      Nope. Thanks anyway. I’ll show myself out.

      I think it’s fair to be flexible when it’s truly necessary, and to put in the hours you need to just to stay organized and productive. When the brute force method is the only way to get work done? Not a well-run organization.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That didn’t backfire on you; it worked just as you’d want it to. Interviews are two way streets and you’re evaluating them as much as they’re evaluating you. What you said there let you find out that this wasn’t a job you wanted, from the sounds of it.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        No, it worked out perfectly. He showed his hand immediately! So you were able to walk out of there knowing it was not for you.

        I would have excused myself from the interview and saved myself any further discussion with someone with that reaction.

        My problem really wasn’t the work-life balance in the end though, I just had to fall back on it because you can’t say “I work 60 hours, I get treated poorly and the ownership has turned into vicious lunatics since their company is spiraling towards bankruptcy and I can’t keep patching up the holes, I’m tired”

        So I said “Man I ‘d love to work less than 60 hours ;)” but made it clear that I’m happy to do longer days/weeks when it’s truly necessary, I just don’t want to deal with a constant grind. Unless you want to 1. Respect me, have my back and don’t engage in weird backbiting during the rough times and 2. Pay me at least six digits.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          Sorry, should have said, ‘backfired in that I didn’t get the answer I hoped for.’ I know I dodged a bullet. Poor word choice on my part!

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            No worries, I totally dig it.

            I agree it stinks when you get a cruddy response to something that you are thinking “reasonable people should respect this” and then you get a response of “LOL nah, that’s the norm tho.”

            There are tons of decent people out there and I like when the doofuses weed themselves out by showing their butts like that so quickly.

  28. Buttons*

    I ask a series of questions:
    “What is the corporate culture around work-life balance?”
    “How do you, as the manager, evaluate workload?”
    “If someone is feeling overwhelmed, and not sure how to prioritize, how do you (again, the manager) like to hear that feedback?” ” how do you help them navigate that?”

  29. JB*

    your mileage may vary on this, but once you change jobs, try not to set up an expectation that you will work so much overtime. at my first job I regularly clocked out after 8 PM and usually worked a full saturday once or twice a month, and after I left, people told me when they would run into me that they had no idea how I got everything done. it was all that overtime, babey!

    at my current job, I made a distinct effort NOT to work after 6 unless ABSOLUTELY, COMPLETELY necessary. and it’s been a year and a half and despite being tempted to work a saturday a few times, I haven’t done it. and no one has chewed me out for not doing 60 hours worth of work, because I never set them up to think I would do 60 hours worth of work. and holy shit it is NICE having evenings and weekends again.

    1. juliebulie*

      That is a good point. I think any time you’ve been in a bad job for a while and have developed some “alternative work habits” (like working insane hours) in order to cope with a dysfunctional workplace, you have to watch yourself at your next job to make sure you don’t continue the “alternative habits” in your new environment.

      Often a healthy environment won’t even provide the cues that would prompt the “alternative habits”, but it’s worth expending a little effort to pay attention to that.

      1. Workfromhome*

        excellent point. In my past job I used to work lots of extra hours while in the hotel or even in front of the TV at night. It seemed like everyone did it. Then came the day where my boss said “Corporate has decided that because X sister division did poorly there will be no cost of living increases for anyone this year. The next day my boss was complain about a task that he was given that would take his weekend was something I normally would have helped with “to help the team”. As I though about how little they valued me in terms of a COL allowance I decided right there no more extra hours (unless I needed to make up time for personal reasons). Rather than saying “I can help you out” I said oh that sucks for you..hope you at least get some time this weekend I’m leaving for the weekend now”. I worked remotely and stopped answering my phone or emails within 15 minutes or regular “quitting time” If I did for some reason need to do something at night I put the email on a delayed send so it looked Like I only worked 8:30 to %. Guess what I didn’t get fired, I didn’t miss out on any raises (there weren’t any) or promotions (there were no opportunities). Once you relies there is no consequence for not working extra hours you become free.

  30. Mayflower*

    In addition to Alison’s questions, why not ask a direct “rhetorical” question to self-select out of the running for a job you do not want?

    “One of the reasons I am looking for a new job is that my current job has me working a soul-crushing amount of hours. I am more than happy to put in extra hours here and there but I won’t be able to do it regularly. How do you feel about that as my manager? And how do you think the team would feel?”

  31. Donuts*

    When I interviewed for my current job, I was very upfront about the fact that I already had work-from-home benefits one day a week, and Flextime (arrive between 7 and 10, leave between 3 and 6) that would change every day depending on my family’s childcare pickup and drop off needs, and that I wouldn’t leave my ongoing role unless I was able to get the same benefits.

    They had no issues with it at all – probably because it’s a feminist advocacy organisation staffed by 95% women with clear family-friendly work policies!

  32. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I would definitely ask people at different levels about their experience with overtime. We had an opening for our team manager and they wanted us to interview the different candidates. The one they hired (who none of us wanted) told us what we wanted to hear when we asked questions and then did the opposite once she was in the job.

    I think if you focus on your current schedule and explaining that you’re burned out, any reasonable manager is going to understand. And if they’re unreasonable and it takes you out of the running, you’re probably better off because that means you’ll end up in a similar situation.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Also, if you working there is dependent on a flexible schedule (not just working a normal amount of hours most of the time), ask about that in the interview. For instance, most of the jobs I’ve worked have included a really bad commute. I’ve always had them agree to me working flexible hours so I’m not driving at the height of rush hour.

  33. Rick Tq*

    OP, what would happen to your tasks and deadlines if you *just* *stopped* working these insane hours? How about when you finally leave? If the company’s workload is that high for long periods they need to hire more people.

    Try thinking about missed deadlines as Management’s problem, not yours.

    You shouldn’t sacrifice your health and well-being here.

  34. Sk*

    In my industry long hours are not uncommon, but I burnout if I’m doing 50+ hours more than a few times a year. Everywhere I interview I ask every interviewer how many hours a week are typical and what the company’s philosophy is on work-life balance. The tricky part is that most of the bad companies will lie or exaggerate so you need to be able to read their body language and tone.

    An example I’ve run into is the interviewer says something like “the hours are usually under 45 but we expect you to contribute as needed for deadlines”. What they really mean is there’s constant deadlines and most people work 50+ hours. If they say “we really strive to keep a reasonable workload and very rarely do people put in more than 40 hours” then they’re probably legit.

    The key difference here is company A’s tone is “we expect you to work overtime” vs company B’s “we try really hard not to make you work overtime”. It’s a different philosophy and says a lot about what they value.

  35. Lavender Menace*

    I’m going to push back on the egg freezing thing a little bit. I believe that the egg freezing coverage was offered as a result of demand from women who want to delay child-rearing, especially the kind of highly-educated women who spent their 20s (read: prime child-bearing years) getting an education. These companies offer it, IMO, as a way to compete in a super-competitive market: attracting top software developers is actually kind of difficult in a saturated market with many well-funded players that can offer great benefits.

    I work in tech. I don’t technically work in Silicon Valley, but I work at a big tech company that is generally included when people talk about Silicon Valley tech companies. My company covers a variety of fertility services, including egg freezing, IVF and IUI cycles and others. To me, this is a gigantic relief.

    I have a doctoral degree that took me six years to get (after I spent four years earning the bachelor’s). By the time I started working at my tech company, I was 29 years old. I didn’t want to have children right away; not only did I want to put in a few years at work first and establish myself, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to have them yet, either. I’d spent my entire twenties in graduate school and I wanted some time working with actual money before I had kids to worry about. Currently, I’m 33 years old and nearing that time of life where getting pregnant may take a little extra support, should I decide I want to have children that way. I’m SO GLAD my company offers a fertility benefit because while it’s not a guarantee, it does take a little extra stress out of the equation. I also work ~40-50 hours a week on average, usually closer to 40, and at a company that encourages people to take leave regardless of gender (it’s our culture to not-so-jokingly chide people who reply to mails when they’re on parental leave; one of my teams even put together a “holiday email counter” in which the loser was the manager who sent the most emails when they were supposed to be out). Of course, every company is different, but this is my experience. I have friends who work at Facebook and Apple and their hours vary a lot depending on team and function.

    Women, on average, are delaying marriage and childbirth regardless of which sector they work in. The average age of marriage for women in the United States is around 27 years old. The average age of a first child is 26 years, and that includes everyone – the average age of having a child for women with a college degree is over 30 years old. In affluent population centers like New York and San Francisco, it creeps closer to 32. That means that around half of women are actually older than their early 30s when they have their first child.

    I also don’t know how egg freezing would keep women at the office, and not out on leave. At best, all it does is delay leave later in a woman’s life and career (which she may also have a more difficult time taking leave, and when her leave would have a larger impact on her team and office). Actually, in some cases it may *extend* leave, since getting pregnant with fertility treatments and egg freezing is more complex. Most of these companies also offer more than the average amount of leave (5-6 months is pretty common)

    *And when I say difficult, it’s not really that difficult – but it’s difficult to find the “kind” of women that most teams are looking for, which is “fits in well with our existing culture, doesn’t make us think too hard about all the ways we’re not inclusive, and is basically ready-made with the same kinds of traits we look for in men.”

  36. Blue Horizon*

    One thing to look for is whether (as a colleague of mine once put it) they have a culture of careful planning or a culture of heroic effort.

    You might, for example, ask them to tell you about a successful delivery or business outcome, then ask follow-up questions about what made it so successful. Do you get a story about everybody pulling together, going the extra mile for the team, and putting in extra work to get it done? Or is it a story about how everything went the way it was supposed to and it was all done easily, smoothly and on time? What do they value? If everybody comes in on the weekend and successfully manages to get something across the line, is that considered a success (because they got it done) or a failure (because they had to spend all weekend to do it?)

    It’s easy to pay lip service to things like work/life balance or deflect difficult questions, but it’s the culture that normally determines how these things go, and that’s harder to hide.

  37. somebody blonde*

    “If you’re seeing foosball tables and are told pay for dinner every night, those are often signs you’re going to be spending a lot of time there.”

    Nowadays, I actually think that this says nothing about their working hours other than “This is a company that has to compete with Google for talent.” My work has perfectly reasonable hours, but we have these things, because we’re a tech company.

    1. Kate H*

      We have foosball tables at my employer, but they’re a sign of a dysfunctional family culture encouraged by our VP more than long hours. Hourly employees aren’t allowed to work even one minute of overtime.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        And this is one of the (few) benefits to being a contractor, especially in California: I’m never allowed to work overtime, and OT starts at the 8-hour point.

    2. Peggy*

      We also have foosball tables and our hours are more than reasonable! They really foster communication: there are lots of people in other departments in my very large conpany I only know because we have played a game or two.

  38. One of the Sarahs*

    I know it’s different in the US with non/exempt workers etc, but here in the UK, I’d ask how they compensate overtime – is it paid, or Time Off In Lieu (TOIL)? If they have an answer of one or the other, that works, but if they get woolly, and talk about how it all shakes out over the year, and we all pitch in in busy periods, I’d raise my eyebrows.

    I used to work for charities, with the most annoying kinds of “but we’re all here for the CAUSE” approach to over-work. The kind that would expect you to just eat the time costs of travelling 3 hours each way to get to the monthly 10-4:30 meetings (and definitely not pay expenses!) but then be in the next day at 9 on the dot, and to make up for the fact we were under-staffed by just staying til the work was done.

    When I moved to the civil service, where we had great flexi time, so everyone was expected to count their hours, I was pretty horrified, because it felt like people were working to rule. But after a year or two, I realised I wasn’t getting sick, I wasn’t burning out, and I was *super* productive. I would still stay to work til 8 a few days a week, when it was necessary, or stay late at no notice if an emergency cropped up, and I did a ton more traveling. But because I was getting TOIL (and my manager was making sure I wasn’t just banking it, but using it over the next few months) I didn’t mind it. I could take extra days off, or start late/leave early in the quiet periods, and I felt like my efforts were valued, and I was being treated like a professional who could manage her work.

    1. London Calling*

      I worked for the Civil Service when flexi time was introduced and it was GREAT. In at 8am, out at 4.30 pm and a couple of extra days off a month. The only thing I miss about that job.

  39. BethDH*

    Also, look for green flags (or whatever we call the opposite of red flags) that they bring up themselves.
    At every job I’ve worked at that handled busy times, emergencies, and overtime well, my supervisor and others I interviewed with showed awareness of me (as interviewee) and their existing coworkers as real people with needs and goals, not just means to produce more. This shows up in different ways each time, but often includes things like personal advancement opportunities, proactive mention of benefits, and so on. My current one described how they assign projects and mentioned taking into account people’s personal growth goals alongside the needs of the org.
    Often it’s pretty subtle. Basically, if they treat you like a human who is interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you when you’re a candidate, they’re more likely to treat you fairly and consistently as an employee. The sense that you owe them something for hiring you never goes away.

  40. 2 Cents*

    In the interview at Old Job, which was in advertising, I said something like, “can you tell me about the hours? I know advertising is notorious for late hours, and of course it will g to stay late on occasion when there’s a deadline / important pitch, but I was wondering how regularly people work late here?” Turns out the answer they gave me (occasional late night = once a month) was accurate.

  41. Token Archaeologist*

    A networking contact gave me an interview question I think would be helpful at getting at some of this. Almost every company says in an interview that there might be overtime when things get busy. But everyone says they’re busy, pretty much all the time. A great follow up: “What does busy look like at this company? Possibly add in: how long does the busy period last, and how frequent are the busy periods?”

    1. Donkey Hotey*

      Really like “What does busy look like?” One word can mean so many things, it’s good to clarify.

  42. Donkey Hotey*

    Just recently applied for a job where the posted hours were 9-5, Monday through Friday.
    I applied and received an email requesting a phone interview… sent at 7:30am.
    You can bet I fit that into the phone conversation about “So, tell me more about work-life balance at your office.”
    Act shocked. I didn’t get the job.

    1. Rob aka Mediancat*

      Were everyone’s hours supposed to be 9-5? Because I work in a place where even the folks who have a hard and fast schedule don’t all work the same hours, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to have someone send me an email a couple of hours before my starting time.

  43. Stephanie*

    Late to this, but I did interview for a job at a Big 4 Accounting Firm (but the consulting arm) where they were upfront about the hours at every interview stage. It was a surprisingly welcome change…

  44. CS*

    Check Glassdoor for what the employees say. Beyond that, other cues (than what Alison has mentioned) might be what the hiring manager says about work-life balance, overtime policy, your expected availability outside of normal business hours.

  45. BosToBay*

    I’m the person who posted this ( and followed the very wise advice from Allison (and commenters) to get out. I was in the same boat as you, really wanting to be sure I wasn’t jumping right back into something equally out of control. What worked for me was asking, in a very up-front and non-judgmental fashion, “Can you tell me under what circumstances people would be at the office after midnight?” (Many interviewers acknowledged that there were more than one circumstance that would warrant this … but the interviewer from the company I’m now working at thought long and hard about her answer, then said “An earthquake.”)

    I’ll also advise you to be very, very wary of trusting what’s on Glassdoor. The company I left has stellar ratings and reviews … which I later learned are “assigned” to employees. Like, the CEO writes them up, and employees post them. I’m guessing this is an extreme scenario, but it still happens!

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