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I am a new manager and I recently hired a new engineer. My boss’s philosophy is to really push people to achieve ambitious milestones in their first 90 days. He thinks a new hire should really want to prove themselves, even if that means working extra hours. I am being encouraged to assign a very ambitious workload to my new employee and put some pressure on him to meet an ambitious deadline. Is this a good idea?

closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, IDrinkandIKnowThings, Jim G., Stephan Kolassa, The Wandering Dev Manager Dec 11 '18 at 23:37

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    The adaptation cost when you arrive on a project/company makes the hiree work more just because he needs to assimilate the tools and the process. Giving him a big workload and,hence delivery commitment (by delivering a lot of work), is risky as you might need to pass after the new hiree to align on the company's policy/processes the thing he delivered. Other than that, him getting more hours of sleep will enhance the information assimilation. – Answers_Seeker Dec 11 '18 at 13:43
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    If your boss thinks this is such a great idea, why stop at 90 days? You're already getting extra labor from these new employees, just keep squeezing until there's nothing left. – Nuclear Wang Dec 11 '18 at 14:23
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    I would absolutely quit at the first opportunity if I joined somewhere with this odd philosophy. Perhaps this is what your boss wants, he wants to find the people who are willing to work for free. – James Trotter Dec 11 '18 at 14:27
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    I would avoid this as a company, because you can't rely on that workload being finished. if you burn this new hire out 45 days into the job and they quit with no notice, that will all be lost, and you are really trying to make people quit with a strategy like this. – J.Doe Dec 11 '18 at 14:50
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    Mandatory Dilbert Strip - I have a law that says "The absurdity of an office situation is directly proportional to how much it resembles a Dilbert or XKCD strip." .... Actually, there is a whole lot of them. – Mindwin Dec 11 '18 at 16:36

14 Answers 14

160

If you want to burn out a potential good employee then go ahead and be "ambitious". Don't be surprised if they resign or are ineffective due to burnout.

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    Filtering out people who refuse to do overtime for free might be the reason for this policy – JollyJoker Dec 11 '18 at 14:23
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    Most likely. Reasonable people will let themselves be filtered out. – gnasher729 Dec 11 '18 at 14:25
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    +1. A good employee will have no problem finding work elsewhere. Most of them know this. There's no reason put up with crap like this from an employer. – Lee Abraham Dec 11 '18 at 14:29
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    @LeeAbraham I would disagree with this statement in general. Maybe in your industry that's true but lots of good employees will have problems finding work when their industry is in a downturn or flooded with qualified people. A good friend of mine was recently laid off and has heard several variations on the phrase "you are very employable but we don't have enough business to expand right now". Not every industry is thriving right now. – Myles Dec 11 '18 at 15:58
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    @myles no... The best workers are at an advantage no matter what. If your employment procedures are by design filtering out the best workers, it was probably designed by managers that was through the same kind of filtering process... – Stian Yttervik Dec 11 '18 at 16:20
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The problem with this approach is that the new employee doesn't know your organisation and doesn't know that the first 90 days are considered "special" by you.

What would you think if you started a new job and your workload was so big that it required you to work 11h/day?

Personally, I would think the organisation doesn't know what work-life balance is, can't plan well and/or misled me on purpose during the recruitment process and I would consider quitting unless I was paid much, much more than in other jobs.

Even if I didn't quit, this would influence my perception of the company. There are companies famous for working long hours. But when accepting an offer from there you know what you will get. I expect other companies to warn me during the recruitment process if they want me to work more than what I have in my work contract. This way I can take an informed decision whether it makes sense for me to work so much for the salary offered.

51

My boss’s philosophy is to really push people to achieve ambitious milestones in their first 90 days.

... and the unspoken part is:

... and then we mentally set the productivity baseline for that employee by what they were able to achieve in the first 90 days.

I mean, it's already bad enough that you're giving the employee a terrible first impression of your company ("What? I just started here and you want me working 11 hours a day? Okay, back to the job hunt!") but this is extra messed up due to the anchoring bias.

Basically, it's human nature from that point on to judge the employee's productivity based on this initial datapoint. So not only did they kill themselves in the first 90 days, but they screwed themselves over for the rest of their career there.

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Check out The Onboarding Checklist by Manager Tools. It‘s a free, multi-part podcast episode that tackles this exact question.

In short: Definitely no, your main focus should be making the employee as effective as possible as a part of the organization. They have already proven themselves by having been selected in a (hopefully rigorous) interview process.

Edit, as some answerers link amount of hours worked to effectivity:

Effectivity is the ability to produce a desired result. Nothing more, nothing less. A person joining an organization, by definition, usually needs 60 to 120 days to be maximally effective. 2 to 4 months. Why is that? It is not a lack of their innate skills, it is not an inability to hit the ground running; it is the relationships that you have to build, the level of trust that you have to reach with peers, direct reports, and line managers, the written and unspoken rules of the organization that you have to learn. I am not saying that you cannot be effective in 2 weeks. If that is true, that is amazing. I am not saying that your direct report is stupid if they need a bit more time. For humans, it usually takes 90 days to build those trusting relationships. It's just that. A time-tested average. Dodo's might be quicker to trust, but humans seem to have evolved to this rough time frame. Every day that you, as a line manager, can speed up this process and give your direct report a head start, is a net win for the organization and will have a lasting benefit on your career.

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    And an important note: "Effectiveness".=/= "Number of hours worked" And also: "Effectiveness" + X. =/= "Number of Hours Worked" Your workplace is not a manufacturing line. Therefore the output is not a manufactured number. – Zibbobz Dec 11 '18 at 17:11
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    @Zibbobz, You're right -- it is not a manufacturing line. For software developers, it's all about keystrokes, the ultimate deliverable. The more keystrokes we deliver, the better. :-D (to be clear about my tongue-in-cheek comment, I agree with you) – donjuedo Dec 11 '18 at 22:18
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I don’t work extra hours unless you pay. If it’s not important enough to pay me, then it’s not important. There are more employers out there for a good engineer, and I definitely won’t set any bad precedent in my first three months.

Tell your boss from me: Thanks, but no thanks.

  • What if the "extra hours" mentioned in the question were indeed paid hours? Does that change your answer at all? – Cypher Dec 11 '18 at 18:47
  • And what if the "extra hours" come from work in new set up where everything takes let's say +30-70% more time than it takes to seasoned colleagues? – miroxlav Dec 11 '18 at 20:26
  • +1 for "If it’s not important enough to pay me, then it’s not important." – Hans1984 Dec 12 '18 at 8:53
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No.

  • A good engineer will leave. Period.
  • A mediocre engineer will try their best for 90 days; subsequently failing or burning out or both, they will then either leave or not care enough to ever do a truly good job.
  • A bad engineer will eagerly "impress" you with how hard they work, making a mess, resulting in everything taking 10x longer. Look how hard they work!

The result of practices such as this is to gather poor engineers or coerce good engineers who stayed into behaving as poor engineers. Cost and schedule overruns are guaranteed.

Let me say this loud and clear: an Engineer cannot work faster.

If you tell them to work more, their mental abilities will degrade, resulting in mistakes that cancel the additional time spent on the task.

If you tell them to work faster, they will cut corners to meet deadlines. These cut corners will result in future work becoming more difficult to accomplish, thus negating the benefit of being "faster"

9

Yet another problem (in addition to those others have pointed out) why this is a bad idea: As an experienced employee you’ll tend to underestimate how hard work is for a new employee. They don’t know the tools, people, workflow, project history …

A task which takes you one day can easily take a new employee a whole week. First they might not know where the files are located, then they might not have permissions to access them, might not know your IDE, might not know how to debug failing integration checks, might not know whom to contact to resolve any of those issues …

There is a reason why hiring and training new employees is expensive. Don’t even expect productive work within the first 30 days.

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My boss’s philosophy is to really push people... in their first 90 days... I am being encouraged to assign a very ambitious workload to my new employee and put some pressure on him to meet an ambitious deadline.

Is this a good idea?

Not in my opinion.
Assuming you already believe you don't have a choice (like talking your boss out of this), I'd say that you are a new manager, and if you want to stay one you don't have much choice than to do what it appears you have been directly ordered to do.

I would tell the new hire, "My boss X really likes to give an opportunity for people to shine in their first 90 days, so I'm assigning you project Y at his recommendation. I will work closely with you and help you. I just want you to know it is a stretch project and not to get discouraged. It will be tough but we think you can do it."

At least that's what I hope I would do - I'm sure you can see some pitfalls in coming clean with the new person (like if they disclosed what you said it might reflect badly on new manager 'Jeff').

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In general I'm in full agreement with other answers that this is a bad idea but there are a couple of important exceptions.

If you are hiring a specialist who should be able to hit the ground running on a specific problem expecting significant progress on that problem wouldn't be insane. The key to this case is the definition of "ambitious milestone". Metaphorically if everyone else is moving the mountain by shovel and your expert comes in with a payloader then moving the mountain could be considered an appropriate ambitious milestone in that it's something that wouldn't get done without them.

This can be a really tricky one because you really need to understand what that specialist needs to work at full capacity. Odds are good that most hires of specialists are not going to be in situations where they can hit the ground running, that it will take them some time to get things set up and understand your constraints so they can work to their full potential.

As a sports example from football if you hire a new placekicker expecting them to play to their full capacity basically from their hire date isn't a huge stretch as the differences between what they've done and what you are asking them to do is minimal BUT hiring a quarterback and expecting them to play to their full potential immediately is downright foolish as their success is completely dependent on understanding specifics of your organization.

The other edge case comes around the type of ambitious milestone. If these are company integration expectations then this is a really good thing. I would suggest goals along the lines of relationships building with your key stakeholders, learning how to navigate difficult company processes, or identifying the pain points in interdepartmental interactions and (privately) proposing solutions. These all require effort and focus on integration in the organization.

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If I were that employee and I would later find out that my superiors have been playing underhand tactics, I would be very concerned about the culture of this workplace and look to apply elsewhere.

You should at least report this concern to your boss, in addition to the risk of burning out a good new employee, which has been addressed in other answers.

If your boss doesn't heed your advise, you have to bite the bullet. Make a mental note, and if, on future occasions your boss proves generally resistant to good advise, start to look for a different job.

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What your boss suggests is a toxic work environment. You really need to sit down and ask yourself what your boss means by "Prove themselves".

Here's a scenario. You get a new grad. They don't want to get fired. You assign then 12 hours of work a day. They do it, like someone hired on for 36hours of work a week. About 16 hours of work a week is filled with mistakes.

Here's another scenario. You ask them to do something really hard. They come up with a genius solution that no one else understands. Your codebase - or filing system - now has genius code in it. If that employee doesn't show up to work one day, you're screwed.

Here's another scenario. You assign a huge workload. Really big. Double what you would normally give. The new employee only does half of it. You don't punish them and they think this is acceptable. Another way that could go is that you don't punish them and they feel some type of way - bad - about only doing half of what they were supposed to. Then they probably quit. This last one happens all the time in Engineering schools.

The only good scenario is that you give them a bunch of work more than usual and they do it flawlessly, then you give an unreasonable workload to them again.

If you did this to me and I was hourly I might be okay with the overtime, but if you did this to me and I was salaried, I wouldn't come in on week three.

  • 12H/Day? Is that realistic or legal? – Drag and Drop Dec 11 '18 at 15:18
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    @DragandDrop Depends on where you work and how you get breaks, but in general, yes you could potentially be at work for 12 hours out of your day. Might not be 12 hours with no breaks, but it could happen. One of the ways this could happen is that your boss gives you too much to do and then they encourage you to "work hard" to get it done, which is just an underhanded way to try to convince you to do overtime - from home or something - without getting paid. That's part of why I'd bounce. Another underhanded thing is that no one tells you you're doing too much work so you burn out. – Steve Dec 11 '18 at 15:23
  • @DragandDrop There's a lot of the tech industry that's exempt from overtime requirements because, I dunno, government doesn't understand tech? I mean it's just people typing at a computer why do they need protections anyway. – corsiKa Dec 11 '18 at 21:57
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When I was an intern, I was given a piece of advice: do something that knocks their socks off in the first week. I've proceeded to do that at every place I've worked and it's worked out very well for me. It sets the tone that you're someone who can jump right in.

But the point of the advice was to work smarter, not harder. It's about an emotional state and mental state that you have - that you're smart and get things done. And being in only the first week, well it clearly can't be a product of hard work. No one expects someone who just started to be working overtime. What could they possibly be working on that's so important, after all.

If this manager believes his advice is good for the employee, he's simply wrong. If he believes it's good for the company, it might be on the short term. But even if everything goes to plan, employees will burn out in a year or two and he'll have to replace them. The workplace will never really advance and he'll be stuck burning out employees and spending incredible amounts of money finding and training new ones. Far more expensive than the few piddly low-productivity overtime thought hours he's currently able to extract.

Everyone deserves a work environment that won't hurt them. Don't hurt yourself.

1

I would generally agree with the other answers that this is a terrible idea. However, when faced with such terrible ideas, I tend to try really hard to see another side to it.

The way everyone is reading this scenario is that the new hire is being set up to fail. Frankly, that's the way I read it too. But what if that isn't the message?

He thinks a new hire should really want to prove themselves, even if that means working extra hours.

(Emphasis mine)

This struck me as the odd word. One doesn't make an employee want to prove themselves by burring them. That's pretty much recognized as the single best way to ensure they don't want to do anything for you that you didn't explicitly demand.

But what if the reading is instead that he feels new hires are coming into this company with a want to prove themselves? Another answer here points out to an attitude that is inspired in interns to impress people immediately. If I were imprinted with this need-to-impress mentality, I might try something foolish to get noticed.

What if you should instead be giving them the opportunity to prove themselves, so that they can get that out of their system?

If so, it might be reasonable to hand them a task that is too ambitious, and then help them achieve it. Help them learn how to ask you for help. Help them learn how to break the task up so that their co-workers can help. Help them be the star, and at the same time realize that they can't do it without the team. Use this an an exercise to build team players.

I don't think this is what your boss has in mind, based on your word choice. But if you find yourself needing to meet your boss's expectations but you still want to make this a positive experience for your employee, maybe this re-phrasing might give you the wiggle room you need to make the best of things!

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It is a known fact that if you give 130% in the beginning then running at 100% makes you look like a slacker and you will probably never be able to give 150% so you will be stuck in a career rut.

The employer wants everyone's baseline to be artificially elevated to "maximize" use of the employee and skew performance metrics which benefit the company the most especially when performance reviews are involved.

Whether or not you agree with this methodology is your call but that is what's going on.

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