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I am interviewing for a company later today that has the following listed under Expectations on their career website:

Some flexibility in a 40-hour work week

In addition, their job descriptions all seem to refer to a "work hard/play hard" environment, such as this line

Need someone who will buy into the company - work hard and be committed when necessary, and we play a lot when we have the time.

I am concerned that this means they often require their developers to work extra hours, but I am not sure if I should bring this up in an interview or not, as I don't want to be seen as someone who only wants to show up for the required hours and collect a paycheck.

Work/Life balance is very important to me. I would prefer a regular 8h/day job that does not require overtime, however I don't mind working some extra hours on occasion when needed by the company. I just don't want it to be a frequent thing.

How can I ask about the frequency at which a company has their developers work extra hours during a first interview, without appearing to be a 9-5 only employee that is just interested in collecting a pay check?

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    You don't ask the interviewer directly... ask if you can talk to some future colleagues and ask them about life/work balance (or rather, what their normal day looks like and how often they are expected to "work hard"). – Oded Jun 14 '13 at 14:05
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    @Oded - I'd ask directly; you want to be able to self-select out if this isn't the environment for you, and you want them to be straight with you about the needs of the business. If they tell you "you'll need to work overtime regularly" and you say "okay, this isn't for me", you can both walk away at this point. – Adam V Jun 14 '13 at 14:11
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    @Oded - Answers dont belong in comments... Please see: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/1864/… – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 14 '13 at 15:01
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    I've told every manager I've ever had "I work reasonable hours; if there's a disaster and I need to work extra hours to help out I will, and I will consider that disaster to be evidence of your failure to manage risk when it comes time for management reviews." I knew that my current job would be a good fit for me when my new manager told me that he viewed making people work crazy hours to be a failure of management before I got the chance to tell him. :-) – Eric Lippert Jun 14 '13 at 21:40
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    In my experience of companies I don't work for, "work hard / play hard" means that the company expects to eat your life. They might tolerate exceptions, so you might be able to draw boundaries, but the baseline you'd be working from is that (in the long run average) work and work-organized activities will occupy significantly more than your contracted hours. "We play a lot when we have the time" doesn't mean "often the company isn't busy so we just let everyone to go to the beach with their families for a couple of days", it means company social activities are part of fitting in. – Steve Jessop Jun 14 '14 at 13:03
71

I disagree somewhat with the other responses as a first response to directly ask. I would suggest you can get a very good feel based on other questions what the answers are and bring this up in a way they don't realize you are asking it.

  • Ask how they plan projects and create deadline estimates. If they have any system at all, you can naturally followup asking "how much time a week is devoted to development activities? to training?" etc, which will naturally lead into follow up questions like, "how often does the system work?" or "what happens if a deadline was set incorrectly?" If they have no system...
  • Ask what "flexibility" means. You might get a direct answer to your work/life balance question simply by asking, "In the job posting, you mention flexibility in a 40-hour work week, I am curious what you mean by this - do you mean working longer some days to leave early Friday after reaching 40 hours - is this common? Or putting in a long week for a relaxed week the next week?" etc.
  • Discuss with non-managers you meet or interact with. If you get a chance to either have lunch or be interviewed with non-managers, they can be great for answering this question. Ask about what they do for fun and followup. If their hobbies are golf or woodworking, or coding, you can followup with, "Ah, so it sounds like XXX has pretty good worklife balance then?" and get pretty good immediate thoughts on this... also keep in mind non-managers are, generally speaking, much more likely to be candid/honest about things.
  • Ask about favorite/least favorite things about working there. "What are some of your favorite and least favorite things about working for XXX?" very easily might answer this question either way. A few followup questions should get you a good answer to your question.

You can also reach out on LinkedIn or look up websites like GlassDoor which allow anonymous feedback/posts.

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    Thank you, this was the kind of diplomatic solution I was looking for. – Rachel Jun 14 '13 at 16:40
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    I don't see how coding in your free time means you work a lot. I code plenty in my free time. It's fun. But there is a big difference between paid work and playing or a hobby or a side project. In fact, just that you CAN code in your free time implies you have time that belongs to you and not the company. – Jeanne Boyarsky Jun 14 '13 at 18:42
  • @JeanneBoyarsky I said "good chance" not "absolutely all people who code in their free time work a lot." The point is to get a feel for who potential coworkers are and ask questions about them, to get at more fundamental questions. If you were to answer "I code for fun," you can always follow up with something like, "you mean you still have energy to code in your free time? you guys must have pretty good work life balance here or do you just really enjoy programming?" or something. – enderland Jun 14 '13 at 18:51
  • @enderland understood. I was wondering where you see a correlation. (I hadn't noticed one.) And it is true that I and other coders have OTHER hobbies too :) – Jeanne Boyarsky Jun 14 '13 at 18:52
  • @JeanneBoyarsky I clarified - thanks for pointing that out, it might have been an overgeneralization and detracted from the main point I was trying to make.... – enderland Jun 14 '13 at 18:55
21

As somebody who does all the interviewing and hiring of developers, I would want you to ask me directly. I have two primary goals coming out of an interview.

  1. Understanding whether you're somebody I want working for me
  2. Having you understand whether this is a place you want to work.

Whenever somebody asks me a question about culture and work expectations, I am as honest as possible because I don't want somebody who isn't going to be happy working in this particular culture.

If your asking this question directly costs you an opportunity at the job, that's probably because it's not a job you would want, anyway.

15

If this is a clear deal-breaker for you, a 'Make or break the interview' as it were then you definitely need to bring it up in the interview.

At the same time you don't want to phrase it in a way that makes it seem like you only want to show up '9-5' and go home as soon as the clock chimes.

There are a few ways I think a problem like this can be tackled.

Firstly, if you have the opportunity, you can ask some of your future colleagues how often they work out of hours. This means you are more likely to get an honest answer as some interviewers either fudge the answer or outright just don't know any more than what they are told.

Secondly, you can just ask the interviewer in a way that shows the positive sides of your asking.

For example:

"A good Work-life balance is very important to me and whilst I am willing to work some overtime when required I would like to make sure that it balances with my out of work responsibilities. How would you describe the companies priorities when it comes to overtime?"

This way of asking shows that you are willing to work overtime and that you are careful with your time management. A skill which is important when managing deadlines. It also makes sure to frame it in a positive light and should still get you your an answer on how they prioritize overtime

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    And it's the shame of our country that it's a bad thing to seem like you only want to show up '9-5' and go home as soon as the clock chimes. This should be the norm--working crazy hours should be the exception. – Amy Blankenship Jun 14 '13 at 16:48
  • Yeah but the people who want to always work 9-5 are the same people who want to spend 3 hours a day on facebook. It works both ways, except in a lot of people's minds it doesn't. – monkjack Jun 14 '13 at 20:46
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    @monkjack Just because you work longer hours doesn't mean you get more done, especially in a more creative field. In fact, a lot of the time knowing when to stop is just as important; you don't want to start doing negative work. – Tacroy Jun 14 '13 at 21:23
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    @monkjack that might partly be because if you finish at 4:55 or 4:50 you're expected to still be at your desk until 5:00, whether youre able to do more work in those 5 minutes or not. Companies which impose the strictest time rules end up with the employees that will hold them to that, in my experience anyway. If they can't leave early some days, why should they stay late, is the general thinking. – Rhys Jun 14 '13 at 22:47
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    @monkjack: Maybe those 9-5-ppl just see the working contract as a two-sided-contract. You want them to stay more than a 1/3 of a day? Heck, pay them like that. They sell you 8 hours, not more, not less. Or, if they leave at 6 one day, don't look evil if they leave at 4 the other day. – phresnel Nov 3 '15 at 16:13
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I think a good way to ask about this (when they say "so, do you have any other questions?") is something along the lines of:

What's your corporate policy on working over-time hours? Do you pay for over-time or on-call work, and if so, at what rate? Or do you offer flex-time/time-in-lieu for those hours?

It's a straightforward question that should have a straightforward answer. You could also offer an example such as:

If my team puts in extra hours to get a release out on time, what sort of compensation is offered to us?

These questions should be fairly easy for them to answer. I've asked similar questions and get pretty clear answers. If the interviewer has trouble answering, or gets dodgy/evasive, that might not be a good sign.

Whether or not they are telling the truth is harder to determine. Asking one of their current employees might give you a better idea.

  • "what sort of compensation..." sounds a bit greedy to me, and does give off an impression of a 9-5 pick-up-the-paycheque kind of attitude rather than someone who is passionate and excited about the work. – Irwin Jun 14 '13 at 20:41
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    @Irwin: I don't think the word sounds greedy at all. The salary they pay you is "compensation" as well. I've been asked "What sort of compensation are you looking for?" w.r.t. salary, benefits, etc... It seems to be a technical term that is very well accepted by HR people, and it can mean more than just money. It's the most appropriate word that I can think of for the concept being used here, unless you can suggest a better one? – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jun 14 '13 at 20:42
  • @Irwin: As far as "passionate and excited about the work"... if, after hearing about the job description in detail during the interview, you think that it is SOOO amazing that you wouldn't need any compensation for working overtime/evenings/weekends because working at this job is compensation in and of itself (and you are only taking the money to pay for food, rent, etc...), then you can omit this question. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jun 14 '13 at 20:48
4

There are several 'coded messages' in many job postings. Things to look for are evidence of dysfunction, and appeals to a kind of person you aren't.

Dysfunction 1 is "constantly changing priorities". If you're being told that priorities or tasks 'change frequently', it's unlikely you'll be able to get anything done. If you have your mind on a task, and they pull the rug out and ask you to work on something else, you'll be having to shift your mental framework to that new task. If you keep doing this over and over, you'll make little headway.

Dysfunction 2 is long and specific requirements list. If, for example, the job is programming and the specific products/skills runs in the range of 15, there won't be a single person in the world that 'knows' them all. The most that should be listed is 5, and probably better to limit it to 3. Vague stuff like 'Verbal and Written Skills' and 'Able to work independently' are separate from, for example, 'Rational Rose' and 'Telerik'.

There are ads in this part of the country where we are informed that the developer area has foosball and ping pong. I didn't mess with that stuff in my 20's, much less in my 50's. Is this an implicit sign of age discrimination?

  • I +1ed for the crazy bullet list. Never a good sign, IMO. Critical thinking fail. – Erik Reppen Jun 16 '13 at 7:29
2

I would ask if the 40 hrs is flexible. Putting in extra time when necessary is easier to do if you can come in later the next day or take a break some other time.

The play-hard aspect could be another area of concern. Is it considered: optional, over-time, or part of the 40 hours? Where does the play hard fit into the 40 hrs?

Example: It's like the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke. Luke gets them all fired-up to pave the highway in double-time. They're all exhausted and there is more time in their workday. One guy asks him, "What do we do now?" Luke's answer, "Nothing." If they work hard for 20 hrs, are they going to let you play hard for the next 20?

Hopefully asking questions about the typical work day, how they handle projects that fall behind and emergency situations, will give you more insight.

2

A job interview is a two-way meeting. The goal on both sides is to see whether there's a good fit. So it's perfectly OK to discuss something that they've mentioned in the job advertisement. Of course, you don't want to appear in a negative light, but imagine the possibility that you failed to address it and started to work for them.

I'd suggest that you ask some behaviour-directed questions about this topic. "I've seen this aspect of the job mentioned in the advert: can you describe for me a situation where someone demonstrated their willingness to buy into the company, work hard and be committed? What's it like when you 'play hard'?"

0

I'd put it this way:

I recently worked at a company that always seemed like they were in "crisis" mode; frequent overtime was normal, we often worked from home on weekends, and it seemed there was never a time we weren't on call. I'm looking for a company with more emphasis on work-life balance; what's your take on developer scheduling?

(I'm not really happy with the phrase "developer scheduling" there, but it's in the ballpark of the idea I'm looking for.)

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    This goes on the offensive and makes them defensive, not sure I would recommend this... – enderland Jun 14 '13 at 14:56
  • @enderland, I'd argue the opposite; I'm looking for a way of saying "these are things that cause issues in developers (like burnout) and I'm interested in learning about your approach to preventing them." It's also an easy way for a company to score points with interviewees by saying "oh, we're nothing like your old employer, we don't do those sorts of things; we're a step up! Come work for us!", which is a big plus in the "why do I want to come work for you?" part of the interview. – Adam V Oct 31 '13 at 19:54

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