“When you start a new job, you should show up before your boss and leave after them.”
We’ve all heard that piece of advice. It’s all about making that good first impression. We’re hoping the boss will see how hardworking we are, and how willing we are to put time in to get shit done.
I think making a good first impression is important, of course. However, I do think there are other ways to make a good first impression that don’t involve killing work-life balance. Let’s face it, once you establish yourself as ‘that guy’ (the guy that stays late every day), it can be really hard to stop. Because once you do stop, then you’re ‘that guy’ (the guy that was super hardworking at first and then got ‘lazy’). That’s not good either.
That’s not the worst part though – there are other, much more awful reasons people work late.
Why else would someone willingly work late if they don’t need to?
The bosses stay late
There are companies where the boss stays late. In that situation, no one wants to be the first one to head out for the day. They want to leave, but they don’t feel like they can. Because really, how bad would it look if the juniors left before the boss? It’s not explicitly stated that you must stay late, but it’s expected. It’s one of those read between the lines things.
“Back when I was still doing design and non-web-dev-work, I had a boss that always worked hard and late. He expected the same of his juniors, even though he never compensated us for the time. He once told us that he expected us in the office 10-15 minutes before our shift, so that we could check email and prepare for the day. And, he would promise stuff to clients without consulting the people doing the tasks.
We had one instance where a colleague worked until about 5am the next day because of a promise the boss made. I also left the office around 9pm on quite a few occasions because of promises he made. He was a great guy otherwise, just had very high expectations.” -Daryn
“The general vibe around the office is that if you work more than 40 hours, you will be respected. When I first started, I worked a couple extra hours per week regularly. Nothing obscene, but I didn’t leave promptly at 5pm. Sometimes I stayed until 6pm, and sometimes I left at 4:45pm.
However, it became apparent that we were judged negatively for not being at our desks for a full 8 hours per day. I decided that if hours were important to them, they were important to me too. So I started leaving on the dot, and arriving no earlier than 9 hours before (which is an 8 hour work day when you subtract lunch).
It sucks working somewhere that scoffs if you work 40 hours. Yet, when you bust your ass to make a difference, they just shrug and say, ‘You did your job, what more do you expect?’
Ironically, it is nowhere in any contract, nor will you ever hear the manager ask anyone to stay late. If he did that, then he’d have to acknowledge the effort. Instead, it’s just a whisper campaign against you if you clock out at 5pm every day. And a resounding diffidence if you go the extra mile. If we have nothing to gain from extra effort, and yet we still give it, shouldn’t the person that does stand to gain something maybe share some of that gain? Even if it’s just some praise for hard work?” -Anonymous
Everyone does it
Sometimes, the bosses themselves don’t stay late – but they’ll pressure the heck out of you to do so. Because everyone does it.
“I once worked at a job that stated the hours were 9am to 5pm or 8am to 4pm for ‘flex.’ However, they would guilt you into working 8am to 6pm because ‘the rest of your team is doing that.’ That job would almost always run over every 2 week sprint. You’d spend a Wed-Thurs night working in the office until midnight, trying to wrap things up for a release push, which wasn’t majorly important.” – Michael LaPlante
“The office schedule is 8am to 5pm. Occasionally, we will be very close to a sales goal so we’ll stay late to help reach that goal. However, I have other responsibilities to tend to and cannot stay past 5pm most days. I have been reprimanded for getting up from my desk and leaving at 5pm. I was given a wishy-washy answer about ‘morale and culture, and how jumping up right at 5pm to run out the door isn’t a good look and makes everyone think you don’t want to be here.’
Funnily enough, I am one of the first people in the building every day, showing up a minimum of 30 minutes early. But now, employees (not only me) are legitimately being looked down on and disciplined for not staying past 5pm, no matter what other work we put in. In my opinion, if you expect me to stay late on a regular basis, that is something that should be communicated up front. That should not be a tactic to secretly test which employees you think have the most loyalty.” -Anonymous
“In previous jobs, I missed my spouse’s and kids’ birthdays because of business trips – some lasting weeks at a time. I was also pressured to work public holidays. There was a culture of ‘whoever gets in earliest and leaves last is the hardest worker,’ completely ignorant to the concept of efficiency. It almost cost me my marriage.” -Anonymous
They did the ol’ switcharoo
A particularly awful reason to be stuck working late is when bosses bait-and-switch you. You’ll discuss a condition of employment during your interview, and they’ll agree with you and let you do it for a little bit. But a couple weeks down the road, they decide it’s not ok after all and take that condition away. It’s particularly awful since it was an agreed-upon condition, and probably a big reason why you took the job.
“As a manager, I typically work 10 hour days, but I expect my people to be efficient with their time and get the job done. At work, at home, in 6hrs or 10hrs depending on our immediate needs. Since I’m a morning person, I come in early and leave early, usually working 6 am to 4 pm. I work best before noon and it saves on commute time both directions.
My boss said he was fine with the schedule when I was hired on, but then decided that it ‘looks bad’ for management to leave the building before 6 pm. Apparently putting in extra hours only counts when you stay late, not arrive early. He is never in early. My choice was to work 12 hrs or come in later, so I come in later. Now I lose an extra 30-40 minutes commuting in the morning, and an hour in the evening. I’m still less productive in the afternoon, and I’m pissed off that I lose family time for no good reason. I’m looking for another job.” -Brian
Everything is on fire
There are bosses that don’t come out of their office until 5pm with emergencies that everyone must handle now!
Workers will comply and stay late to fix these emergencies because, let’s be real, they enjoy having a job and not starving to death.
They pay for our lunches so it’s ok
Company-paid lunches. Sounds great, right? Who doesn’t like a free lunch?! Well, the people who have to work through lunch because it’s paid don’t like a free lunch. It happens a lot more than you’d think, too.
“I worked at a company that catered lunch every single day. They did this so you would stay at your desk and work. Your ‘hour lunch’ turned into 5 minutes of eating and 55 minutes of working. They essentially got an extra hour out of you every day.” -Michael LaPlante
But wait, there’s more! Some companies expect you to work through your lunch without even the courtesy of buying it for you. I worked at one such company. It was ok if you went and picked up lunch, but you couldn’t take the full hour. You had to come back and work through the rest of your lunch. People who brought in lunch and spent their entire break working were praised. Sadly, I’m not the only one with an experience like this.
“I worked at a company that expected you to eat at your desk. If you were gone too long to get food, it reflected poorly on you. People held it against you, even if only in gossip. Heck, if you took too many bathroom breaks, you were chastised. There were many things wrong with that company, to be fair – the lunch thing was only the tip of the iceberg. I was vocal about my displeasure, so the COO took me into her office. She told me, ‘You shouldn’t be coming in here complaining. You should be coming in here, putting your head down, and proving your worth to us.’ I quit on the spot, working there a total of 2 days.” -James LaChance
I was promised something for it
Sometimes, bosses are particularly awful. They dangle the carrot of promotions and raises to get you to work after hours… And the particularly cruel ones will take it away when they get the work out of you.
“I spoke to my boss, who had been my supervisor/boss for many years. We talked a bit, and I told him I could write a customized programmed part of AutoCAD to insert hardware images to our AutoCAD drawings. He told me, ‘Great! You do that and I’ll put you up for that promotion.’ So I put in LONG hours of my own at home and at work. I prepared all this software, the manuals, and got everything installed on fellow engineers’ PCs.
In fact, I also did it while my first child was being born – the weeks leading up to, and immediately after. Done, beautiful, and people loved it. And my boss tells me, ‘Well, I guess I shouldn’t have made promises I couldn’t keep.’ I immediately called him out – he knows what he can promise and not. Now that he had the work out of me, well… I was screwed.
I learned a lesson: get it in writing. And really, long hours happen. But if it’s a constant thing, that’s not the burden of employees, but the fault of management.” -Michael D.
None of this is healthy. This is all highly toxic.
In the above situations, I’ll be honest, there’s probably no remedy other than finding a new job. At that point, working late is fully entrenched in the culture. It would be overly challenging – if not impossible – to change it. The only thing to really do is be honest in exit interviews. Hopefully if enough people complain, eventually they’ll get the picture. But don’t count on it. Focus on yourself and your mental health, and find a new position at a company that will treat you like a worthy human being.
If you absolutely have to stay where you are, Michael LaPlante (quoted above) suggests negotiating extra PTO to make up the time.
However, some companies do recognize the effort when you occasionally have to work late.
Making up the time
Believe it or not, there are companies out there that will actually make you leave early the day after you had to work late!
In dev land, it’s somewhat expected that you’ll have to work late sometimes. There are releases, “oh shit” moments, on-call rotations, etc. It’s always a breath of fresh air when I hear about companies that take this extra work into consideration and offer extra PTO. So, here are some shout outs to companies that treat their employees well.
“MITRE had the concept of R time. If we worked too many hours, we could request it and use it as vacation time.
More useful was that flex time was treated as a first class citizen. As long as our project was ok with it, we could flex whenever we needed to. There were some details around all this, of course, but overall work-life balance was the big goal.” Andrew Schreiber, former employee of MITRE
“I work at a new startup. I’m salaried, so no paid overtime, but they are massively flexible. I work from home 4 out of 5 days a week as I’m essentially a software developer, so I can do my job from anywhere as long as I can get WiFi. They are very appreciative of the work I do. As much as they teach me, I can teach them with the skills I’ve brought to the party. Praise is forthcoming. They are genuinely excited and passionate about what we do, the direction we’re going, and where my place is on that journey.
When they ask if I can help out, do a few hours on a weekend when it won’t affect customers, I have no problem saying yes. If my family are all asleep and I think of something for the platform, I won’t hesitate to jump online and put it in place. I know they will be just as excited. If I ever ask for a few hours to sort something at home or with family, they’ll give it me in a heartbeat. They know I go above and beyond for them, so they do the same in return.” -Nick Harris-Dobson, Enterprise Cloud Architect at Illapa.Cloud
“I used to work with The Moorings. It was a great job, but sometimes it was just so hard to get things done between the normal 8:30am to 5:30pm hours. People would frequently interrupt my work with questions or requests, and it would be next to impossible to focus for more than 30 minutes at a time on some days.
So, I started leaving 1 hour later than usual. I would sometimes get more work done in that hour than I would all day. After a few weeks of doing this, I decided to switch the extra hour up to the morning so I would be home for dinner with the family. I’d get in at 7:30, get 75% of my to-do list for the day done, and be golden for the rest of the day.” -Sean McGee, former employee of The Moorings
“Malwarebytes only has me work late when there is a release we need to do after hours. Oftentimes, my boss sends me home early to make up for that. I honestly love working there. The opportunities are great, and the bosses make you feel appreciated.” -Jim DeVille, Senior Software Engineer at Malwarebytes
From Management’s side (a perspective I truly appreciate):
“In my experience, most IT professionals come to expect that an average week is 45-50 hours. I try to be flexible with hours, but it all depends on the workload for the week. Typically if people are staying late, they will come in later that day or the day following. If that isn’t an option, we will work to add some comp time somewhere else in the week.” -Steve Brauner, Director of IT Operations at Power Design.
Hey, at least it’s getting better.
Many companies have recognized that the lack of work-life balance is an issue, and they earnestly encourage evening the scales.
Some have rules where the day ends at X hour, and you have to leave. Some have mandatory vacation. And, some are simply cognizant that working employees until they are but a husk of themselves is, well, maybe less than humane – and not great for retention. Why burn good employees out?
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