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I'm working for a startup in Germany where all the senior employees work 10-12+ hours per day. I started off like that too because it felt awkward to leave after 8/9hours but after 3 months I stopped giving a shit and just started leaving after 9, max 10 hours.

Last week my boss calls me in for our first performance review and fires me. He said that I'm at a stage in my life where I'm 'not able to dedicate' myself 'to the work' and that this 'isn't a 9-5 job.'

WTF

I was just shattered. The overtime is unpaid and no equity or shares or anything. My probation ends next month so I'm really stuck. They gave me until end of October to work at the company but that's it.

When I was stressed in the beginning of the job with all the overtime, many of the senior members said to me, 'This isn't a big corporation where you just get paid to do nothing.' or 'everybody knows that in a startup you work 60, 70 hours a week and when you get older and lazy, then you move to big corporations with 40 hour weeks.'

I'm just shattered, burnt out and stressed at the prospect of job hunting again. My degree is in engineering but I work in project management so jobs aren't that plentiful.

EDIT: There are two other junior employees who also work similar hours as me but they have different line managers who mostly work remotely so their hours are not monitored. Early on, when I shared my discomfiture with these employees about the long working hours they seemed to believe that one should be measured by productive output rather than number of hours at the desk and especially since we don't get paid overtime, there's no reason to work more hours than necessary.

BACKGROUND: When I first arrived at the company, my CEO was extremely touchy-feely, even in front of all the other employees. He used to say things like 'I think I'm falling in love with you' but that stopped quickly. What didn't stop was all the touching and stroking my back and coming extremely close to my face so much so that I could smell his breath. That stopped too but only in the last 2 months after we had a Pakistani girl recruited and he was all touchy feely with her.

But during this 'feedback' meeting, he was like 'While we are inside this building I can only talk to you as an employer. I'm happy to give you personal advice and mentor you and we can go out to dinner and talk about it, but while we're in the office, I can't say any more than I already have.'

And I was sat there thinking 'ooh and when you were brushing your hand against my bum, then you were not my employer. pff'

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    No equity but expected to work crazy hours, I think you've dodged a bullet there. Aug 28, 2021 at 15:18
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    I agree, you dodged a bullet. Either find a place where you get equity, or where you get paid for overtime.
    – Benjamin
    Aug 28, 2021 at 15:24
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    In addition the belief that big corporations are for "older and lazy" people points to a toxic workplace in itself.
    – Peter M
    Aug 28, 2021 at 15:38
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    "when you get older and lazy, then you move to big corporations with 40 hour weeks" - this is how those "senior employees" justify allowing the company to abuse them. That kind of work environment with those hours and no reward is abuse plain and simple. Well done for snapping out of the mentality which caused you to also allow the company to do this to you.
    – brhans
    Aug 28, 2021 at 15:44
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    You left a very bad place. Good for you. Congratulations for not sticking up with irregular overtime and sexual harassment.
    – henning
    Aug 29, 2021 at 8:54

3 Answers 3

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Well, lets unpack this.

In Germany, working 10-12 hours a day over a longer period of time is illegal as an employee. Actually, the employee will not be sentenced, it's illegal for the company to allow this. The only person legally allowed to do this is the owner(s) of the company, who are probably self-employed. An employee cannot legally do this and it does not matter which title they have.

Not being paid for this overtime is illegal. Even if there is a clause in your contract that says so, this can only be legal if you make more money then the "Beitragsbemessungsgrenze" (85200€ in 2021). If you make less (which is very likely) then not paying overtime is illegal and there is no contract clause that would make it legal, because you cannot give this right away for less then that sum of money.

Now, while we have strong worker protection laws and firing people is not that easy, during probation it actually is. During probation you can be let go with two weeks notice for any reason or no reason at all (might sound familiar to readers from the US). You still cannot be fired for being part of a protected class in the AGG (sex, race, religion, etc), but you could well be fired for "you don't fit here" or "I don't like you".

If you could get hold of an official account of your overtime, you could sue the company to actually pay you for it. Normally, people do that after they got their last paycheck, to make sure the company is not keeping any leverage. However, the company would be stupid to keep records of their criminal behaviour, so I think they wold rather admit to the smaller offence of not having kept correct records, than actually showing how much unpaid overtime they extorted from their employees.

As a summary: your firing was legal, because you were still in your probation period, where little to no worker protection laws exist. A simple "Employee did not fit the company culture" or just no reason at all would be fine. Even if they are criminal assholes, I cannot see they discriminated against you based on a protected class. You probably cannot sue them because you don't have any record of the overtime you did.

The next step is to look forward and find a new, better job. Don't work for self-proclaimed "start ups". Nobody will call themselves a "startup" except to milk their employees for unpaid overtime and seriously crappy working conditions. Find a solid job for a solid company. Ask about regular working times in the interviews you don't get surprised again.

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  • If they used a version control system, that should be able to prove that they worked overtime. Is there a government agency she can file an anonymous complaint with? Or file a complaint after she found a job somewhere else? Aug 29, 2021 at 5:21
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    The version control system would not prove anything. Most developers have flex time, so even if she checked in things at 8 in the morning and 20:00 in the evening, the company could just claim she took very long lunch breaks. An anonymous complaint is possible, but unlikely to succeed. Courts have accepted employees claims of overtime over "sorry, we have no records" claims from companies, when the employee actually had a meticulous hand written log of their own starting and working times. But I guess that is not the case here, who keeps such a log just in case.
    – nvoigt
    Aug 29, 2021 at 5:25
  • Nvoigt, they can, but then an employee would actually have to lie in court which is a huge personal risk. Actually, you could ask any of the senior employees you worked with, and they would definitely not take any personal risks by lying in court.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 29, 2021 at 7:16
  • @gnasher729 Not neccessarily. All they'd have to say is "we didn't check, we have Vertrauensarbeitszeit". Although I'd be happy to see some court decision to the contrary.
    – nvoigt
    Aug 29, 2021 at 7:28
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    In addition, sexual harassment is illegal too.
    – henning
    Aug 29, 2021 at 8:55
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You've been released. You start looking for your next job. This time, ask more questions in the interview process. Ask about their work/life balance. Ask about the culture. Ask about the things that add stress to the team. Make sure that the next company is the company that you want to work for and that it's work you want to do.

Alternately, assess your reactions and behaviors at this last job. Your peers warned you during your first few months. What did you do about it? How did you react? What should you have done then to avoid or prepare for the circumstance you're in now? Answer those questions for yourself, and bring them into the interviews prepared to address them.

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    Along with the introspections called for in paragraph two, I might also add that this is an opportunity to learn more about what you want in a job in addition to reflecting on what you did in the job. Do you want a 9-5? Do you want equity, even if it means working more? Learning these things about yourself is going to help you find a better fit next time!
    – mkdir
    Aug 28, 2021 at 17:34
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I assume you also earn below average, but "you'll learn much more than in big corporations". Been there, done that.

Even for those companies your working hours are not normal, in your case it's even illegal and your manager could go to prison for it. I suggest you create a paper trail and report them to the authorities. Such people will talk bad about you anyway and in Germany you don't need reference letters.

If you're willing to put in extra hours, I'd suggest to apply at a big consulting company, because you will get good compensation in return.

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    Paragraph 2 is most useful.
    – Solar Mike
    Aug 28, 2021 at 15:58
  • You're right. What I've been told is things along the lines of 'you have the opportunity to learn to do so many different things that you wouldn't normally learn in a big company.' Aug 28, 2021 at 21:34

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