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I'm a software engineer. At my job people often will call me if I go to the bathroom or the break room. They don't need anything, they just want to make sure that I'm still at the office and that I'm not interviewing. This is the sole reason why I'm looking for a new job. This wasn't made clear during the interview so I had no idea.

Phone interviews often have to happen during normal business hours. I've asked for alternate hours on most of the ones that have contacted me, and they aren't available. We are required to be at our desk between 9 and 5, and I literally mean at our desk. There are people who come around and check if someone's not there and try to find them. They say it's to prevent interviewing with other places.

There's no PTO. PTO was promised during the interview and is in my signed employment agreement, but it's actually never approved. Same with work-from-home, it's never allowed. I'm still working there because I have a family that needs to eat, so I don't have enough saved up to leave and interview freely. It's my first job out of school so I have no other savings. It's in the US, Maryland specifically, so it's entirely at-will employment and I have no legal recourse.

What are some ways to take a phone interview in this kind of environment?

edit: Please stop recommending to just ask if it's possible to interview outside of 9-5. I'm asking this question because I've tried that several times and it hasn't worked.

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    ISince you have a written employment agreement that the employer is violating, it would seem that this is a better question for the legal site. – jamesqf Jan 4 at 4:32
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    @Bakna then OP will have the issue of having to schedule an appointment with the lawyer. – jcm Jan 4 at 8:43
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    @Mast: Or weekends. Indeed, if I was doing that sort of work, I'd have my office hours on weekends, and days off mid-week. – jamesqf Jan 4 at 17:57
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    If you must be at your desk all the time, how do you ask questions to other team members? At my work, finding people is difficult sometimes because they are at other peoples' offices, in meetings or in the lab. Often, talking to people in person is better than email or phone. – Thomas Matthews Jan 4 at 19:24
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    Does this answer your question? How to interview for a new job when working full time? – gnat Jan 4 at 20:00

12 Answers 12

56

While the FLSA doesn't require or dictate sick time, an employment agreement is a legally binding contract. If sick time is designated and specified in the employment agreement, and if your employer doesn't approve or allow you to take sick time then they very well may be in breach of the employment agreement/contract.

Have you considered asking that the interview take place after working hours?

Have you considered taking a sick day without requesting it beforehand? Like sending an email or calling your boss the day of and telling him/her that you're ill and won't be in?

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    Given the rest of their policies, I would not be surprised if the current employer demanded a doctor's note for even one day of sick leave. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 3 at 5:49
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    @PatriciaShanahan see the quack and get signed off for stress - treated like that it seems a reasonable complaint. – Solar Mike Jan 3 at 5:59
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    @SolarMike Of course. It is not an insurmountable obstacle, just something the OP may need to prepare for. Normally, I don't recommend lying, but in this case.... – Patricia Shanahan Jan 3 at 10:42
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    @SolarMike I do not forge doctor's notes. No one has ever asked me for a doctor's note. I am a trusted employee and I do not abuse that trust. OP is not a trusted employee. There is no trust to abuse. – emory Jan 4 at 1:47
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    @MaxBarraclough the OP addressed that in the initial post - PTO is offered but never approved. – FreeMan Jan 4 at 23:45
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At my job people often will call me if I go to the bathroom or the break room. They don't need anything, they just want to make sure that I'm still at the office and that I'm not interviewing.

This is... extremely paranoid behavior... I completely see why you need to leave.

Phone interviews often have to happen during normal business hours.

Do not assume this and always ask. I am a junior (and so not terribly valuable), but there has ALWAYS been flexibility here. Software engineers are valuable enough that taking a call at 8:30 or on the weekend is perfectly acceptable to most people. The most generous example I have is a company that arranged to have someone in Europe interview me at 5AM my time.

Heck, I managed to get them to reschedule for outside business hours (as business hours were also my engineering class hours) when I was searching for internships. A bank was willing to do a weekend interview for me, so always ask.

Not one potential employer has turned down my request for an evening or weekend interview time if I have asked.

There are people who come around and check if someone's not there and try to find them.

Are you a felon in prison? As this entire thing sounds less like a workplace and more like a prison camp.

I'm still working there because I have a family that needs to eat, so I don't have enough saved up to leave and interview freely.

Perfectly reasonable constraint, if limiting. However, it is not an uncommon one, one which many employers will accept, especially in the initial screening rounds.

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    Correct answer. I have the same experience and I have always been able to get an interview moved to a time convenient for me simply by asking. – Tom Jan 3 at 12:46
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    At 5 am your time, if you are anywhere in the U.S. or Canada, it was late morning to mid afternoon everywhere in Europe. So good answer (+1) but not the best example- in that case you were the one being flexible. – Damila Jan 3 at 19:24
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    I'd go a step further, and say that if a potential new employer is unwilling to schedule interviews (at least, phone conversations) for before / after business hours in your time zone, then that's ALSO a place that you wouldn't want to work for. – Bob Gilmore Jan 3 at 20:59
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    @Damila I think his point was that he requested the interview to be done at 5am, and the company was able to accommodate that request by having someone in Europe perform the interview rather than someone local. – Elezar Jan 3 at 21:27
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    @Damila actually, that was when I was most available and awake and my first choice for when it would be held. It was a joke suggestion which they accepted/ – Matthew Gaiser Jan 3 at 22:33
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There are a number of red flags here and you're right to be concerned and looking for a way out.

Short of any legal action, and assuming you can't get around any of this, your primary option is to be open with the companies you're interviewing with (you're right to be cautious, given you have a family to support). They will respect that you have a job and that you take it seriously and should work with you on scheduling (before/after/weekends).

The one thing you'll want to be mindful of is not to speak negatively of your current employer. No need to get into the details, simply tell them you're unavailable during work hours due to responsibilities with your current employer. The same applies when asked why you wish to leave your current role. Be as honest as you can without throwing them under the bus.

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    "Not a good fit for the culture" is a nice way of saying you didn't like it without blaming anyone. Excellent advice by the way. – Mad Physicist Jan 3 at 14:35
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    Directly saying "I can't take calls between X and Y o'clock" is indeed the best way to proceed. That worked for me in the past when my work space had zero cell reception and no desk phone. You don't even have to explain why, just let them know your restrictions and let them offer a solution. – bta Jan 3 at 23:57
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    I think in this case the OP could be a little more open about the specifics of why they can't take interviews during working hours. Not presented as negative, just a fact - "I can't take interviews during the hours of 9-5 because I am required to be physically at my desk and my presence is monitored". Odds are some of this company's behavior is well-known in the local community, and if it isn't it needs to be. People can draw their own conclusions then. – Colin Young Jan 5 at 3:12
  • @ColinYoung why though? worst case scenario, they see you as being paranoid/difficult. best case scenario, ?? – aw04 Jan 5 at 20:31
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    @ColinYoung Fairly or not, toxic environments tend to reflect poorly on everyone working in them, not just those responsible for the toxicity. The only time I'd prefer to divulge the reason for my unavailability is if it's a clearance job (because being able to hold one is a positive). – COVID-20 Jan 6 at 11:10
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There's no PTO. PTO was promised during the interview and is in my signed employment agreement, but it's actually never approved. Same with work-from-home, it's never allowed.

You need to log and document this behavior.

Ideally, if you ask for PTO, you (and your coworkers) should ask for it via email or via texts. You really need to memorialize this kind of crazy behavior.

Please stop recommending to just ask if it's possible to interview outside of 9-5. I'm asking this question because I've tried that several times and it hasn't worked.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Wait. The longer you stay with your first employer, the more attractive you'll be as a candidate to other employers. This is unfortunate, but it's true. The ideal is at least two years. If it's shorter than two years with your first employer, it's not great. If it's shorter than one year, it's definitely a red flag, as this is your first software developer job and other employers may just think that you couldn't cut it as a software developer. That being said, even if you can't wait one year or two years, there are other options. There are always other options.

  • Go to developer/technical meetups. Network. If you can make connections with live human beings during those events and explain your problem to them, they may be able to help. When people meet you in person, they're much more likely to want to help you or hire you.

  • Look for speed interviewing events. Many of these "speed dating"-like events also tend to be hosted at night (however, I don't know if you have those in Maryland)

  • Make your constraint known in your email or cover letter. Send your cover letter and resume directly to the hiring manager if you can, instead of HR. HR is more likely to work 9 to 5. Therefore, HR is more likely to filter out your resume before it gets to the hiring manager. But once a hiring manager has decided to interview you, there is really little that HR can do to stop him. I have a pretty unique perspective on this issue.

  • Target companies that have weird hours, or long hours. For instance, investment banks or companies like Google. Target companies that have international teams and that keep weird hours as a result. For instance, IBM. Target companies known for their remote teams. For instance, Github or Gitlab. Target small (desperate) startups.

And last, but not least, go through pre-screening interviews:

If you can get yourself pre-screened successfully (which is not easy), it will be harder for HR departments to filter you out.

And finally, if your employer is that paranoid about his employees leaving, keep in mind that he may be paranoid enough to place screenshot-taking software, keyloggers, and network-monitoring software on your work computers.

So be sure to use a completely separate gmail address for your job hunt and to use Google Voice for your phone number/voice mail as well. Personally, I actually recommend that everyone does that (not just employees with paranoid bosses). If you don't use a separate email address, you'll get a ton of spam from lazy 3rd party recruiters.

And if you use Google Voice, you don't need to check your voice mails on it, you can just glance at their transcript on your phone, or on your (secondary) email. Plus Google Voice has several other advantages like call forwarding, call filtering, call filtering by schedule, a separate phone number, plus the fact that it's free for all the features that you actually need.

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  • Please don't assume that an employer must be male. – Greg Martin Jan 5 at 9:14
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    @GregMartin, Sometimes, I use 'he'. Sometimes, I use 'she'. I do not assume anything. – Stephan Branczyk Jan 5 at 10:57
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    I wouldn't stress too much about staying at the job for two years. Particularly at the beginning of your career, you get some slack for moving around and finding a good fit -- it's when you have a long string of short jobs that the alarm bells start ringing. – lambshaanxy Jan 5 at 13:56
  • a lot of direct actions proposed in this answer, useful – Pac0 Jan 6 at 14:22
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Here's the answer you don't want to hear. If the company you want to interview with cannot accommodate a call at say 8:30 or 5:30, there's a good chance they will be just as draconian about being at your desk from 9-5 as your current company. Cross them off your list. You will end up with fewer options, but a greater percent of those options will be considerate of the real life time commitments and constraints of their employees.

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7

Just wanted to post an answer on the legal aspect, because while I'm not a lawyer, there appeared to be a large amount of advice that seems false by some googling.

First and foremost: Federal Law doesn't actually dictate breaks the company is required to give you.

There are no federal regulations that determine a set number of breaks per number of hours worked. Some states have employment laws which determine how many breaks from work an employee is entitled to during a shift.

Or here's another citation, this time from the Department of Labor's GOV page:

Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks.

Second, Maryland labor laws only specify for minors and for retail workers.

Other than employers covered by the Healthy Retail Employee Act, Maryland does not require employers to provide breaks, including lunch breaks, for workers 18 years old or older.

So you're simply down to the employee contract you signed. Unless the company's employee contract is generous and grants additional employee protections (not likely, considering how horrible the company is) then you're probably up a creek: they can require you to man the desk from 9-to-5.

As for the PTO? I'd check really really carefully on the signed contract, because I have a feeling there's a gotcha-style clause in there ("company approved", "signed off by management", etc - something that allows the company to deny a request for a specific day off.)

Don't get me wrong - this atmosphere is terrible, and the company's likely idiotic for trying something like this (generally, anyone with any sort of talent will get out and move to someplace better.) But... legally... they're likely not breaking any laws. By all means, get out - but just beware that your fight with them probably isn't going to be able to go to the legal arena.

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  • While none of their behavior may qualify as technically illegal, it is obviously abusive and it may be worthwhile to consult with a lawyer just in case – Kevin Wells Jan 3 at 23:36
  • @KevinWells - oh, don't get me wrong: I'm not defending this company at all. I'm just putting out there that a lot of comments/info that were on this page are apparently completely wrong (people talking about federal laws the company has broken by not giving breaks, for instance.) I don't want the OP pinning their hopes on legal recourse, only to find that the info they were given here is wrong. – Kevin Jan 4 at 0:53
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    Would note that a contract stating that your are entitled to X days of PTO during a year of employment, along with a paper trail where requests for time off are always rejected, and nothing else is provided in the way of compensation, MIGHT open the door for a breach of contract suit. But it doesn't sound like you have much grounds for claiming a statute violation in this state – Rozwel Jan 4 at 1:11
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Mute your phone and use a second phone to do the interview. You dont need to pickup. Or leave your phone muted in your desk.

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    Given the behavior of this company, that may very well lead to him being fired, or at the very least interrogated, and while it is obviously in his best interest to get out of there as soon as possible, he isn't ready to leave without a job lined up afterwards – Kevin Wells Jan 3 at 23:34
  • I was going to suggest just that, to use a second phone for interviews but keep the other one and answer when your colleagues check on you. You just have to warn the interviewer that you may be interrupted a few times. – Echox Jan 5 at 1:05
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One thing I haven't seen anyone else mention is to do the interviews during your lunch break. Plan on leaving the building for lunch (to get away from prying eyes, etc.) and go park somewhere and do the interview from your car or someplace comfortable. There's a good chance that you can complete the interview within the hour and get back to work.

Read your employee handbook on what constitutes sick time. Many times it doesn't demand you being sick and can be used for other things.

You can also just tell your boss you have an appointment tomorrow at 2pm. You will need to leave at 1:30pm and return around 3:30pm. Log your time and have it approved. You are under no obligation to explain what the appointment is for, etc.

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  • You can always say you have a cavity and need to go to the dentist to get it filled. Other things like blood tests, yearly checkups, vaccinations or not feeling well so you can take a sick day/break should also work. You can simply take the interview while waiting in line for the doctor. Just arrive early and tell work the wait was long. – Shadowzee Jan 6 at 3:19
  • @Shadowzee I would personally stick to the truth at all times. Depending on your doctor's waiting area, that might not be the best place to do an interview and I wouldn't want the time crunch of having to complete the interview before I get called back. I've had many interviews run long because they are going well, I asked lots of questions, we had good discussions, etc. I wouldn't want to cut those short. – JeffC Jan 6 at 3:30
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It seems that you will be working for this company until either you retire, or they fire you because they don't need you anymore, or they fire you because they catch you trying to get a job elsewhere. Their behaviour is frankly disgusting. So guidelines for what you do should be: You want a job elsewhere where you work with normal people. If your actions damage the company, they fully deserve it. And getting fired seems unavoidable.

On the positive side, getting fired takes time, and you are under no obligation to tell them anything that gets you fired - if you take time off for an interview, then you tell them you had to leave because your child fell ill and needed to see a doctor. (That's not normal professional behaviour, but with a company like yours, professional behaviour goes straight out of the window).

So first check out the job market. Call some agencies. Tell them you want a new job, and tell them not to contact you at work. They should be able to set up half a dozen interviews for you, and then very unfortunately your child gets sick giving you time for these interviews. If your boss refuses to allow you to take the time off, you take it off.

With a bit of planning you should have a new job in hand before getting fired.

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  • Lying is never the right plan. Others' unprofessional behavior isn't a license to behave unprofessionally. You need to protect your reputation at all times because if you lose it, you may never get it back. – JeffC Jan 6 at 16:09
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A few ideas and thoughts I had, after reading other ideas...

I like the using sick time answers provided since they can't really tell you it's wrong. You mentioned family, so you could say you had to care for them, which would be inappropriate to ask for documentation of - and easy to justify a refusal. Another option is to give a PTO request as soon as possible, and immediately follow up the request with an email to your boss stressing that you have to take time off for "family reasons" (or something nondescript). If pressed, casually but firmly mention that you shouldn't have to share personal family details in a work environment.

Additionally, it might help (or not?) to try to diffuse the fear situation. Take long lunch breaks, and when someone searches for you and gets paranoid - call them out. Laugh and jokingly call their fear crazy. Make it seem like you're comfortable in this workplace, and comfortable taking lunches/bathroom breaks/etc. Maybe even toss in an eye roll, a hearty laugh and say "if everyone is so worried I'll leave, maybe i should be looking for another job". Say what ever fits your personality and relationships at work, but call out the behavior as inappropriate/unfounded/excessive/whatever. I've had great luck at work just by saying "this way of working isn't working for me, can I be treated differently" - but I've never worked somewhere as strict. You might not get yourself hours for interviewing, but gentle push-back should make regular work-time easier to handle.

As a final "bad idea": How long will it take you to successfully interview? How long will you have before you get fired if you have poor behavior regarding "being at your desk"? If you time it right, you can just run down the patience-clock on management.

Not about interviewing, but if PTO is never approved as you say, and its in your contract, you could go to HR. That should give your boss a good pause when s/he asks where you were.

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  • This sounds more like planning a prison break than going for an interview. – lambshaanxy Jan 5 at 13:58
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    Depending on the size of the company and the nature of the weaponized attendance enforcement, HR might already be in on it… Remember which side they're on. – user2943160 Jan 6 at 6:11
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No good company will turn down a chance to interview a candidate out of normal work hours and even do so on the weekend if needed. You aren't applying for jobs with the right company.

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0

One word: LinkedIn. In more than one word: online community job hunting. They can physically check your desk but they have no access to your personal mobile device. Interviews can be scheduled 24/7 in the virtual world. Leave the cave and join the rest of the modern world.

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