I have had the following experience a few times in my life.

I was working under contract for a company through an agency. The manager/PM that I would be working with would declare to us that his budget is such that he cannot afford any of us to bill overtime.

The agency would establish a firm 'bill for every hour worked' rule. Clearly they want to make as much money from us as possible, and they have a firm contract with both, us (the devs), and the client.

At some point the PM would come up to us and say something along the lines of "Hey guys, we really need this done by tomorrow" hint-hint, nudge-nudge.


It's pretty obvious that in this situation the PM is trying to squeeze out as much productivity out of every developer for the least amount of money as possible. This is understandable, we were expensive, and our agency was charging a hefty margin. In a typical MNC there is a theme whereby a manager who delivers projects under budget will get promoted faster, be held in higher regard, etc.

However, this puts people like me in a difficult predicament. I'm either breaking the rules (in fact, contractual obligations) by not billing all of the hours with my agency. Or I am not being a 'team player' within the place where I actually spend my every working day.

The Risk:

The PM/manager will be my reference for the next job, they will have the power to say 'I prefer to have this guy's contract extended' vs. not, etc. They have a non-trivial influence over your career.


What is the best way to handle these situations, where the PM's direct career interests seem to be contradicting your contractual obligations?

*FWIW In the past I would sometimes work unbilled hours, and sometimes tell my PMs that I can't depending on the state of the project and the severity of problems. But every single time it felt like I did something wrong, because on one hand working unbilled hours would put other contractors that did not make the same choice as me in a negative light, but on the other hand walking off at 5:00pm when the project is in dire straits seems irresponsible.

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    If you made the PM mad then don't use them as a reference. Always build a list of friendly references at every place you work. Allowing yourself to be bullied into working for free is not only (possibly) illegal, it is downright unnecessary. Apr 16, 2013 at 19:10
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    It's not really being a "team player" to help establish an expectation that the players can be bullied to work for free.
    – JohnMcG
    Apr 16, 2013 at 23:50

6 Answers 6


As a contractor you have an obligation to bill for all of the hours you work. You are being compensated for your hours and the company that you work for is getting a cut. If you work and do not report hours then you are effectively stealing from your employer.

If client contact(Like a PM) tries to get you to work hours without reporting them then you should contact your employer to see how they want you to handle the situation. They may be willing to allow you to work hours without billing the client and may even decide that they will compensate you for them. But either way it is your employers relationship with the client that you need to avoid complicating.

It is also possible that your employer will encourage you to comply with the implied request. At this point I would be most concerned(as you noted above) with pleasing the client. So long as it is a rare occurrence I would consider it part of the cost of doing business. If it became a regular thing and my company did not want to take action then you have some hard decisions to make about your future. It may be that you are willing to work a few extra hours a week for no extra pay, because you are being paid for you work just not the few hours over. Or you might decide to try and find an employer that will support your right to expect compensation for all the hours you work.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – enderland
    Jul 12, 2017 at 0:01

First thing I might do is upon getting hired is to ask the contracting agency how THEY want you to handle this type of situation, being that you've experienced it a few times. Then if it does occur you can always tell the PM whatever your contracting agency told you.

However, in real life, I would probably recognize that there's something frequently called "casual overtime". 2 to 4 hours OT just to get a job done on time that occurs infrequently (e.g. 4-5 times a year at most). If that were the case then I'd probably just go ahead and do it because you probably wasted more time than that and were still paid for it.

If its more than that then I would probably go along with the customer request (because one of your jobs is to keep the customer happy) but I would also certainly contact the contracting agency ASAP and get direction from them. They could very well agree to pay you something extra without billing the customer because they want to keep the client or they could handle the situation without the customer actually finding out that it was you who spilled the beans.

  • Some excellent points here
    – Robbie Dee
    Apr 18, 2013 at 20:57

Under no circumstances is it irresponsible to refuse to work for free. You want to be a partner in a startup and hope you hit the future homerun, put in all the hours you like. The threat of getting a poor review because an hourly employee won't work for free is IMHO criminal and exploitive. There is no reason to behave like an indentured servant in modern society.

The manager needs to do a better job of allocating resources and managing project expectations and deadlines to truly earn any type of promotion. Don't let them trick you into working for free to cover their incompetance.

You are cheating your company out of billable hours when you workk for free. This company may not rehire you, but the agency will find you more work.

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    Could you please expand on how you would handle the situation? Pretty much a straight "Sorry, can't do that" to the PM?
    – MrFox
    Apr 16, 2013 at 17:31
  • Just tell your PM, "I'll be glad to get it done tonight if you just authorize me to work overtime."
    – The Photon
    Apr 17, 2013 at 4:35
  • @ThePhoton The question would appear to be quite clear in this regard. I.e. there is no option for overtime...
    – Robbie Dee
    Apr 17, 2013 at 11:03
  • @RobbieDee, It's equally clear from the question he's not permitted to work unbilled overtime. That decision very likely can't be changed for legal reasons. The decsion to authorize overtime or not can be changed by the PM (or his/her higher-ups) at any time.
    – The Photon
    Apr 17, 2013 at 15:22
  • I'm not advocating that he does (if you read my answer).
    – Robbie Dee
    Apr 17, 2013 at 16:32

Imagine the converse situation.

You cannot work a certain number of hours, but you really need the income this month for some reason either good or bad.

Would you dream of approaching your client asking him to sign for more hours than you worked to solve this problem for you?

I think the ideal way to approach it would be to say that you're at 38 hours for the week, and you think it will take another 4-5 hours (or whatever) to achieve his desired goal. From here he has the following options:

  • Explicitly ask you to commit fraud, or more charitably, work out some sort of off-the-books arrangement (e.g. fewer hours worked next week, but bill 40 hours each week).
  • Approve charging overtime
  • Decide it's not that important after all.

This also has the advantage of giving him helpful information. It may take a little courage, and I'm not certain it's best for all situations. But, even when I was a 22 year old contract programmer, I think I could have done this.

What I would not do is go ahead and do this without an explicit (even if "off the books") agreement.

Let's make it even less malevolent. Let's say that at hour 39.5 of your week you discover a bug that you have released into a production system that, if unaddresed, would result in some big cost to your company. Nobody is around to approve your overtime.

Of course, you would work to at least stop the bleeding from the bug,even if it took you over your allotted hours.

But I would then approach the PM at the client and explain that I had worked an extra several hours, and ask how we should approach it, even though it's "my fault." And if he expected me to eat the hours, it would lead me to reconsider if this is a place I want to work much longer.


Usually, I'd talk with the PM and see if there is a way to work out some kind of arrangement. Perhaps I work extra hours for this deadline and later on take off some time so that I'm not billing overtime but merely shuffling around hours. Perhaps there is some other kind of favor system that can be set up. While this may be seen as "working for free" there is the side that I could see this as helping a friend in some cases. If my relationship with the PM is close enough, this is a factor in how I'd handle the situation.

The key here is to know a couple of the basic rules here about no overtime that impact's the PM budget, get the project done and try to have the best relationship that I can.

  • Very well put. This is pretty much exactly what I do when in the same situation.
    – Robbie Dee
    Apr 18, 2013 at 21:01

Having been a freelancer/contractor in the past, I myself have been on the sharp end of contracts/projects where they're trying to squeeze every last bit of value out of the dollar.

The simple facts are these - you're only paid for the hours you bill. Whether you want to do an extra few hours purely out of goodwill would be up to you (taking into account your various commitments).

If they're asking for hours over and above this, then OK, you might want to consider some sort of time in lieu arrangement where you work an extra 5 hours this week to get the project done if you can have 5 hours off next week.

Of course, your agency may want a static number of hours billed each week in which case you may wish to arrange some sort of gentlemen's agreement with the client whereby the time sheets are signed but you both agree the working hours for the weeks affected.

Initially, it does sound like a raw deal I admit, but if you present some options up front, nobody need lose out.

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    you may wish to arrange some sort of gentlemen's agreement with the client whereby the time sheets are signed but you both agree the working hours for the weeks affected - That is called fraud in some places... like courtrooms Apr 17, 2013 at 17:52
  • I suggest you read the question and my answer again. The hours billed are the same and there is no option for overtime...
    – Robbie Dee
    Apr 17, 2013 at 18:59
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    If you fudge hours between weeks and you are an hourly employee of the recruiting firm (which is common) you put the recruiting firm and possibly the contracting firm into legal jeopardy. In the US it is not uncommon for hourly employees to sue former employers for back overtime (which would be owed despite any other agreement)
    – stoj
    Apr 18, 2013 at 1:31
  • I'm not saying the situation is ideal, but that is the quandary the OP postulates. I've seen this sort of thing happen a number of times in UK IT contracts. The client and the contractor win and by extension, the agency is happy.
    – Robbie Dee
    Apr 18, 2013 at 7:06
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    The original point seems to have gone so far over your heads it may well now be in orbit. In simple terms: The client is indirectly paying for the services of the contractor. The agent is a middle man. ALL hours worked are billed. If you truly believe that every contractor arrives at 9, and leaves at 5 for X months straight and never works a minute more or less than he bills then you are either unbelievably naive or haven't been in the business long enough. If god forbid working a minute without billing it in the US makes you a criminal, I can see why you have so many lawyers over there.
    – Robbie Dee
    Apr 18, 2013 at 20:56

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