My boss wants projects to be delivered 'quicker', he is a workaholic and expects everyone else to follow suit. By that, he means telling my colleague who is working out in India to work longer hours i.e. instead of working an 8 hour day, working 10 hours a day. His logic is 'he has a 4 hours time difference, you should tell him to start working at 7am' not taking into account that his contracted hours are 8 hours a day.

I am the project manager at the firm, and he is a full time employee who reports to me. I have a set way of doing things, but my boss likes to meddle.

Frankly, I feel really uncomfortable telling him to do this, since I feel as though I am taking advantage of him which could end up burning him out. At the same time, I feel like I am in a situation where if I don't listen to my boss he will end up giving me a hard time for not listening to him. I have told him in the past that I have felt uncomfortable doing that, my boss's response has always been 'He is earning good money from us; I don't care'.

What is the best way to handle this situation? Is it ethical to ask this colleague to work more hours than we pay him for?


5 Answers 5


I think that deep down you know the answer to this one already: no, it is not ethical. Your colleague agreed a contract when he started work, and it is unethical to change that agreement without the consent of your colleague.

I'll go slightly further than the above: if your boss is expecting people to regularly work beyond their contracted hours without additional compensation, then your boss is abusive. You now have a choice: you can pass that abuse onto your staff, or you can stand up to the abuse your boss is giving out and say "No". I appreciate that the latter option is going to cause conflict between you and your boss, but in my opinion this is one of those fights which it is worth fighting.


Obtain your boss's permission to give the reporting employee time-in-lieu for overtime done on this project, and follow the appropriate process to formalise the arrangement (i.e. send an email or letter outlining the same, which the reporting employee confirms and accepts).

If the boss won't approve or the reporting employee doesn't accept this, there is not much more you can do, since the contract stipulates the reporting employee's hours as "eight hours per day" - presumably there is no exception in the contract for business necessity which allows you to unilaterally increase the hours during this project.


Working longer doesn't make much business sense. Even not if your co-worker wants to work 2 more extra hours a day for the same money. Probably he will make more mistakes and in the long run things will take longer to complete.

Read this article: The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies

Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours voluntarily, you’re simply more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired — and most of us tire more easily than we think we do

Working extra might work if the work will be complete in one or two days, but even then for some professions (for example software development) it probably will lead to a net negative result.

In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.

Of-course your CEO is the one who can handle this extra work very well and with him 1% of the people might do the same. Explain him this won't work for most of the people in the world.

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    And what do you suggest doing when he says "I don't care"? Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 14:55
  • You really think he does not care that most people work worse and have a netto negative result when doing overwork? The reason he wants to push for overwork is because he thinks he will get a netto positive result. But my advice (to quote Martin Fowler) is "If you can't change your organization, change your organization!". Some people just do not want to learn. Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 14:59
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    You really think he does not care that most people work worse and have a netto negative result when doing overwork? Yeah, a lot of executives do actually have this attitude. See the second HBR article I linked in my answer, or at least the last paragraph, which explains what the consultant who wrote the article was told when she reported these results on the effects of overwork to a client. Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 15:09

First off, you should probably not focus on the ethical ramifications of your CEO's request. I don't expect that denying his request on the grounds that it's unethical is going to be an effective approach, and based on what you've said thus far, I get the impression you feel the same way.

What you probably should focus on is the results the CEO wants, which are not as clear as they'd appear to be. You've said the CEO wants things done faster, and have stated that he's a workaholic and seems to expect everyone else be the same way.

It may not be obvious, but those those two goals actually work against each other. Research on the topic has repeatedly and consistently come to the same conclusion, which is that overwork does not improve productivity (and probably decreases it). If your boss wants more productivity, he's not going to get it by imposing longer hours on employees (or contractors), so I would suggest pointing that out. The linked Harvard Business Review article could be useful to you in making that case, as could the resources it links itself. Maybe you could also come to him with ideas on actually increasing productivity as well, which would make the case for not overworking your resources stronger.

Alternately, if your boss is actually more focused on the idea that he works crazy hours, and therefore everyone else should too, another Harvard Business Review article, titled "Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks" has some insights into that.

Indeed, when I reported my findings to the organization I studied, I was met with two responses: (1) a response that “these men”—those who revealed their lack of desire to be always available for and primarily committed to their work—were not the sort of men they really wanted anyway; and (2) a request to figure out how they might teach women to pass. The broader implication—that the organization itself might alter its expectations—was lost.

The implication there (at least to me) is that even when executives were presented with empirical evidence that overwork was causing problems rather than fixing them, they wanted their employees to be trained to appear like they were putting in long hours, even when they weren't. In this type of case, the least bad option from a practical standpoint is to figure out how you and your colleague can appear to work longer hours than you actually are.


Think about others, not for them

First of all, decide whose interests are more important to you, the bosses or that of the employee. Then talk to that person first. Keep in mind that it would be good to minimize the positioning yourself as a party in this discussion.

The points of interest have roughly been ordered from top to bottom in the order that I would touch them.

What you should know from the boss

Make sure to know really what he wants and expects:

  • more hours/different hours
  • more pay/same pay
  • Permanently/temporarily
  • are we asking as favour/or telling and will threaten if needed
  • optionally: any other relevant info (e.g. when hired the colleague mentioned he would not mind doing a bit extra now and then)

What you should know from the employee

  • How willing is he to work more/different hours
  • What if it is only temporarily
  • If not, what would persuade him
  • optionally: any other relevant info (working ours were an important part of the contract, he recently asked for someone else to be hired to share the load, he has 9 children that consume all his free time).

If you are in a 'asking' situation, just put out the request and see what happens. Don't be afraid to do this, unless you really consider the employee as your personal protege.

If you are in a 'telling' situation, decide before the call whether you want to succeed and press hard, or whether you want to steer him towards potentially good counter arguments.

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