Quick Question

I lost a job opportunity because I answered this question the wrong way in an interview: “How do you feel about getting work e-mails at home in the evening?” I said I don’t accept e-mails from work in the evening. I do my work at work. The interviewer said it was standard practice at the company and that employees were expected to respond to e-mails “when they can.” Well, when I’m at home, I’m not at work — no matter what a company pays me. I know it cost me the job. I don’t care. But, what do you think of such a condition of employment?

Nick’s Quick Advice

work e-mailsI think it sucks. Would the employer let you do your food shopping during your work day?

Employers can ask for anything they want, as long as it’s legal. I don’t know whether requiring employees to respond to work e-mails at home in the evening is legal, but I don’t care, either. If a company has the right to require that, you also have the right to refuse the job. Of course, as you’ve seen, that may mean you won’t be hired. If you’re already an employee, and you refuse, you might get fired, assuming the requirement is legal. (Do we have any labor and employment attorneys out there who’d care to chime in?)

No more work e-mails after work

According to a recent Time magazine article, Helping workers switch off, you might solve your problem by moving to France or Germany.

“A new law says French companies with more than 50 workers must guarantee a ‘right to disconnect’ from emails outside office hours, to improve work-life balance.”

In Germany, major employers are joining a trend started by a government agency:

“Germany’s employment ministry bars its managers from contacting staff during off-hours, and major companies, including Volkswagen and BMW, have followed suit. In 2014, automaker Daimler began automatically deleting emails sent to employees on vacation.”

What’s absurd are laws that let workers stop working when they leave work. What’s absurd is the idea that when you go out that door, you’re still at work.

What should be instituted are laws requiring employers to pay workers extra — lots extra — for being on call around the clock, and giving workers the option to decline.

A bogus culture of “I work harder”

Being required to work at home, after work, is a time suck. But here’s the problem. Employers and business pundits promote a culture of working around the clock — and suggest it’s a matter of pride and an important work ethic. What it really means is, We hire suckers who’ll work all day long.

It’s a rip-off. If a job were 24X7, you’d live at your office or you’d be paid 24X7. Being asked to work at home is abuse, because the employer controls your paycheck — so you’re afraid to say no. But you can quit and go work for an employer that respects the value of rest, not to mention the importance of personal and family obligations.

Yes, but…

I anticipate a whole bunch of “Yes, but…” rationalizations, so I’ll address them now.

  • But if you really care about your job, you’d of course respond to your boss in the evening if you’re needed!
  • What’s the big deal about replying to an e-mail or two in the evening?
  • Sometimes work flows home — it’s why you’re paid a salary rather than an hourly wage!

They’re all rationalizations. Any company that can’t get its work done during work hours is mismanaged. At best, one might argue that a customer made a demand and the boss just passed it on to the employee in the evening via e-mail — and the company’s success hinges on being responsive to customers at all time. But even that is a rationalization. When a company permits its customers to run the company, the company is mismanaged — and it’s mismanaging its customers, too.

In my opinion, people who walk around with “I work evenings, too” tattooed to their foreheads are dopes begging to be abused. Good for you for saying no. There’s nothing impressive about projecting “I’m proud because I work for my boss all day long!”

If you want to leave that interviewer with the right impression about your dedication to your work, try this:

How to Say It

“I’ll do all the work necessary to help my company be successful while I’m at work. I’m proud of that.”

It’s up to your boss to give you the right work to do, and it’s up to your boss to define, organize, and manage your work load during work hours to ensure the company’s success.

Do you respond to work e-mails in the evening? How much of an employee’s time does an employer own?

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  1. When I was working I did. Now a lot of work email got generated by my system, and looking them over saved time later. But I might have put my foot down if any email from my bosses and co-workers was trivial. Plus, we were free to come in and leave when we pleased, and leave work for medical appointments and errands without any hassle, so I was happy to repay that flexibility with some of my own.
    It is not new – 25 years ago I had a director who was famous for calling people at home. Other than that he was a great guy.

  2. Some years back I took an interview at a major financial information firm with the team managing their news feed service. It was a point of pride with them that such a small team was responsible for so much revenue; they achieved this by being on-call 24×7 (salaried position, no overtime pay). They hammered home the level of commitment required: if you weren’t on vacation, you were on the job, and if that made you uncomfortable, you weren’t a fit.

  3. Nick, Hello….

    It does not automatically follow that if a staff member’s email response is required after hours then that = the company is being run poorly.

    It probably feels good to suggest otherwise but it’s just not true.

    Among all those examples of abuse are a number of times when an after hours email response is reasonable and fitting.

    It does not take a rocket scientist to see this.

    • Paul – I’ve thought a lot about your point of view because it used to be my point of view. But fundamentally, the question is, can a company operate well and successfully without managers contacting employees after work hours at home?

      That question begs a more general case: Does a company require care and feeding by its managers and employees after the work day is done? I think if it does, there’s a profound management problem.

      Of course, it’s not abuse if the employee accepts the communications and is willing to participate from home. However, I contend that if a company “must” contact employees at home in the evening in order to ensure the company’s success or survival, then the company is being managed poorly.

      Work has to end somewhere, as do customers’ demands for instantaneous and constant service. If the practice of bothering employees at home is really necessary, then the employer should create living spaces at work, invite the families in, let everyone live in the company’s facility, and pay the entire family. I mean that only with a smidgen of sarcasm.

      I think expecting employees to always be ready to work, even at home, is a perversion. We’d have to totally redefine work to accommodate such a practice. But it’s crept into our lives like the proverbial frog getting poached in the beaker.

      • And it’s not even limited to high level jobs, many low wage jobs have the expectation that you’d be able to come in on a moments notice and sometimes is used in hiring decisions – i.e. if you aren’t available 9ap-9pm every day, even though you’re part time, go pound sand.

      • What about geographically distributed companies? Coordination outside of business hours might be a must for company’s success. As an example we have 11 hours difference between offices and answering urgent emails in the evening often saves us a day.

      • We have some colleagues who are in a different timezone, so it’s seen as acceptable to answer their emails from time to time, especially during a regulatory inspection.

  4. Everything within reason. Many of us have “global” jobs and deal with people all over the world in different time zones. Plus, we travel, our co-workers travel, our customers travel. There are plenty of times during my normal normal work hours that I need to ask a question and I know it’s outside the recipient’s typical work day. It’s so helpful if they can answer a quick email or take a quick call. I am always mindful of making it quick and not taking advantage of someone’s personal time. In turn, I try to be available if someone needs my help once I’m “off the clock.”

    No problem for me having my cellphone near me at all times (especially if they pay for it), but so far it hasn’t been too intrusive. If asked in an interview–I would explain that I am glad to be available at all hours, but within reason. (well I’d come up with a decent way of wording that.)

    • Darla: I get it, and this is not a loaded question. Please think about this and respond: Is it really necessary to be available 24X7 to do your job? What would happen if you did not respond until the normal work day began again — no matter where you are?

      • Depends on the situation, sometimes if I didn’t take the call or answer the email until the next day– maybe now I’m outside the other person’s work day and they may or may not be able to solve their problem efficiently. It’s a case by case basis–if I read an email at home and it can wait or would take a too much of my time, I send back a quick note saying I will tackle this in the morning. I typically at least acknowledge it.

        I guess the way I think about it is this way: the world has changed. We have technology that allows instant and global communication. Employers (at least mine) expect that we will be there whether it’s absolutely necessary or not. By the same token, I expect to be able to enjoy some perks in exchange–work from home when I need to, leave the office to take care of personal business, enjoy longer lunch hours, time away for helping a family member, etc. It’s give and take… yes?

        • “Reasonable” and “mutual” should be the keywords. I do not find it undreasonable if my employer makes the occasional call outside work hours, if they are in a hurry to get info I have in my head. But I would find it unreasonable if they demanded that I put everything aside and came back to the office. In exchange, I expect to be able to go out and do the occasional shop visit during work hours.

          I work at an oil company, where we once a year have a deadline for applications to the government for new exploration acreage. The weeks before are loaded with heavy overtime. In exchange, I expect to be able to take some occasional days off on other times. Tit for tat.

          A friend of mine work for the Norwegian branch of a Japanese oil company. Conference calls with their Tokyo HQ must happen outside ordinary work hours, due to the time difference. In return, they have flexibility to take some time off on other times.

          Bottom line; some flexibility is ok if it is goes both ways, and is reasonable – not a one-sided demand from the employer.

  5. In the interview, I would answer with enthusiasm, “Because we live in a global business environment, and due to differing time zones, I certainly appreciate being able to respond to emails after hours as necessary, especially if I have a fantastic idea that I feel must be communicated. One of my best email exchanges happened with a previous CEO at 2 am – he was pleased to get a reply at that time as we were both suffering from insomnia that night, and I liked that job. He did not expect such a reply, especially at 2 am. While I prefer that such after hours are the exception rather than the rule, an expectation to be on call after hours is not a deal breaker for the right position.”

    I can always say “no” later, but this way, I am at least opening up the dialogue. If being “on call” is expected, I might have a few questions about flexibility. For example, one of my previous jobs sometimes required late work due to a laboratory scheduling requirement (it was a complex and expensive avionics embedded computer test bed that had only 2 stations but 50 employees who would use it). In the case of that job, people would show up later when they had a “late lab” time.

    • Kevin: E-mail and texts are asynchronous forms of communication. We can communicate without both being “on” at the exact same time. That’s why both are so popular, and seem to have supplanted phone calls as the preferred way to communicate and work together.

      I think it’s no accident that either form of communication does not require instant responses. In fact, it makes life better because you can do something else when you’re not at work.

      To each his own. I wrote this column because the question came up, and I had recently seen news about changes in practices in France and Germany. It occurred to me that it would be wonderful if people and businesses could turn off after work. Then I realized that several years ago I stopped responding to texts and mails from everyone I work with after the work day is over. The world didn’t end, the work still gets done, and down time is really nice.

      • While emails and text messages may be “asynchronous,” our distracted attention is not. Any activity required by employer’s convenience and necessity qualifies.

        However, this demonstration of brass you-know-what on the part of a prospective employer might not be as bad as it sounds. A proper come-back to this question could be, “yes, but how will I be compensated for this extra work?” Any response other than flexible work hours and/or extra cash is a good clue that this employer is a deadbeat. Any reaction other than a rational polite answer should be a clue that the employer has no respect for you.

        On the other hand, this prospective employer may have been a more honest deadbeat than others who wouldn’t have mentioned this requirement but do it anyway, and penalize you if you don’t follow it. The frustration of working for an employer who promises the possibility of extra compensation for extra effort, and then doesn’t reward that effort, will last a lot longer than getting over a disappointing job interview.

        I’ve worked for both respectful and disrespectful employers (more of the latter than the former). But most of the time I was allowed some flexibility in arranging my working and non-working hours. Obviously, this depends on the nature of the job and business and what activities were going on at work. But, still no excuse for an employer not compensating employees in some way for extra work and effort.

  6. At one point, our department got reorganized under new management. The new manager scheduled two weekly meetings with my supervisor; one on Fridays when they were both in the same office to discuss operations. The second meeting was the standard weekly one-on-one; in the manager’s building on Monday mornings. You can imagine the topics of discussion. My supervisor put his cell phone in a drawer when he arrived home after work; his manager worked 24/7. It did not end well.

  7. I used to work a job where being available to the customer was a requirement. I was providing tech support for manufacturing customers that ran 24×7, so if they ran into trouble at 2 am, they needed to be able to get a hold of someone.

    That said, my employer compensated for this with a generous unofficial comp time policy. If I left the house at 2 am to go fix a problem and got back around 10 am, I could either call my work day done or I could finish out the regular work day and bank the time. Same went for weekends and holidays. I once took off almost all of December because I worked so many weekends and long days running up to the holidays.

    Of course, that type of stuff is different from after hours emails. If something is *that* critical, you don’t email. You call. If it’s just an email, there is no realistic need for the person to respond to it until that person’s normal working hours.

  8. Chris: I’ve had people work for me who were responsible for 24X7 tech support — that was the job, and the pay came along with it. Folks in those jobs didn’t do it very long, and we knew why, and we planned for it. What we also learned is that you can’t expect someone to be on alert at all hours — assignment to do the job could be handled in ways that spread the odd hours around. Your work and job are unusual — so thanks for providing a counter-example!

  9. At my last job (running an online master’s program for a large university), many of my students and more than a few of my faculty lived in different time zones. My first three supervisors subscribed to the policy that the workday was a set number of hours, with exceptions being for emergencies (and very little was an emergency) and for the super-duper busy times of the semesters (e.g., admission deadlines). But those three let me structure my workday as I saw fit; admissions materials arrived once per week, and I’d set aside a day (maybe more if I had a lot of applicants and paperwork) to do admissions. This way, every week I was caught up with admissions, and deadlines didn’t escape with decisions. Ditto for clearing students for graduation, registration, and other matters that had repeating patterns of busy times. Those supervisors were also of the opinion that when the workday ended, it ended. There were no panicky calls or emails after hours. My fourth supervisor was the opposite, and whether it was because she was a disorganized scatterbrained poor planner or because she thought her slaves should be working for her all day, all the time I don’t know. I suspect the latter, because she was not a stupid woman, but you can be smart and still be disorganized. She would think nothing of handing me (and other staff) a big project at 5 pm with the demand that it be done and on her desk by the next morning. Those were the days when I’d have to stay until 10 pm or later to get it done, and then I’d learn the next morning that she’d gone on vacation (and didn’t tell us) or that she was working from home and wouldn’t be in her office for the next two weeks.

    She thought nothing of emailing staff “assignments” at midnight and on weekends and expecting it to get done. We had no overtime pay, no comp. time, and those who didn’t do as she demanded when she demanded got fired. I didn’t own a computer, and let her know. I’d also email her when the project was done so she would see the time and date stamp on the email, and I created a file specifically for her and her last minute projects so I had proof of what I’d done and when. Then I would casually inform her that because I stayed at the office until 1 am doing the stats project, I would be leaving at x time today, tomorrow, Friday, etc. The employees who asked her permission to leave early when they’d logged time at home doing projects for her after hours were always denied permission to leave early. It is always better to seek forgiveness than it is to ask permission.

    Commencements, new student orientations, and other events held in the evenings, on weekends, etc. were also work for free days for staff without o.t. pay and without accruing comp. time. I was so glad when the Graduate School moved its commencement from Sunday to Saturday then to Friday of Memorial Day weekend. The first few years I worked there I worked all three days of that weekend (it was work it or you’re fired and no we weren’t paid at all).

    Most of the students and faculty were pretty good about working around time zone differences. I had one student who, whenever she needed to talk to me about something, would email me to schedule a time to talk. She lived in California, and she was the one who’d get up at 5 am her time in order to talk to me. CA was easy; the challenge was those who lived in Japan, Germany, Hawaii, Saudi Arabia, etc., but we made it work. Most of the issues could be resolved by email, and I had a good working relationship with the grad school so anything that they needed to fix could get done with an email or memo from me.

    Every once in a while I’d get a student who complained about being “shorted” exam or assignment time because she lived in a different time zone than the professor, and the answer to that was that she had exactly the same amount of time as everyone else–she was free to get up earlier or stay up later to work on and turn in her assignments and exams. But most were understanding of the time zone difference as well as the idea that a work day should have a beginning and an end and that faculty and staff will reply to emails and return calls within a reasonable amount of time.

    I think technology, which is great, has made work easier in some ways but harder in others. Just because someone can receive messages at all hours of the day and night, during work hours and off duty, just because technology means people can get instant responses doesn’t mean that we should do that. Thirty years ago you didn’t have the kind of technology that let some employers and customers contact you all hours of the day and night and while you’re on vacation, and somehow business still got done and was profitable.

  10. I’m associated with the disaster restoration business. Those folks can and do receive calls anytime of day. That’s the nature of the beast and it’s understood that how things have to work in that business. That being said, that’s one of the few exceptions and not the rule. You understand that but it seems that your point may have been missed be a few. It’s the way corporations view employees these days, as pawns that can be moved at will because they “own” you. But for the sake of mental health, no one should have to put up with that attitude.

    The fact that countries have had to pass laws on this matter is amazing. Any company that actually cared for their employees (not just with lip service or a useless mission statement) wouldn’t need them. Happier employees are more productive employees. That’s not a Hallmark card, that’s a fact. But few companies seem to be able to comprehend that. They’d rather abuse those who work for them, and if they leave, there’s always some other schmuck waiting to fill their shoes. If you care for your family, your friends and your health, you won’t drink their Kool-aid.

  11. My god I’ve been saying this for years and it is great to hear someone else say something similar. If the work in a dept can’t be completed in regular business hours then the question for management is….

    “What is lacking here that is causing this?”

    But answering that question involves thought, strategic thinking, and assertiveness…In other words management. Instead working after hours is viewed as a badge of honor when what is really is is leadership failure.

    • One of my nicer bosses a while back summed that up very nicely when he explained the importance of punctuality and putting in a full working day. He said that he was not often going to ask me to stay late, but he did tell me I was expected me to arrive on time, get my work done on time, and to walk out the door at 5 p.m. Interesting man to work for, and we had a pretty productive team (not in the same industry I’m in now).

  12. It really is about the kind of job one is in. I work on projects in different time zones. One needs to be aware and consider carefully what is at stake and what risks you or someone else may run when you do not respond – it is about foreseeing the possible developments on a project, for instance. One day I need to stay online or at least check my emails every hour, even late in the night, and on an another day I use flexi time, if the workload allows it. But working full-time AND at the same time being expected to respond to requests from home on a regular basis is slavery in my view.

  13. Doctors work around the clock (I know being a daughter of one) when they are getting their training. They are though “on call” and wear pages (well, at least back in the day). My mom wound up being on a group of doctors once during a Superbowl but didn’t receive even one call during the game!

    I try not to check my email on the weekend as I got my blood pressure down some points by stopping that. We had some offices overseas that emailed important stuff on the weekends. I found though I need that time off. I am not a doctor but a sales person. Nothing bad happened. I also try not to check even once if I have time off.

    I find if something is burning, somebody will get ahold of me by phone.

  14. I think it is fair to respond with something like, “If it is in my contract and part of this job, I will do what is asked of me to the best of my abilities.” That way, by writing it in the contract they have to pay you for that time spent working. Wouldn’t they? As a 24/7 meteorologist and retired military member, I understand the difference between true emergencies and bad management. If they need something from me after hours, and are using email and not the phone, it isn’t really all that important.. urgency is not importance, to paraphrase Stephen Covey.