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Is it ethical for a manager/supervisor to ask you to do some task that they consider menial or trivial on your own time?

For example, when a software developer starts a new position, they need to set up their new computer and development environment. Usually this consists of installing all the software you need, setting up preferences, and arranging all the little nuances of the machine to be how you need them to be in order to work. Realistically, this can take up the first few days at a new position to get everything ready and just right. Is it ethical if your supervisor tells you that you need to do this on your own time or at home, and that you need to be ready to spend all time at the office doing "actual work"?

Or for any other type of salaried job: "you need to go over these reports at home or on your commute because office time is for meeting with and consulting the clients"; "you need to reorganize your file cabinets during your lunch break instead of before the morning meeting"; etc.

I guess there is a thin line between this and working actual overtime. But the kicker is that supervisor wants you spend your own time doing tasks that they don't consider part of your actual job, but in reality they are tasks that are crucial and required to do your job.

So is it ethical for a supervisor or manager to ask these things of you? If not, what's the best way to go about "confronting" them to tell them that you feel these tasks are part of your actual work even though they don't?

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    I guess there is a thin line between this and working actual overtime. There is absolutely no line. You are paid for x hours of work. If the manager wants you to do some task, it is work and it counts against those x hours, or counts as overtime. – SJuan76 Oct 28 '14 at 22:10
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    @SJuan76: That's not true. Many (Most?) salaried position (at least in the U.S.) do not keep track of hours worked. You are simply paid X dollars per year to do your job. – istrasci Oct 28 '14 at 22:29
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    heh. if you won't keep track of your hours, how do you argue your bonus? also, consider san fran for your next ft gig. – bharal Oct 29 '14 at 0:22
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    If it takes a few days to get your computer set up to do real work, exactly what 'real work' does he expect you to be able to do on your first day in the office? – DJClayworth Oct 29 '14 at 14:19
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    Many companies don't take exact hours worked for salaried positions, but no good company truly expects you to do things on your own time. A little unpaid overtime occasionally may be part of the responsibilities (and is likely compensated in a professional level salary) but if he's constantly expecting you to do things in your personal time, you need to evaluate whether you have any real work-life balance, and whether you're being compensated enough for working significant hours above a typical 35-40 per week. For $100k/yr that might be acceptable to you, for $15k/yr it isn't. – Jon Story Feb 5 '15 at 16:31
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I'm going to assume you're considering salaried employees only, since it would be illegal in most places to even think about doing something like this with hourly employees. You get paid for the hours you work, period.

When you're a salaried employee, there will be some non-zero amount of work to do outside of traditional working hours. It can come from a variety of sources, and honestly, the sources are much less important than the motivations. Ask yourself the following questions:

Are the extra hours a result of something you did or didn't do?

  • If you're often doing work after hours for something you didn't get done during the time assigned or expected, you may have too heavy of a workload or a workload not suited for your skill set. Get in touch with your manager to work this problem out before it interferes with deliverables.

Are the extra hours a result of a missed or approaching deadline?

  • Welcome to professional development. Deadlines get missed, and projects always take longer than you expect, even when you take into account that they take longer than you expect. You can avoid this on some, even a lot of projects, but not all. And some just can't be late. Maybe it's the biggest account of the firm. Maybe it's a project for the CEO or an investor demo. Some things you just can't miss, and you have to burn the midnight oil. If these are a regular occurrence, you need to talk to your manager about increasing staffing or hiring a business manager to work with your clients to prioritize and defer workloads.

Are the extra hours a result of a misunderstanding of your regular duties?

  • In an ideal situation, you should be able to perform all aspects of your work with no outside hours. There will always be a non-zero amount of overhead when it comes to working in any environment, whether it's as trivial as bathroom or coffee breaks, or as time consuming as training hours. And there will be a certain amount of time you'll spend setting up a development environment. There should be some guidelines about how long this takes. For instance, at my work we have a senior developer who has a handy folder with all the install files you need to get up and running, and you can do it in under an hour. If you spent all day doing this, you would be expected to explain why something took 5 or 10 times as long as anticipated. Note, this wouldn't be perfect. You might be missing some keybinds here and there in your IDE. You might be missing some project-specific files. But you'd be at least partially productive.

To wrap things up here, I don't think you necessarily should be asked to do that on your own time, but I do find the example of being a few days to get it set up perfect a little misleading. Yes, it would, but you wouldn't constantly be setting up your development environment for 3 days. Even if I started with a blank machine, I would probably be able to be committing code by the end of the first day, and I would be doing other things (filling out new hire paperwork, insurance, next of kin, etc) while the installs were running.

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If you are paid hourly, then explain that you must be paid for any work-related tasks. If you are salaried, then yes, they are asking you for unpaid overtime. You need to think about whether you want to stay in this position or begin seeking another. The people who only want to pay you for doing "actual work" are the same idiots who assume that knowledge workers are just fancy typists.

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    I will point out that computer set-up and reading reports, etc. are, in fact, actual work. AS are meetings, training, and moving the office to another location. – HLGEM Oct 29 '14 at 13:44
  • @HLGEM I think that's why kevin has it in quotes. We know it's actual work, but they may not consider it to be such. It's always baffled me how it's obvious to management in manufacturing that taking a machine down for maintenance is always cost effective in the long run, but doing the same for servers, code development, and the like is not. I've once heard "you don't see Google going down, do you?" as if Google doesn't spend billions a year to make that happen... – corsiKa Dec 4 '15 at 20:44
  • I was actually agreeing with Kevin and pointing out that the tasks the OP was describing did fall into the category of actual work. – HLGEM Dec 4 '15 at 22:43
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From years of experience: Keybindings and Settings in general should best be left to the default, otherwise you have to set them up on every single machine you are using. If you adjust your mind to the way a certain IDE works, you will be as fast as you are with the IDE that is adjusted to your mind.

If you are supposed to go through reports in your free time, ask if it is okay to do your laundry during client meetings or cook your lunch with them because you won't have time later cause you are reorganizing the file cabinets at lunch time.

Even in salaried jobs, there is a certain amount of time you agreed on. It might be flexible, but there is a limit. Don't let them take more than they pay for or if they keep demanding, ask for compensation.

Your free time is to relax from the job and keep you healthy, if they interfere all the time, I would suggest looking for a new job, it will make you sick sooner or later.

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    While I often do leave the keybindings and settings to the default, I would still argue that it's better to adjust the tool to your mind than the other way around. Many tools have a single configuration file or let you export the settings to a file. I keep files such as vimrc, bashrc and Eclipse keybindings on my github account and on a pendrive which I usually carry around. – Bartek Maraszek Oct 29 '14 at 8:09
  • Jump drive. If you change settings on software that allows you to export and import settings, just export those settings to a jump drive and import them wherever I need. I do the same with installs for utilities and and anything else I might have to otherwise download, such as Notepad++, 7z and the like. That way I just pop in the drive (unless they're PCI compliant company obviously) and go to town – Chris E Oct 29 '14 at 12:36
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    I was going to -1 for dictating keybindings (a very personal preference) and suggesting a flippant response, but I'd then want to +1 for pointing out that free time is a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle, so it evened out. – Yamikuronue Oct 29 '14 at 15:46
  • I was kind of thinking the same thing Yami. I like Bartek's idea of keeping a set of files around to speed up the customization process, and I kind of see it as 'change that keybind when you run into that problem'. When I'm starting in a new position, I want to do something that knocks people's socks off right away. I don't want to spend two days setting up keybinds! – corsiKa Oct 29 '14 at 16:33
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It's one thing whether you get paid for work or not. But it should be made absolutely clear that the things mentioned, like setting up a computer that you need to do your work, are all part of your job and part of your working time. You can, by definition, not clean up your cabinets during your lunch break, because the time where you are working to clean up your cabinets is not "lunch break".

So if your supervisor pretends that these things are outside your working time, that is indeed deeply dishonest. It's bad enough forcing you to do more hours than you are paid for, but pretending that this isn't actual work is disgusting. You cannot work "on your own time". If you work, it's not "your own time".

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Depending on the workplace culture, I can see arguments on either side for some of this stuff. In a start-up, there may be an initial push to get things set up quickly and be contributing that may mean some long days in the beginning getting things up and running. I'd likely be in favor that in the first week or so, spending some longer hours in the office may be useful to make sure things get set up properly. At the same time, there may be companies where some tasks have to be done by others and thus, you aren't going to be able to do some tasks except in the office where it may be on company time. I have had contract positions where I wasn't expected and thus had to read books or spend my time doing other stuff since my computer wasn't ready and there weren't co-workers that I could shadow initially.

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    HEy I had one job where I came in to no computer because they had given away the computer used by the the person who preceded me and no one thought to order one before I came on board. And since the Government was providing the computers, we had to go through government procurement practices, so it was a good two weeks before I had a computer. – HLGEM Dec 4 '15 at 22:47

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