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I currently work as a structural engineer in the midwest United States. My company, like many engineering firms, is very "feast or famine" in that some weeks we have crazy amounts of work to do, and the next week we could be out of work. As such, there are weeks where I put in a good amount of (paid) overtime. I am salaried, though my pay is based on an hourly rate, and I am an exempt worker.

I have been brought up with the belief that one does not work for free (i.e., no unpaid overtime beyond 40 hours a week). Personally, I work very efficiently and am able to finish deliverables under budget and within schedule, even working 40 hours a week (ignoring those 5:00pm fire drills where a client needs something by noon the next day). I am able to do spurts of overtime, but I know my efficiency starts dropping if I sustain long working hours for too long of a time period.

This is my first job out of college, and I've been with the company for about four years. I am not looking to leave any time soon, but I expect that this will not be the job I stick with my entire life. So far, I have been satisfied with the job (and the paid overtime).

However, I know that many engineering companies do not offer paid overtime to salaried employees. Also, I've heard on interviews and from others that engineering "isn't a 9-to-5 job anyway." Personally, I think that's garbage.

My question is, when it finally does come time for me to switch companies, how can I tell a future employer that I will not work unpaid overtime over 40 hours a week? I feel like bringing this up during an interview will be a really bad idea. On the other hand, I don't want my employer to hire me thinking that I will be working 60 hours a week, only to have me tell them that I won't.

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    If you aren't willing to at least work flex time when the business needs more hours Right Now, you're going to have trouble finding employment. – keshlam Sep 11 '15 at 20:33
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    @RichardTingle you might find this question interesting - skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/14028/9086 - there have been, to date, no research which actually proves this for knowledge workers. The only actual quantitive research is for production workers, many years ago, and is unreliable at best. And lots of anecdotal opinions :) – enderland Sep 11 '15 at 21:21
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    Let's be clear about this, when you're salaried, there is no such thing as "unpaid" overtime. There's really no such thing as overtime when you're salaried. Not in the way those of us who came up in blue collar families think about it. Yes, you may occasionally work over your 40 as a salaried employee, but your still being paid for it. That's how salaried positions work. You work as much as necessary to get your job done. I've never worked a salaried position where I didn't get that Saturday afternoon back in the form of leaving early the next Friday. – ThatGuy Sep 12 '15 at 12:47
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    If you're willing to work on contract, you can get paid hourly and get paid overtime. Anytime that I've worked as an engineer on contract, I've gotten paid hourly and gotten overtime pay for hours beyond 40. Keep in mind that some employers are simply willing to throw money at problems during crunch time. I spent 3 months of a job with a $40/hr base rate working 7 days a week, 10-12hr/day in order to meet a contract deadline. Under the labor laws at the time, almost all of those hours were paid triple time...I did very little else beside work, but my bank account loved me. – DLS3141 Mar 4 '16 at 13:56
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    "I've never worked a salaried position where I didn't get that Saturday afternoon back in the form of leaving early the next Friday." - there are certainly unscrupulous companies that don't give you that time off after overtime. – Joe Smentz Sep 9 '16 at 20:44
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Step 1: find out what the culture when interviewing

I would suggest you can get a very good feel based on other questions you ask them. Check out here for some practical ways to learn about this.

In particular ask about project planning and resource planning.

It's a horrible idea to flat out say this, because it comes across as, "I'm going to only work the bare minimum and not a second more."

Step 2: Decisions

Once you know, if the frequency is "not normally" you are pretty much golden (depending on how much and how hard-lined you are willing to be).

If the answer is "yes" then, you have some options to work with this:

  • Try to be paid on an hourly basis, instead of salaried. This might solve the problem entirely
  • A lot of managers don't care as much about this as you think. Unless you are committing to a company forever, this doesn't matter as much. They want people to get the job done, whether that's 40 hours or 80.
    • People often work longer hours because they think that other people see them as harder workers. Sometimes this is true, but often its not.
    • Ask your interviewer about what they find makes top performers. If the answer is, "work really hard" then ask "what does that mean?" and if you get answers like, "well they seem to put in a lot of hours" then... you know what is valued.
  • See if you have work hour flexibility. If your team works 7-5, come in at 9 and leave at 530. People will notice you leaving earlier much more than remember you getting there later. It's also considerably easier as employees to "work late" than it is to, at 3pm, "get there early" and this structure to your day will minimize your opportunities for overtime.

The reason I am suggesting these approaches is you want to avoid the "I will only work 40.0 hours and I'm out" image coming across in an interview. Each manager will be different in their expectations in most cases, and so it's best to get a very good feel for the overall organization expectations and understandings.

Step 3: After being employed..

The best way to avoid doing unpaid overtime is to not do unpaid overtime.

This is obvious, yet, most people who do unpaid overtime still do it primarily because of themselves.

It turns out that many people who do this just do it because of reasons which make no rational sense. Rarely will managers say, "hey you need to work 10 hours a day unpaid indefinitely." People just do it. They do because:

  • They feel their workload is too large.
    • Most people just accept new responsibilities/tasks and don't bother pushing back, ever. If you are a person like this you WILL find yourself working unpaid overtime as you say "yes" to task and responsibility after task and responsibility and meeting which comes your way.
    • Learn to push back and say, "I don't really have the time for this right now" when it's true.
    • If you wouldn't commit to a request that might take 8 hours today, be careful committing to it in a month. We generally are loathe to signup for lengthy tasks in the immediate future but readily signup for them months in advance (??). Don't do this.
    • The world probably won't end if you don't get everything done. But do take care to communicate this to your manager!
  • Management (or you) fail to plan.
    • Pushback against unrealistic expectations and deadlines as soon as you can. Make sure your manager (or project manager, etc) understand you have reservations as soon as you have them.
    • Give reasonable estimates yourself when asked. If you expect it will take 2 weeks, don't say 2 weeks unless you are very sure of this.
  • Peer pressure.
    • Many people feel like other people really care about how much they work. I'll get judged! I'll be looked down on! etc. This might be true, but does it matter? If you are getting your work done, why does it matter if Joe-Inefficient-Shmoe works 10 hour days and you work 8 hour days?
    • In some companies this unfortunately will be important. You won't get as many promotions or raises, potentially. If you are ok with this, just accept you don't get the $2k higher raise (for 500 hours a year, or whatever you didn't work), put in your week, and be happy.
  • External factors, outside anyone's control. Sometimes... you just are going to have to do this, and unless you have some contractual reasons, it's part of the job.
  • Management mandates it. This is the worst situation. Some manager thinks, "aha! we have employees we can work extra hard and get extra value!" Get ready for some serious conversations or just not showing up.

Pushing back against all those factors is really, really important. You will have to evaluate if the potential negative stigma associated with this is worth it to you. It sounds like it is.

If you are unwilling to do any unpaid overtime (ever) you probably should say so in the interview.

Also check out this and question/answers as it might be helpful.

  • @grfrazee glad I could help! – enderland Sep 11 '15 at 22:29
  • The start of "Step 2" is missing some context ... the answer to which question? – Paŭlo Ebermann Sep 11 '15 at 23:23
  • @PaŭloEbermann thanks, I clarified, I had previously phrased Step 1 as a question. – enderland Sep 12 '15 at 0:38
  • @JoeStrazzere the reality is, if grfazee is as hard-lined and firm on this as that, they are going to have to get some sort of contractual thing in writing. If they plan on leaving at 40.0 hours every week then without some sort of contractual agreement almost all jobs will cause problems. – enderland Sep 12 '15 at 0:43
  • @DanDascalescu thanks, no one noticed that for 6 months :) – enderland Mar 4 '16 at 12:37
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It's not so much telling them what you will do or not do; it's more about learning what they do. Try to ask current employees what the "work/life balance" is like, and try to read between the lines of what they say. See if you can use your professional network to find someone at the firm who will tell you candidly what your prospective employer will expect. You shouldn't announce your preferences at the interview, but rather try to find an employer that satisfies them.

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    I think it'd be a good answer if it was feasible. Unless you already know someone at the company it's pretty hard to ask existing employees what the work/life balance is like. Often the only time you'll be able to ask that is during the interview and, unfortunately, they might not be 100% honest. – NotMe Sep 12 '15 at 0:13
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    in fact I've rarely found a company being honest about it in a job interview. They all claim they don't make people work overtime unless in emergencies, then when you sign that contract you find out that every deadline is set unrealistically tight and thus every project ends in such an "emergency" and overtime is the norm rather than the exception. – jwenting Sep 12 '15 at 16:17
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    @jwenting that's exactly what I'm saying: don't ask directly, but ask about work/life balance and then try to read their faces. And if your professional network can help you talk to a current employee off the record, then even better. – Ernest Friedman-Hill Sep 12 '15 at 18:31
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how can I tell a future employer that I will not work unpaid overtime over 40 hours a week? I feel like bringing this up during an interview will be a really bad idea. On the other hand, I don't want my employer to hire me thinking that I will be working 60 hours a week, only to have me tell them that I won't.

Your feelings are correct.

Telling a hiring manager "I will not work over 40 hours per week" for a salaried worker tends to be a very bad idea.

It's sets an adversarial tone very early in the process, and could cause you to be rejected quickly. (Perhaps that's as it should be, but avoiding this sort of blunt pronouncement allows you to have a bit more control over the process.)

Instead, learn about the company culture, and overall expectations from everyone you talk to. Ask to talk to a future peer at some point during the interview process. When you do, ask that individual how often you are requested to work over 40 hours.

If the culture or future peer indicates that they ever are asked to work more than 40 hours, then you should stop the interview and move on to the next company, since you feel strongly that you can't accept more than a 40 hour week.

Expect to take a lot longer to find an employer where people never work more than 40 hours (at least in the US these days). But since it's clearly an extremely important point for you, the wait will be worthwhile.

Alternatively, you might seek a job which is hourly (non-exempt). That way you can be assured that you will never work unpaid overtime. Any and all overtime will be paid.

Finally, consider becoming self-employed. That way you can set the work hours to anything you like. If you want to limit yourself to 40 per week, you can do so. Your company may not be as profitable as it would be if you worked harder and longer, but you have indicated that 40 hours is most important, so you can tailor your business to meet that goal.

  • Lol. Limit yourself to 40 hours as a self employeed person... Take it from someone who used to own his own company, if you want to be self employeed, you'd better be prepared to work 60 hours weeks consistently. – ThatGuy Sep 12 '15 at 12:51
  • @Joe I think you're essentially talking about owning a 1-employee outsourcing company that contracts you to the potential employer and then pays you wages. In that scenario, yes, you can set the hours to anything you like by establishing a base contract for your company, even if the potential employer wants to use their own contract, you can use yours as a basis for negotiating specific terms, including maximum number of hours per week. "Ok, XYZ Company, we'll use your contract, but we must add this additional clause and strike out these two lines in your paragraph 6." – Dan Henderson Sep 12 '15 at 16:45
  • Ah, ok then. Well, take my comment as one specific application of that, then. :) – Dan Henderson Sep 13 '15 at 0:36
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During the interview process you should be going over with the hiring manager:

  • normal work hours
  • exceptions and normal compensation
  • whether you will be paid salary or hourly
  • extra benefits (work from home, flex hours)

It is smart to know what your normal work week would look like. Also would you trade working an extra few hours a week to be able to work from home once a week.

Now at some companies they might just come out and say that their employees might work 50-60 hours a week - and that they are salary. This job is not for you obviously. At some companies the managers may lie during the interview process a bit but this won't happen much because basically they are setting themselves up for high turnover.

The alternative at a company like this is to ask for hourly wages (I am writing this with a US edge as I know in some countries over 40 hours is overtime for salaried). They might just say no or they may go with it. It is part of the negotiation once they have accepted you.

Now from a manager's perspective I have employees that work 40 hours a week and may have to work more some weeks. There isn't really much I would say if a person didn't get something done because they called it quits right at 40 hours. However... after they do that the first time and I see them on youtube watching puppy tricks we are going to have a talk on what is company time and what is their time and what counts as 40 hours. I have had maybe 3-5 people out of around 100 that didn't goof off at work so if you go that route I hope you are in that group of 3-5 people.

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    A nice quote that I read was "you can make people stay at the office for 80 hours a week. You can't make them work for more than 40 hours a week". So you found that some people can be pressured into staying longer but don't get more done. It figures. – gnasher729 Sep 12 '15 at 12:36
  • this is the best answer from my experience as well – Kilisi Sep 17 '15 at 10:06
  • @gnasher729 - that is a fallacy. If my people worked 60 hours a week they would FOR SURE get more done than if they worked 40 hours. FOR SURE. How much more is debatable but at least 30-40% more. Also for knowledge jobs the more you are entrenched in something the faster you are. When I am coding a new app it is easier for me to put in a couple of 60-70 hour weeks because I am fully absorbed (and then goof off after). – blankip Sep 17 '15 at 17:15
  • @blankip: So you are talking about 60-70 hours week followed by 24 to 28 hour weeks? So you don't actually get anything more done, just as I said. – gnasher729 Sep 8 '16 at 15:17
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Note: The question is from a professional engineer working in the United States. This answer is specific to knowledge workers in the United States. Other locales have very different concepts, and even in the US, there's a huge difference between exempt and nonexempt employees.


I have been brought up with the belief that one does not work for free (i.e., no unpaid overtime beyond 40 hours a week).

You should rethink this notion. You are a salaried professional employee in the United States. That means you are paid a certain amount per year (plus bonuses of various sorts) rather than a certain amount per hour, but with paychecks nicely spread out over the course of a year. Your employer is specifically exempt from certain laws that pertain to hourly employees.

By paying overtime for hours over 40 hours per week, your current employer is taking some risks in having all of their exempt employees reclassified as non-exempt. Most employers whose workforce is predominantly profession do not take that risk. Startups hardly ever take that risk. There are many startups that would view someone who "only" works fifty hours per week as a slacker.

There supposedly are some knowledge-based companies in the US that look at the forty hour week as being too many hours. I suspect they're mythical. The other extreme is much more common.

  • Excellent comment. One nit to pick is that "salaried" employees are still entitled to overtime pay, but exempt employees aren't. The overtime rules are very complicated, actually, and even HR departments often get it wrong. For instance, in California, at some point software developers were considered overtime-eligible if their salary worked out to less than $44/hour. I don't know if that is still true. – Kevin Keane Sep 12 '15 at 22:34
  • @KevinKeane - From what I can tell, software developers in California are a special case. For other salaried professionals in California, exempt status at the equivalent of twice the minimum wage, or $18/hour. In most places in the US, it's a paltry $23,660/year (although that may change in 2016 to $50,440/year). – David Hammen Sep 13 '15 at 2:12
  • I think IT professionals (perhaps including software engineers?) are a special case at the federal level, too. Having said that, the limit is still way below what most IT professionals (especially software engineers) make in the U.S. (even $50k is way below what most software engineers make, even in parts of the U.S. with very low cost of living.) +1 though for mentioning that there's no such thing as 'overtime' (by law, at least) for exempt salaried employees. However, I don't think the company in question is really risking anything. Lots of engineering firms pay extra for time > x hrs/wk. – reirab Sep 13 '15 at 4:30
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I agree completely with Ernest's answer that it's about finding out about that company's culture, not about telling them what you aren't willing to do. There are very few situations in which a company will be willing to alter their compensation policy for you.

Aside from asking other employees in the interview (who may or may not give you a frank answer,) another important thing to do is get a copy of the company handbook (or equivalent policy document(s)) before accepting an offer. For any significantly-sized company, there should be policy documents that explicitly state how compensation works at that company (along with benefits, etc.) This information should explicitly include whether exempt salaried employees are also paid extra for time worked beyond x hours per week (or if comp time, etc. is granted in such cases.

The bottom line is this:Rather than telling an employer what you're not willing to do, you should instead find out what they do and simply don't accept an offer of employment from them if you don't like what they do.

If you really want to, you can tell them at the time of rejecting their offer why you're rejecting it, but you don't really have anything to gain by doing that. At best, if a company hears the same reason for good candidates rejecting offers often enough, they might change the relevant policy in the future, but they're not going to change it just to hire you.

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