70

So I've been working for a company a bit over 2 years.

The company has always been small. We lost a guy 6 months ago to a new job, and I expected that we were going to hire a replacement for him, but this hasn't happened.

Lately, say the past two months, there has been a ton of extra work and I've been asked to work overtime almost constantly. I've had to work (several) entire days of overtime (like 9+ hours), several hours overtime multiple times a week, etc. At first I was ok with it - I mean, overtime happens, and sometimes things can be so crazy that even an entire day of it has to happen. I get that.

But at this point I've now worked probably 50-60 hours of overtime in the past couple months (if not more), without any corresponding pay raise or mention that I should take a vacation (while vacation time is part of my compensation package, it is tacitly discouraged).

My question is - how do you figure out if you're on a "Death March"? Basically a time when the company has seriously misjudged or promised something that is essentially unsustainable. I don't want to just immediately jump ship at the first sign of hardship, but I feel that at my current pace this is unsustainable - especially since management hasn't really recommended taking any vacation time, and I've received no raise for all the extra time I'm putting in.

It just feels like I am being taken advantage of.

  • 87
    "while vacation time is part of my compensation package, it is tacitly discouraged" This is stupid. If it's part of your compensation you should take it. If they reprimand you somehow it's time to find a new job for this alone, never mind the overtime. – Lilienthal Dec 5 '15 at 15:43
  • 20
    I'm not sure whether this is glib enough to belong as a comment or profound enough to belong as an answer, but you figure you're on a death march when you trip over the corpse of whoever drops dead first. In your case the point of unsustainability might well have happened 6 months ago, when someone left and couldn't be replaced, but you'll only ever know that for sure with hindsight... – Steve Jessop Dec 5 '15 at 23:08
  • 9
    Life is short don't give your time away to your boss. – A.K. Dec 6 '15 at 17:45
  • 3
    Is there any project management, clear deliverables and metrics of progress? Are there regular (weekly?/biweekly?/monthly) meetings where that stuff is presented and discussed, clearly, honestly accurately? They may just well be shitty project managers and slavedrivers, without it being a Death March. So I think your title needs changing. – smci Dec 7 '15 at 2:34
  • 2
    Depending on the country you work in, your employer can be in serious breach of the employment law. Your management team didn't recognise your overtime and did not pay you extra for it. O_o. I'd look for another job immediately and possibly seek advice from an accountant just to check if you ought to be compensated for the overtime. – oleksii Dec 7 '15 at 10:15

10 Answers 10

114

If you have to ask, it is pretty safe to assume you are on a death march.

I'm not sure what else there is to say. Discouraging vacation is a pretty clear-cut sign. Overtime for more than a few weeks with no sign of adjusting by hiring or decreasing work is a pretty clear-cut sign. And I expect you feel as though you can't decline overtime without someone freaking out or retaliating? Sure-fire sign.

  • 7
    Using feelings and assumptions in business is not a wise move in my opinion. Ask questions directly but in a professional manner. – CramerTV Dec 6 '15 at 17:43
  • 11
    And I expect you feel as though you can't decline overtime without someone freaking out or retaliating? Sure fire sign That's the nail on the head right there – Binary Worrier Dec 7 '15 at 8:37
  • I agree 100%, he's being exploited, I hate when companies do that, they need to pull themselves by their bootstraps and be straight to the point, cowards! I hope they fail – Kyle Dec 7 '15 at 13:23
  • 6
    The likeliness of a company to discourage you from taking your lawfully mandated leave is directly proportional to the amount of WTF-ness you will experience at that company. From someone who's been in a similar situation and was Stockholm Syndrome'd into believing it was normal - get out, now. – Ian Kemp Dec 7 '15 at 13:32
33

You mention this is a small company, and nothing in your description indicates you're in a death march in the sense of a project which is so large or unpredictable that no amount of extra resources will make it complete on time. But clearly there is a problem with expectations.

But at this point I've now worked probably 50-60 hours of overtime in the past couple months

60 hours' overtime over the course of two months - i.e. about 1.5 hours per working day - while this almost certainly means they're wearing you down and is certainly far beyond what you should even consider doing uncompensated is not in of itself indicative of a doomed project, especially if you're the only one doing it. How sustainable it is for you personally, of course depends as well on your base pay, normal hours, commute, other demands on your time, which we can't answer.

The company has always been small. We lost a guy 6 months ago to a new job, and I expected that we were going to hire a replacement for him, but this hasn't happened.

There are several possible explanations for this:

  1. The company is committed to hiring a replacement but genuinely cannot find anybody suitable.
  2. The company is committed in theory to hiring a replacement, but nobody personally has got around to kicking off the process or taken responsibility for keeping it moving.
  3. The company cannot afford to hire anyone, either because of cashflow issues or because the projected revenues will never pay for their salary.

If it's type 3, you definitely and urgently need to look for another job, because your job is not secure, and insofar as it is it will probably be demanding overtime regularly. If either of the other two are the problem, you should still be looking for other jobs as they're still red flags, but you should also be looking to solve the problem internally, as in this situation you might have some leverage.

Have you:

  • asked at what point overtime will no longer be required?
  • asked what the timeframe is for replacement, and who is overseeing that process?
  • requested vacation?
  • requested time off in lieu as a condition of overtime?
  • requested a level of overtime pay which would make you be willing to work 9 hours overtime a week?
  • indicated a desire not to work overtime constantly?

If not, or if you've not had a clear answer, have a conversation with your manager about whichever of these things is most important to you and/or is most relevant to the business. You're unlikely to get remuneration for overtime in the past through negotiation and it may be unwise to try (especially if you agreed to work it unconditionally, employers don't like surprises), but you should be able to establish some ground rules for when overtime is agreed in the future. Your conversation might start with something like:

I wanted to talk to you about the hours we're working. I totally understand that sometimes overtime happens and is needed. As you know I've been working 7-10 hours on top of my working week, but that's not sustainable in the long term, so I'd like to talk about how we manage that in a way that works for everyone.

... and how it continues will depend on whether your preference is for less overtime or more money.

Your goal in that conversation will be to pin your manager down to specific timescales. If they won't commit to specifics, good intentions are worth zero, and you should weigh incoming job offers against your current job as it stands today, overtime, workload, holiday and all.

Remember, they're asking you to work overtime. It's up them to make a compelling offer and up to you to decide if the offer is good enough for you to agree or to refuse. So long as you keep agreeing, it won't be a priority to either hire or find some other way of reducing your workload.

Don't be timid in negotiating overtime. The point of overtime arrangements is that the business acknowledges a cost to overtime and is therefore incentivised to avoid it except where it's truly justified and does not simply heap that cost on you.

  • 12
    You missed another possible explanation: "We've got a guy who doesn't complain when he does all the work, even though it costs him overtime and vacation, so why bother finding a new guy?" Sure, it's not exactly a good long-term strategy, but I've seen it plenty of times already - I've worked with a guy who's been working 12+ hours a day for years. Of course, he was completely burnt-out and almost unable to work at all (he was probably putting in about 2 hours a day of productive work, while spending those 12+ hours in the office), but the management thought how awesomely productive he was :) – Luaan Dec 7 '15 at 9:24
  • 1
    @Luaan Maybe he was pretending it all? :D – yo' Dec 7 '15 at 12:02
  • 1
    @yo' Yeah, that usually happens at some point during the "burn-out" phase - you just stop trying. It's kind of absurd that even in tiny companies, this can go unnoticed for years, as long as you look busy (and desperate) enough. – Luaan Dec 7 '15 at 12:12
22

I get the feeling that whether the company is on a Death March or not, isn't the issue here. You are worried that your company is making you do more than you agreed to, without talking about adequate compensation for the investment you are making.

You have given the company 50-60 hours of your time above what you have agreed to. If they are historically not even appreciate of people sacrificing their personal time for no gain, they are very much taking advantage of you.

They are taking you and your work for granted. That's not the kind of working environment you should desire to work in.

13

You need to have a direct discussion with your boss. Before going in, decide what you want the outcome to be. What is the outcome you desire? What's the real problem here? Do you begrudge the unpaid hours - would you be happy if you worked the same hours but got paid straight time? Is the issue that you want to have a life outside of work, and thus compensation doesn't solve the problem?

If you tell your boss you want the OT to be reduced, and she says, "We will get back to normal levels Real Soon Now", what are you going to do? If you ask for compensation, and she says, "I'm running it up the flag pole, but can't tell you anything right now", what are you going to do? Know these things in advance. These things may not even be lies, since the boss' boss is probably as ineffective as your boss!

You need to decide what's acceptable and what is not acceptable. Chronic 'not acceptable' means it is time to move on unless the boss gives you something concrete in your meeting.

If you feel the amount of overtime is unacceptable, then tell your boss that you're working 40 hour weeks going forward, and stick to it. A lot of bosses are rewarded for 'squeezing every drop of value' from their staff. They assume their employees are adults and will speak up when they have issues. (Of course they are also in a position of power, so there is the possibility for abuse...)

Discouraging taking vacations is a sign of corporate brain-death. Schedule your vacation a few months in advance, and stick to it. Document the things only you know how to do and share the documentation with the team. Ask who will be doing this in your absence. When you're gone, don't call in and don't answer your phone.

And never forget you're just a resource. They will lay you off in a heartbeat to make the quarterly bottom line look better.

EDIT - to directly answer the question in the subject line - "How do you figure out if you're on a Death March"...

First, 60 ours of OT in 2 months is not a Death March. A DM is something more like 60 hours of OT in 2 weeks, sustained for months. The symptoms of a DM are:

  1. The requirements change, so you never know when you're done. Conversely, there is no real way to measure how done you are.

  2. There is a sense of panic because the deadline cannot be missed. Invariably, the deadline was selected before the work was scoped.

  3. When the deadline is inevitably missed, the pressure doesn't relent. Instead, you'll hear, "We have to get this done!" (Nevermind that per item #1, no one knows what 'done' means)

  4. No one on the team is in control or understands why you're failing. If you could only code a little faster, or work a little harder... (This is because the reasons for the failure lie beyond the capacity of the team to address. They're just paying the price for bad management decisions.)

  • 1
    +1 to this answer but just one point... "would you be happy if you worked the same hours but got paid straight time?" - This question may provoke anger or defensiveness as you may find many bosses are (or at least claim to be) working every hour of the day and taking a barely sustainable wage to keep their business going. – colmde Dec 7 '15 at 8:06
  • 2
    @colmde You're right, it's a tricky emotional issue. But it should also be noted that it's an invalid argument (even when it's not an outright lie :P) - the owner is investing into their own company, you are not. It's perfectly reasonable to spend your every waking moment working hard if you actually expect it to pay out in the future (which the owner does, obviously - that's why he's got his own enterprise in the first place). It doesn't apply to an employee, unless you actually do get something out of it (e.g. stocks). That's just Capitalism 101 or so. – Luaan Dec 7 '15 at 9:31
  • @colmde I am certainly not advocating that a person make demands of the boss. The questions in that section are what the OP must ask themselves, and be prepared to answer if the boss asks. – Tony Ennis Dec 7 '15 at 12:03
  • @TonyEnnis Oops sorry, misunderstood, I thought you were listing questions to ask the boss... – colmde Dec 7 '15 at 12:38
11

Especially in a small company that shouldn't be very hard to find out. I imagine there are business plans, budgets, targets, milestones, key customers, etc. and most companies will share those freely or even communicate these pro-actively on a regular basis. If this is not made available, ask your management.

If they share the information you can study it and draw your own conclusions. If they refuse to share information or stonewalling, it's time to move on. Either the business going down the tubes fast or it is a really bad management style. In either case, you are are probably better off elsewhere.

  • +1 for "asking your management". Always better to get clarifications by asking subtle questions, instead of making random assumptions. – Nav Dec 5 '15 at 6:03
  • 4
    For future reference, what specifically do you want to ask management for in a situation like this one? I'm not sure I would know what is legitimate to ask and whether or not to worry when not given that information. Essentially, let's say you walk into your boss's office, you say "I would like the company's records on..." what? At this point I would not feel comfortable at all asking for anything specific, if that makes sense. – jeremy radcliff Dec 5 '15 at 21:14
  • 1
    You shouldn't need to ask. Weekly meetings, status meetings, company all-hands or whatever should be communicating some vague awareness of whether things are on track, or even more fundamentally whether there is any project management, clear deliverables and metrics of progress. – smci Dec 7 '15 at 2:32
  • 2
    @jeremyradcliff It's pretty simple - you want to see a release plan. You want to see what the projected release date is, and how work and time is allocated to all those features and issues that need to be completed - any managed project should have this information readily available. If it isn't, you know you're in trouble without having to see the actual data - it means you're on a "wishful thinking"-project. "Sure, don't worry, we'll release in a month or so... How many outstanding issues are there? I have no idea, why?" – Luaan Dec 7 '15 at 9:27
7

I can't speak for the state of the company, but I can certainly speak for the state of your employment:

The moment you felt the need to ask this question, you were done there.

Resign and find a job with employers who will respect you as a human being!

6

I will share that unfortunately, in the tech (i.e. software) industry, it's becoming "the new normal" to be a salaried employee with salary based on 40 hour weeks, with an expectation that you work 50 hour weeks. This has become commonplace. "The new normal" is one of those weasel catchphrases akin to "work-life balance," which really is code for "you're going to be putting in a lot of extra uncompensated hours."

I was in just such a situation, with a project deliverable in April (of some undisclosed prior year) to a major client. In the two months leading up to the promised delivery date, it was common to log sixteen-hour days, six days a week. Yes...90+ hour weeks. But come April, the deliverable was reached, and passed...and we went back to merely working 50 hour weeks...and it felt like we were unmoored, adrift...we couldn't figure out what to do with ourselves, without a laptop computer in front of our face every waking moment. Took several weeks to re-adjust!

So the ADVICE I give is that you should be working 40 hour weeks for 40 hours' pay. Death-marches are only to be tolerated if there's a clear, distinct, hard cutoff. If it's indeterminate and ongoing, i.e. "chronic," then you might consider seeing where else you might offer your expertise and services...

  • A death march, by definition, has a clear, distinct, hard cutoff. When it is clear that it will never be finished and the project is cancelled, or when the company goes bankrupt, or when the client financing the project starts financing. – gnasher729 Dec 5 '15 at 23:11
  • 7
    @gnasher729: "end of January" is a clear, distinct, hard cutoff (although even so it might be a lie). "When we finally give up", "when we go bankrupt", or "the heat death of the universe" are only those things in hindsight, not in advance. They're inevitable but very vague as to when they will happen or which will happen first. Similarly, "it should get better when we ship, although there will still be a lot of bug-fixing for the first maintenance release" isn't a distinct cutoff and should be considered chronic. – Steve Jessop Dec 5 '15 at 23:15
  • 7
    So in fact I'm tempted to say that a death march project by definition doesn't have a clear, distinct, hard cutoff. Instead it has a vague, indefinite, and perhaps drawn-out losing condition. But conditions otherwise resembling the conditions caused by death marches, might be tolerable briefly in the case that there is a proper cutoff known in advance. – Steve Jessop Dec 5 '15 at 23:20
5

If you are able to work the job of two men with the pay of less than two men, what is your employers incentive to hire? Go on Christmas vacation and make your boss realize this is not suistainable. He will either hire someone or allow the bubble to pop and you can be the last man out of a burning building.

3

Is there a specific target date that the company is trying to meet, or is tHis final push before product release (which may be the same thing)? If so this isn't sustainable and they need to either bring on more manpower or re-scale the project or go for incremental release if that's possible... but it may not be a death march.

  • 5
    In that case: the company may have bitten off more than it can chew, and may choke on it if not careful, but this need not be a death march. The test, alas, will be whether they back off and reward you after the releases. I spent most of a year working 72-hour weeks with bursts of 80, when developing and supporting a World's Fair project... at the end of which Management said. "It's September. You're on paid leave until January. Oh, and you've won a corporate-level award which comes with a bonus." Nothing promised in advance, but we knew it was important and that it would be recognized. – keshlam Dec 5 '15 at 0:50
  • 4
    I doubt it will be recognized. Historically above-average time investments haven't been recognized. – Joe Smentz Dec 5 '15 at 2:20
  • 4
    Whelp... Whether or not it's a death march for the company, you need to make up your own mind on whether the rewards -- monitary, benefits, satisfaction of doing something challenging and hopefully wothwhile -- are commensurate with what you're doing and whether there's anything you want to do about that, and if so when and how. – keshlam Dec 5 '15 at 3:45
  • 1
    +1 but answers go in the answer. – Aaron Hall Dec 5 '15 at 4:27
  • 2
    @keshlam I see it worked out for you, but it still was quite a risk to do this without clear cut agreed upon compensation. You where certain you would be compensated, but your boss might feel giving you a new phone and a long weekend off would be adequate compensation. – Paul Hiemstra Dec 6 '15 at 8:04
2

You are asking the wrong question.

My question is - how do you figure out if you're on a "Death March"? Basically a time when the company has seriously misjudged or promised something that is essentially unsustainable.

At the current point of time, you are not in a position to answer what state the company is in:

But at this point I've now worked probably 50-60 hours of overtime in the past couple months (if not more), without any corresponding pay raise or mention that I should take a vacation (while vacation time is part of my compensation package, it is tacitly discouraged).

So why aren't you asking for the plans regarding your compensation here since you are putting in a lot more than it says on your contract and you don't see them putting in more than it says on your contract. Obviously the company is fine with you volunteering whatever you can as a bonus on top of your contractual obligations.

There is a reason that there are regulations in place for large companies that make it complicated to squeeze out their workers like lemons. Depending on the country you are in, those regulations are either labor laws or internal regulations in order to avoid wasting the company resources by pushing people into leaving or resigning inwardly.

Small companies are rarely as regulated.

So you should be asking your manager the questions you are asking on StackExchange. And if the company cannot see to offering you a realistic perspective and plan for them actively working on changing the situation to one in balance with your mutual contractual expectations, then you know just why you should be rather working elsewhere.

Your loyalty to an employer should at least warrant a warning shot before you quit. It may make a difference, or it may at least result in you knowing better what is up here.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.