Telling my Boss I’m FI
So I have a problem. It’s like this: I don’t want to do much.
But my employer wants me to crank.
For a while I’m okay with this. The first two months in academia were slow and gave me a chance to rest and recuperate, after all, and I was grateful for that.
But suddenly there’s a lot of pressure being applied to produce. Even though I’m capped at 35 hours a week, I’m putting in 40-45 and this is really to do the minimum of what is being asked.
After a couple of months of this with no apparent letup, I confronted my manager in our weekly one on one. (That’s right. Even in academia, I still have these wretched hourly checkpoints once every seven days.) I tell him that I’ve been consistently over the cap of hours, and he gives me a half-joking, unsatisfactory response, delivered with a silly, smirking smile hanging off of the corner of his mouth that pissed the hell out of me.
I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.
(Note: I don’t laugh or smile, which is the response I believed he was looking for. Instead I stare at him and let the moment drag out a bit. He squirms.)
You look upset.
I am, a little. Because it’s not a matter of telling people. It’s a matter of expectations. I expected to work 35 a week. That’s the university standard.
I understand. And that’s reasonable, really. But the problem is that we really need to get these projects done. I know you’re working hard and I’ve observed you’re fairly efficient. It’ll be over soon enough and then things will go back to normal.
Okay. Then can we do something to compensate me for the extra hours?
Everyone works extra hours at times, according to project requirements.
But if it’s required consistently, then it’s not really at times is it? My guess is that this project is going to go on for at least another half a year.
We’ll work something out when these initiatives come to a close.
Okay. I just want to let you know that from here on out, I’m tracking my hours. Every hour I put in over 35, I’m going to want back in the form of comp. days that aren’t tied to my official vacation. That OK?
I’ll think about it.
Sounds good to me. Let’s talk about it next week once you’ve had some time to let my request digest.
I have to admit that I found this particular exchange with my manager to be wholly unsatisfactory. It was at this point that I decided to do a bit of sleuthing around the office to see how many hours a week other people were tossing into the garbage chute of office life.
And I discovered something interesting: there was wide variation in output between different teams, and even within teams some folks worked harder than others. Our team and one other in particular (the core systems group) seemed to be in constant “panic mode” according to a couple of coworkers. I asked why, and the answer was “weak management that doesn’t push back on stuff.”
Another coworker opined that management seemed to think that some workers were stronger than others, and therefore gave them most of the work because they didn’t trust sub-par performers with all that much.
So if you demonstrate competence above others, you’re rewarded with more work than them?
Motherfuck. And what’s done about the sub-par performers? Are they asked to change behavior in any way?
No. They’re just left out of projects.
Aha! Does that mean that after a while they’ll be let go? I’ve worked at places before where when someone is out of favor, they are simply ignored and shamed into leaving.
It’s not like that here. No one really gets fired in academia — at least not for lack of production. You’d have to do something horrid like watch porn at high levels of volume with external speakers absolutely blasting out the happy sounds of human activity.
That’s so weird. Where I come from — you know, that alien world known as the private sector — people get fired for all sorts of reasons.
Yeah, things are different in academia. Last person I know who was let go was a serious alcoholic, barely did anything, and he still stayed on for an extra two years after this was common knowledge. HR offered assistance programs to him, that sort of thing, and he couldn’t clean up, so after a while he was finally dumped.
Sounds like there’s total job security here.
Yes, there is. But on the flip side, the raises are really small, and there’s practically no difference between the salary increase given to a top performer and folks at the bottom. You can do just about nothing and still get your measly 2% annually.
What the hell is the incentive to work then?
Very little. If you work, you get more work. If you don’t work, you get less work. The only difference in working is that probably your relationship with your manager and coworkers will be a lot nicer.
Someone could take advantage of this system.
People do. But most people work fairly hard and do what’s expected.
But if you’re on one of those teams with weak management that tends to be in crisis mode continually, what do you do?
Manage up. Tell them no. Set boundaries. Be firm. And do this with the knowledge that they can’t do anything about it.
Cool. Thanks for the info.
I’d like to take just a moment here to talk about personal choice when it comes to working extra hours at a job.
Some of the common responses to people who complain of working unpaid overtime is something along the lines of Just Stop Putting In The Hours. Push Back. Grow a Spine. Just say No.
The same set of people are probably also likely to say things such as:
- You know that when you work extra, you’re just raising expectations for everyone.
- What, do you want a fucking medal? Are you trying to be a martyr?
- Most of your extra hours are probably worked inefficiently. Studies show that efficiency drops after working more than 35-40 so you’re not doing yourself or the company/organization working extra.
- If you’re so upset about working unpaid overtime, talk to HR about it
I find all of these arguments ridiculous because they ignore how human beings are wired to work. Look, we’re social creatures and we tend to seek agreement and approval from others. This is particularly true in the work environment, and even more so when you need the job. If your boss asks you, point blank, to do some work that’s going to put you over your hour limit, chances are really good that you’re just going to do it anyway. You might drop him/her a line to let them know you had to work extra to do it, but the fact remains that you’re going to do it. Same goes for teammates. If Jane asks you to pretty please help her out tonight to get some task done on a project or to help her with a work item, try telling her to go screw. You can’t do it, can you? Doesn’t surprise me — I can’t either.
Why is this, exactly?
- The resulting conflict from not doing it usually outweighs any pain endured due to simply putting in the extra hours.
- You want to be perceived as a good employee
- The opposite: You don’t want to go on your manager’s or teammates’ shit list.
- Related: You might fear losing your job.
- You might also actually believe in the work and feel that it’s important to get it done.
- The work might be tied to bonuses, raises, or other metrics of merit.
- And again, more than likely you’ll feel that by not doing the work you’re also letting your teammates down. Perhaps one of your peers will have to pick up the slack, and they’re already putting in OT. Nobody likes to feel like they’re a) not pulling their weight or b) screwing others over.
Note that many of these reasons are not directly related to compensation, meaning, even if you are FI, you’ll likely still find it difficult to push back on requests for you to work extra hours to complete projects.
People who say that it’s exclusively your choice to work the extra hours are ignoring some basic realities of what it means to be human. Humans frequently feel it’s more important to fit in and be liked (which in turn helps folks feel secure in their job and relationships) than it is to draw the line on hours worked.
If it wasn’t your choice to be born a human, than it’s probably also not your choice to work or not work extra hours. You’re going to instinctively make the decision that results in the least amount of discomfort. For most people, this means you’ll respond to that 7PM email and automatically check your inbox over the weekend and just get those projects done even if it means missing your daughter’s piano recital.
Bottom line: If it’s the corporate culture to work extra — if it’s normal and expected and everyone is doing it — then it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to be the only one who is pushing back. My observations aren’t rocket science. This is one of the major reasons labor unions form, to set standards for workers, protect them from unreasonable demands, and urge folks to behave consistently in the workplace.
But still, my assumption that organizations expect folks to work over and above 40 hours a week seems, at this point, to be all my very subjective opinion, doesn’t it? So let’s add some backing to these views by taking a look at some real data.
- Corporate collusion against engineers in Sillicon Valley by Apple, Adobe, Intel, and Google
- White Collar Wage Theft – Awesome quote: “Once assumed to be mainly an issue of unpaid overtime or other wage violations, wage theft became a white collar issue this year.”
- A Lawsuit Against LinkedIn for unpaid mandatory overtime practices
- Lots of unpaid OT in the UK as well
- A USA Today article about unpaid OT in the US
- Lawsuit against software companies by tech writers working unpaid OT
- An Oracle unpaid OT suit that they lost
- An interesting nytimes article about habitual corporate email checking.
Bottom line: This is real. Employers are asking their employees to work extra, constantly, across industries, countries, and continents. For some people, choosing to say no is going to work. But for the vast majority of us, it’ll result in, best case, professional unhappiness and awkward relationships in the office, and worst case, unemployment.
Go ahead and “choose” what’s right for you.
All of that being said: I finally decided to not be like most people when it came to putting in extra unpaid hours.
Big surprise: My manager tried to ignore the whole overtime subject in our next one on one. This is despite the fact that I implored him to think about how I might be compensated for the extra work, prior to our meeting.
Instead we talked about projects and objectives — the nuts and bolts of how and when things were getting done.
After half an hour of this, he ran out of steam and asked if I had anything else to discuss, and of course, I raised the subject again.
Have you come to any decisions as to how to handle the extra hours I’m putting in over the standard thirty five per week?
Oh. Right. Well, I was thinking we could talk about it once <projects A and B> have been completed.
I can’t wait that long. Look, like I said last week, I’ve started to track the extra hours. I’m at six since last we spoke. This is nearly a full day of work.
That’s good, it’s important to have some data on this.
OK. But what can we do about this data?
Well, let me first just say that other people on the team don’t complain about putting in extra hours here and there.
I’m not complaining about it. In fact, I don’t like the insinuation that I’m complaining. As far as I’m concerned, we’re talking about my contract with the University. Your personal requirements are violating my contract with my employer.
I don’t understand why this is such a problem for you. No one else on the team focuses on hours worked per week.
It’s a problem because it’s my expectation to work thirty five hours a week. And that’s my expectation because that’s the legal standard for the University.
Well, what do you propose, then?
I’ve already told you. I want compensation for the extra time.
We do not have an overtime pay policy. We can’t pay you more.
I understand. That’s never been my goal — to get additional money. I want either less work — a 35 hour workweek, effective immediately, meaning that I’ll be behind on projects currently assigned — or the guarantee of compensation time for the extra hours.
I can’t commit to that. I’d have to seek approval.
Then I’d like you to ‘seek approval,’ as you’ve now proposed.
What if they don’t grant the request? (Note: At this point, I’m thinking of the comments of my coworker who opined that our team had weak management. This is the comment of a weak manager — someone who is fearful of sticking up for his team and has trouble saying no.)
Well, I’ll have to reconsider whether or not I want to work here.
At this point my manager looks completely exasperated. Prior to this comment, he’d been mostly staring at the screen of his laptop, occasionally typing notes, and refusing to look at me. But here he pushes his machine aside and finally gives me his full undivided attention.
Why wouldn’t you want to work here? You’ve only been with us five months.
I need to tell you something. It’s weird. Nobody has ever told you this before, I’m certain, and I’m not sure how you’re going to take it. But I’m going to put it out there.
He’s fidgeting. Hands play with hands. A nail rises to his mouth and he bites at it.
I like this job. I like my coworkers. I feel like I’m adjusting to the environment and beginning to make strong contributions. But that being said, I don’t need it.
I don’t need this job.
Say that again? Are you quitting?
No, you misunderstand me. I’m just saying I don’t need this job. I have enough money to live indefinitely without the income. I’m doing this because I generally like the work. Not because I need the money. But liking the work and wanting to work more than the required number of hours per week are two different things. I have no desire to work more than 35 hours a week. I’m sure you understand.
I’m not sure I like the tone of this conversation.
Look, I’m not trying to threaten you. Really, please don’t take it that way. I’m trying to explain my position so you can put yourself in my shoes. So one, I don’t need to work for pay in order to live. And two, if I was going to work purely for the money, I’d go back to one of my previous jobs so I could make a hundred and thirty thousand a year. I took this position primarily to slow down, not to crank all the time, and as a side benefit to you and the university, y’all are going to benefit from my levels of experience and efficiency. So again, my real goal is to have balance in my life. I don’t want to work overtime.
You’re kidding me. Are you saying you could retire?
There’s silence. I let it sit while he chews on it. The balance of power has instantly and forever shifted.
You’re about my age. Maybe thirty seven?
That’s unbelievable. Two years younger than me. And you say you like this work?
Yes, I like it quite a bit, and I’m glad to be contributing my skills to a university rather than a corporation. But only within strict time constraints. I’m sure you understand my position now.
Yes, I do. It’s quite clear. Well, we certainly don’t want to lose you. How about you continue to track your hours and when you’re done with these projects we give you compensation time?
Sounds good. Please seek approval from our director and provide email to me with him CC’d that this model is going to be okay for our relationship moving forward.
No problem. I’ll let you know next week.
It all went through without a hitch. When I completed the projects — which, for the record, took another nine months of consistently working extra, some Sunday morning work, lots of 6AM stuff on weekdays, and some late nights here and there, I submitted my overtime report and was granted three and a half straight weeks off of work, which I took immediately and enjoyed the hell out of.
Added bonus: Every interaction with my manager has, since, been incredibly pleasant. He tries to please me now. He starts meetings off by asking me how I’m doing instead of just, you know, where are we with these projects and stuff like that. It’s very, very strange. But also very, very nice. My revelation prompted him to treat me as a peer and friend instead of just an order-taker, and I feel our relationship is much the better for it.
I do wonder sometimes if there was a more elegant way to achieve this relationship rather than hitting him over the head with the fact that I don’t have to work for money anymore. But the truth is that I wanted him to know, so he would realize how little power he holds over me. I decided to take a risk in sharing this information, and I was lucky that it panned out.
The only downside to all of this, if it can be considered one, is that within a couple of weeks, more than a few people in the office insinuated that I was rich. This was a reminder of something I’d learned way back in Year 4 with my first employer, SoftwareCompany. People don’t keep this kind of shit a secret. They can’t help themselves. My manager had leaked the information.
Proof? A few weeks later, two different people on my team directly asked me, virtually out of the blue, if I could retire.
I downplayed it. No, no. Not sure where you heard that. It’s not like that. I just practice living within my means, so that I have a decent level of savings, that’s all, so if something catastrophic happens, you know, employment-wise, I’ll be OK for at least a couple of years. It’s nothing more than folks like Suze and Dave Ramsay suggest to do — I have a nice emergency fund, is all.
To this day, a lot of people in the office consider me to be a freak of nature. I have to admit, this aspect of being FI is not all that fun.
Still, considering that the payoff was actually getting paid, in a way, for the overage hours, it was an awesome trade.