I'm UK based. Just got an offer for a job where my hours would be flexible and "not fixed", but with a guaranteed annual pay. The job is in a startup - when applying I was well aware that it wouldn't be a clock-in/clock-out kinda affair, where sometimes I would need to put in more work and sometimes where could be quieter times. I've met my employeers and I trust they have good intentions but still I feel slightly uneasy at the possibility of essentially signing a waiver allowing them to request I work fantastically long hours.

How can I protect myself from potential exploitation? Would it be ok to ask to have it changed to set a cap for hours worked over a longer period of time, e.g. a month? I'm not a fan of settting a rigid weekly limit as I know there are likely to be crunchtimes and I'm ok with that. It's more about ensuring that long-hour work doesn't become the norm.

  • 3
    Does UK have overtime work laws? I would imagine there are. Basically after a certain point, they would be required by law to pay you overtime regardless of your contract. Jun 8, 2019 at 15:49
  • @JuhaUntinen this is a salaried job "cardre" in eu terms by definition you don't get OT. Jun 8, 2019 at 19:34
  • I can't speak to the legal aspect, but you need to interview your future colleagues. Ask them how many hours they are truly working. Ask them how many hours they've worked this week. When was the last time they took a vacation? When was the last time they worked on the weekend? Etc. Jun 17, 2019 at 9:50

6 Answers 6


In the UK (and I think most anywhere in the EU), you cannot be forced to work regularly over 48 hours a week on average, unless you agree. And it is illegal to discriminate against you in any way for not agreeing to this (EU working time directive).

But then 48 hours a week is a lot. In the end, you have to decide yourself how many hours work a week you find acceptable, and what pay you would expect for these hours.

There must be a business requirement for working overtime. The fact that the business doesn't hire enough people to do the work doesn't make working overtime a "business requirement". They should employ enough people to do the work without overtime. So if you are asked to do overtime, you can say "No". Nobody can force you. In that case, the company can decide whether they want to continue without you (but who is doing your work then? ), agree to continue without overtime, or pay you enough extra money to convince you.

So they can't exploit you unless you let them, but stopping exploitation may involve getting a different job.


They've probably asked you to sign a waiver to the UK Working Time Directive.

That's not your problem. Your problem is, you're considering joining a startup company. These often require a lot of work (and overtime). If you're not prepared to put that in, then consider if it's the right role for you.

If it is the right role, then the discussion is less one of 'how many hours', and more of 'what's in it for me' - what, in your contract, rewards you for these excessive hours. When and how can you cash out all this effort (that is a whole set of questions in itself). Don't be attracted by the appeal of a startup company unless you're prepared to handle the bad aspects as well.


Long hours comes with the startup territory, in my (computer programming) experience. And the nearer deadlines get, the more long days you'll need to put in. This is not in itself "bad", it's just the particular game you're in. Hiring more people to do the work is not always an option: money is limited, and a faster burn rate just means that the company needs to succeed sooner.

What's your part of the reward if the company becomes successful, however "successful" is defined? If you're going to work for a startup, then you need the possible outcome to be commensurate with the effort required from you. If you want to put it this way: your salary pays you for 40 hours, the potential upside is the carrot for the rest.

In my own experience of the death-march phase of a startup, I've decided that I'm going to be 100% committed unless and until I'm so dissatisfied that I quit. No half-heartedness. This way I convince myself I'm in control, though perhaps others will regard it as conniving in my own exploitation.

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    Completely contradicting you here. Overtime is known to be counterproductive, so the only reason why it might happen in a startup is because a startup doesn't have the experience. I can be 100% committed doing 40 hours a week. And there's a saying "You can make people stay at the office 80 hours a week. You can't make them work more than 40 hours a week".
    – gnasher729
    Jun 8, 2019 at 20:06
  • Nevertheless, it would be foolish to take a job with a startup and expect the situation to be otherwise. The arithmetic is "we spend $X/day, we have $Y in the bank, so we need a result in Y/X days".
    – user105543
    Jun 8, 2019 at 20:31
  • @gnasher729 it's double whammy for software development. Not only do most people stop producing meaningful output after 40 hours, you actually start creating really hard to fix logic errors because your mind can no longer keep track of everything. A well rested mind can easily work 10x to 100x the pace of a tired mind.
    – Nelson
    Jun 10, 2019 at 3:14

How can I protect myself from potential exploitation?

This is simple - reject the job offer.

In general, never accept an offer of a job from a company that you suspect might exploit you. That way, you'll never be exploited.

Lots of startups expect long hours. If that's not what you want, you might wish to look at more established companies with a track record of more reasonable work hours.

  • No, that way you will never get a job. Every company may exploit you and most will try to. Even a company that you would never suspect of exploitation may start to after you've accepted the job offer. The level of exploitation can differ even within a company at the team level.
    – BigMadAndy
    Jun 9, 2019 at 6:11
  • No, what I'm saying is that this piece of your advice is not very helpful IMHO: "In general, never accept an offer of a job from a company that you suspect might exploit you. That way, you'll never be exploited." That's simply not true.
    – BigMadAndy
    Jun 9, 2019 at 11:05
  • @JoeStrazzere "no fixed hours" is how all salaried jobs in the UK are defined as it is the USA Jun 9, 2019 at 20:52
  • 1
    Sometimes the simplest way to feel out whether a company is exploitative is to just ask them about the clause. "I see there's a specification of no fixed hours, I don't mind working some overtime on occasion when required to meet a deadline, but obviously I wouldn't want it to be standard practice all the time. What's the experience like here?" - oftentimes they'll assure you it's a "worst-case" clause and hardly ever used. However, if they make it sound like unpaid overtime is a regular deal, you have to decide whether that's a deal-breaker.
    – delinear
    Jun 10, 2019 at 11:29

You can't.

In fact, on a regular workplace, the actually worked hours differ from the time in the contract, but there are deviations in both directions. Sometimes you need to do some very important until tomorrow and so you will work until night. In other cases it is not so hard and your bosses won't take it very seriously if you work a little bit lesser.

But, both sides are focusing to keep the work time in the contract on the long-term.

The most likely outcome is this: you will get your tasks, there will be more than you can solve, so you will become a "pizza-programmer".1

Finally, either you will resign, or your company will fire you.

Don't focus on the long-term job, focus to that the unavoidable separation (they fire you or you resign) happen the most peacefully as it is possible! It is crucial for your future employments.

The useful thing to do: tolerate the situation until you can, and silently look for your next job.

At the time, when your employment will be over, the most crucial interest of both of you will be to hide this un-professionality: the company will want to hide that he exploited its workers, and you will want to hide that you worked on such an un-professional place. Be cooperative with them to do that, and they will say from you that you worked well for them.

1Horror-story about a programmer who was closed by force into a garage, and lived on daily 1 pizza, until he was ready.

  • What story is that? Seems like an interesting read. And I'd like to practise my Russian. Jun 10, 2019 at 9:44
  • @Wilson I removed mentioning the actual country as non-important. I've heard it verbally, in the early 2000s, from a trustable source. It was a nearly-failed IT project by a single contractor. Some out-of-law outcomes had been also possible, however punishing the programmer had not made him to get ready with the task. And the customer needed the work. The actual story had probably happened in the late nineties. Unlikely that you will find it on the net. The "pizza-programmer" is now the synonym of failed IT projects where the programmers are working for food.
    – Gray Sheep
    Jun 16, 2019 at 10:10

This prospect of long hours is inevitable in startups. You have good intuition about a rhythm alternating between ordinary and crunch workload. That will certainly happen.

You say you trust the intentions of the founders. That's good! If you didn't you would reject their job offer and never look back.

You trust them. I suggest you also trust yourself to negotiate if the workload becomes oppressive. You'll be doing them a favor by drawing their attention to the problem. Doing things at a breakneck pace can cause broken necks and threaten the business. It's easy for founders to lose perspective on this.

I speak from experience as a founder. An early employee pushed back on me when I was pushing the crew too hard. Giving people a break improved our quality.

These founders aren't the prison guards in the film Cool Hand Luke. They're your future colleagues.

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