Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
After almost a year of working with a small software development company where few staff members have had a contract, we have all been given contracts to sign. The only part of the contract that bothers me is that I will be expected to work as many extra hours as “deemed necessary” with no extra pay. This feels like signing a blank check on my personal time—which I do not want to do. Until now the company has been reasonable about my time, and they may not demand that I work unlimited overtime. But circumstances change and I do not want to open myself up to the possibility.
Both my boss and the managing director work very long hours as a matter of course and I suspect they will have little empathy for an employee who expects to get paid for his time. I do not work strictly to time—I usually arrive thirty minutes early and take a short lunch break, and have already worked eighty plus hours of unpaid overtime this year. An annual bonus that I have yet to receive may provide additional payment, though no annual bonus is mentioned in the contract.
Looking around the job market I have seen no better options and do not want to lose this job which I enjoy a great deal. Can you please suggest how I can convey my unwillingness to agree to unlimited unpaid overtime without endangering my position at the company?
Good news: you probably don’t have to say anything that might endanger your position. It sounds as if signing a contract moves you from an hourly to a salaried position, and as such no hours will be set. This change gives you more control over your own time (that’s the positive spin) since you won’t be punching a clock. Nevertheless, you’re now worried that you’ve given your employer the right to drive you until you drop (that’s the negative spin).
As is the case with all salaried positions, your employer has no more right to ask you to work eighty hours a week than you have the right to ask to work twenty hours. There is typically an implied contract that suggests that you’ll work a “reasonable” number of hours—whatever it takes to get the job done—without causing you undue stress or taking advantage of the company. That means you’ll probably work more hours some weeks, but fewer hours other weeks. The idea is to provide employees flexibility to meet unpredictable and changing needs, not to exploit salaried employees.
You can also take comfort in the fact that you’re signing a job contract, not a lifetime commitment. If you’re signing the typical document, either party can walk away from the contract with only a short notice (check to see if this is true). If things don’t work out to your satisfaction, you can always move on.
But you’re still nervous about stepping into a job that may expect too much of you. You like your current job and you don’t see many options outside the company. So, how can you test the waters to ensure that they aren’t too deep? What can you do to clarify expectations without looking too obstinate or ungrateful? This calls for a crucial conversation.
First, ask for permission to talk about the new contract. Then, as you sit down to talk, start on a positive note. Explain that you enjoy your job and the company. You’re flattered that they’re moving you to a contract position and you want to make sure you understand exactly what’s expected. After all, the last thing you want to do is let someone down.
Clarify all of the elements outlined in the contract—salary level, benefits, etc. Then share your view about the flexible work schedule. Explain that you’ll be delighted to continue giving your best to the company and realize that there will be times—when you’re under deadline, for example—that you’ll put in fairly long hours. Of course, you expect in return that you’ll be able to put in fewer hours on other occasions as the workload allows—in order to help keep a balanced lifestyle. If you have any specific hours or days you can’t work—for picking up children, etc.—clarify these as well. Finish by asking your boss if he or she shares the same view.
Keep the conversation upbeat. Focus on what you can and will do. Only discuss your concerns about consistent and unacceptable lengthy hours if your boss suggests that this is exactly what he or she expects. You expect fifty-hour weeks (pick a number) to be infrequent and then balanced by weeks with fewer hours. Only talk specific numbers if your boss starts to push you for details.
Keep your focus on your willingness to do what it takes—weighing your commitment to the company against a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Don’t get caught in the trap of equating long hours with loyalty. Loyalty consists of doing what’s right over the long run for both you and the company. Both have to succeed or the contract has failed. Also, don’t allow your boss to compare his or her hours to yours. You have a different job, different pay, and different personal goals and are signing the contract with this in mind.
If you share your enthusiasm and keep the focus on your desire to use your new flexibility to do what it takes to succeed, you probably won’t end up in a battle over hours. If it becomes clear to you that your boss is using the contract to kick off a campaign to force people to work long and unacceptable hours, at least you’ll know where you stand and can choose not to go ahead—but I doubt that it’ll come to this.