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Today, my manager told me that I must work over time to make up for a lack of planning and project management. Instead of incentivizing this unpaid mandatory overtime, my manager has made it clear I have no choice in the matter.

This isn't a single project. We currently have a dozen projects all on the go at one time, and I simply can't get them all done. Therefore, I must work overtime so we don't have to push deadlines.

  • Is this a sign of an ignorant or disrespectful manager, or simply an inexperienced one?
  • I'm in this position because of a lack of planning and project management (I think). How might I avoid this in the future? I'm no Project Manager, it isn't my strength.
  • What are good ways to get an employee to work overtime if you can't directly pay them? Good incentives, etc.

From what I hear, gaining your employee's respect is the single best way to get your employees to work over time, although you should never make a habit of it.

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Rogue, I wish I could take a plane and slap your boss's face. –  user2567 Nov 4 '10 at 8:57
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@Pierre 303: With a wrench! –  dr Hannibal Lecter Nov 4 '10 at 13:08
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I would wonder what incentive he is getting to meet the deadline with your unpaid, required overtime. –  HLGEM Nov 4 '10 at 15:35
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Please consider rewording your question to be more constructive: " Great subjective questions have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone. The best subjective questions avoid the all too seductive route of ranting and flamebait. They set the right tone of constructive learning and collaboration from the very outset, by emphasizing that we’re all here to learn from each other, even if we have different viewpoints or beliefs about the right way to handle what are inherently subjective decisions." –  user8 Nov 4 '10 at 16:57
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Put in another hour of overtime browsing job ad listings, imho. –  Carson63000 Nov 5 '10 at 0:07

16 Answers 16

up vote 21 down vote accepted

My manager told me that I must work over time to make up for a lack of planning and project management. Instead of incentivizing this unpaid mandatory overtime, my manager has made it clear I have no choice in the matter.

This is a clear sign of a death march. I strongly recommend the book Death March. It will give you ideas of how to deal and cope with death marches as well as helping you decide if and when it is time to quit. Sadly, death marches are the norm in software development, and not quite the flaming emergency they are made out to be.

An article written some years ago pointed out why other industries got rid of "crunch mode" (or "death marches") - they were the worst way to get work done.

As a side question, what are good ways to get an employee to work overtime if you can't directly pay them?

Again, I refer you to the book Death March. Some organizations (notably big-4/3/2/1 accounting and consulting firms) use a "Marine Corps" mentality: "Sleep is for sissies! There will be time to sleep when we are dead!" The movie 300 has some entertaining examples of this sort of mentality. There are other methods for motivating (or trying to) workers in death marches.

If this is a one-time screw up by your mismanager, then probably the only thing to do is suck it up and get to work. If this happens all the time, then it is his/her/its incompetence at work and things need to change. A useful quote to remember comes from the movie Goldfinger:

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action.

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About the "Marine Corps" mentality: I had an ex-Marine co-worker once, whose response to something like that would be "World War II was a life-and-death emergency", meaning that whatever we were doing wasn't. –  David Thornley Nov 4 '10 at 17:42

Work at a pace you can keep up until the end. Sacrificing your health not only is bad for you, but it is actually bad for the company, too. The goal is to climb the whole mountain, not break your ankle sprinting the first 1,000 meters.

You have to acknowledge reality. At some point you might have to be willing to say "no": the world will not stop spinning if the project fails...

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I can't tell from your question whether you have just messed up on one particular project and are being told you have to make it right, or whether your manager makes everyone meet deadlines even when the deadlines are ridiculous and inhuman effort is required to meet them.

If it's the latter, take a look at http://www.planningforfailure.com/post/1461931855/the-problem-with-working-overtime which makes all the points I would make here.

But if it's the former, you need to know whether this is a one-time wipe-the-slate-clean incident or not. He gave you a task, you blew it, you make it right by working real hard one week, and going forward it's as though you did it perfectly and on time? That might be ok. But he's going to keep on giving you tasks you can't quite do, isn't going to step in when you head in the wrong direction, hasn't provided any support for you, and figures it's all ok as long as you work 100 hours in any week that featured mistakes? You don't want to be there. Or you didn't do anything wrong, he just made up dates that required 2-3 times the pace you all know you can code at, meaning you had to work overtime to make him look ok. You don't want to be there either.

So when you get this done, you ask your boss: what just happened? Why did I have to work all that overtime? Was this my mess-up? Could we have seen it coming? How can I make sure it doesn't happen again? Is this normal?

And if the answers are a pat on the head, a thats-how-things-are-in-the-big-leagues-kid, even an I-know-it-wasn't-your-fault-but-projects-always-end-like-this, then you need to look to options that involve a different boss.

As to how not to be that guy, you're halfway to knowing already and you'll probably know the other half by the time you're management.

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In answer to your side question, people are more willing to put extra effort out for a manager who they trust. Someone who only asks if it is a real emergency, someone who has tried to protect his employees from corporate BS, someone who rewards actual accomplishment and who says thank you and gets rid of the deadweight and someone who removes roadblocks for them. A good manager is worth his or her weight in gold (they are so rare!) and employees will often leap tall buildings to keep working for one. It's too late to ask how can I make this better at the time you need to ask for extra effort. My current boss is one of these people and I would do anything she needed that was within my power to give.

If the company will allow it, the good manager at least tries to offer offical or unoffical comp time if he can't pay for the effort. He takes the people who give that effort and makes sure they are rewarded at review time. And if the whole team is working overtime, he doesn't leave at 5 pm.

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Do whatever your obligated to do as defined in your contract. I don't know how things are as a contractor, but in the corporate environment you're expected to do whatever it takes to get the project completed on time. Pick your battles and the time you want to fight them. Just be prepared to leave, because in my experience, management backs management.

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Wow! Does That Sound Familiar

This happens because the manager bid the job for less money than he should have. At my last job I was on billable hours. We billed customers at the rate of $100 per hour. So, each job that came in was broken down into hours based on $100. Therefore, a $5,000 project worked out to be 50 hours. Tasks were assigned and set number of hours were allotted for each task.

So, if I had 15 hours to complete my tasks but it took me 20 hours to actually complete them I owed the company 5 hours of overtime.

That's how it works. 95% of the time the reason I would go over on my time was because the job was under bid. If you here the salesman say "Yeah, we can do that. Oh yeah, we can do that." Count the number of We Can Do That's. The more We Can Do That's the more overtime.

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@Rogue - Because my productivity was down, I had to take 10% pay cut as an incentive to work more efficiently. I was so pissed off, it was all because they were under bidding so we didn't loose jobs. On top of this they were over promising. I left that job as soon as another job came along. –  Cape Cod Gunny Nov 6 '10 at 21:55

Just point your manager to this classic and famous blog post by Erin Hoffman. EA later had to pay $14.9 million for unpaid overtime.
Can the company you work for afford this?

(That blog posting was featured in one of Joel's books.)

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Just to add another set of answers:

  • Is this a sign of an ignorant or disrespectful manager, or simply an inexperienced one?

Possibly all of the above. The question is whether this is the person's normal MO or is this an anomaly because someone is coming down hard on them. How much experience does whoever is running the project have and how well was it planned out originally? These are other things to consider here. It may be that what was thought of as a "simple feature" is really anything but and this late discovery has caused some chaos to the project time line.

  • I'm in this position because of a lack of planning and project management (I think). How might I avoid this in the future? I'm no Project Manager, it isn't my strength.

My suggestion would be to consider ways to influence people so that you can hopefully take a so-so boss and make them good in a way. While being a Project Manager may not be your strength, there is the question of what is the process for how some things go and who is calling the shots. In some Agile places the team can have a fair degree of autonomy in deciding what gets put into a sprint which can be a piece of what a PM handles. To some extent the question here is how does one handle stress as this can be an almost natural thing in some development environments, often not good but there may be that rare exception where the stress is a good thing for some people somewhere.

  • What are good ways to get an employee to work overtime if you can't directly pay them? Good incentives, etc.

In some places I've worked there were annual bonuses of which a part was based on your performance and so working extra hours may help count towards that would be my thinking. In a way this is an indirect payment for those extra hours as who knows how many extra hours some may work to get that bonus. Other places would allow one to have some "Comp time" which is basically time that could be taken off later as a kind of swap so that at some point you don't have to work so much in theory. Hopefully this doesn't sound too creepy but I'd think if my boss befriended me that would be a way to get the situation into a, "Hey, could you give me a favor?" where I'd be asked to work X extra hours that is done out of kindness or as part of building the friendship. If anyone is wondering about the creepiness that can be seen when someone is just trying to manipulate the situation and seems fake for trying to make a friend in bad times and then disrespect one in good times as that friend isn't needed any longer. Another way to get some to do overtime is the bribing of food or beverages that can help ease the pains one can have in working extra time and possibly forgetting to get food or get some fluids as a reward, possibly alcoholic in some cases.

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I look at this in simple terms of contract. I have a contract with my employer that states I will work X hours per week on average, get Y days of paid leave per year, may have to travel as part of my work and so on.

That's fine, I signed it and my employer signed it. That is the deal between us.

If they start to expect me to work X+5 hours per week then either we need to re-evaluate that contract or I have every right to just refuse. If my employer were to fire me for sticking to the letter of my contract I would have enough legal recourse to make life very difficult and expensive with them.

That doesn't mean I won't put in extra time if it's needed - I'm very happy to - but if the need was relentless, I would want to see some recompense for that or to substitute leave for it. And I would reserve the right to refuse because I have other things that are more important to me than my day job.

If you are paid for a 10 hour day and you work a 12 hour day, what you are telling your employer is that your work is worth 20% less than your contracted rate. You are essentially accepting a pay cut and your employers are treating you as a free resource to exploit as hard as they can.

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Even though you're feeling raw for being "forced to work overtime", starting a fight isn't the answer right now - not until you've a better job lined up anyhow.

Indeed, it is an unfortunate situation, but there's a couple of things to check first:

a) Is there anything in your contract that states your working hours or something similar, such that your employer would actually be in breach of your contract to force you to work?

b) Is it legal in your country/state/region for your boss to make you work beyond, e.g. 48 hours per week?

Either of these items, when presented to your (project) manager, would give a clear reason why you can't do overtime - it breaks the contract/law.

If not, there's no benefit in pointing the finger of blame right now - the project needs to be completed on schedule, so I would advise to try to identify some possible solutions that your (project) manager could use to meet the deadlines. Yes, this is doing their job, but clearly (as you have stated) they are struggling to be effective at it by themselves already. Your software engineering input may give them a good insight into what they underestimated or failed to research properly.

Some workable solutions could be:

  1. Offer to work with the PM to identify the work items on the critical path and prioritise resources accordingly to meet this.

  2. Escalate the issue up the management chain to see if there's any resources available in other departments.

  3. Get some contract resource - expensive, yes, but potentially highly skilled and willing to work extra if paid by the hour.

  4. Come to some (temporary) formal arrangement with you - for example, double time-off-in-lieu, doubled hourly-rate, a new car, your PM's soul, etc.

  5. Work with the business managers to negotiate a phased release of the software so that the schedule can be met. Rather than "100% features by deadline", pitch for "100% of critical features by deadline, rest of features shortly after" or something similar.

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Looks like a bad manager but one thing is for sure sometimes we all have to give more than we get paid for. May be your Project is suffering and as a team you need to ensure that you, your Manager and the company succeed(this kind of team spirit is very rare most of the times Managers just USE thier employees).

Second thing you mentioned is.. Is it your company culture ? If this is the case you have no choice but to abide by it as long as you stay otherwise you will be singled out and than thrown out. It is not uncommon to see some companies over paying than the market standards and than asking thier employees for such thing.

Thirdly sometimes it is plain good to work more than your peers. It removes your peer competition and than you can stand up and ask for a raise/ more recognition/more responsibilities or a promotion.

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I disagree that we have to give more than we are paid for. Consider perceived worth- what something is worth is what someone is willing to pay for it. The work we do is what we get paid for, no matter how much of that work there is. If you do more work and don't get more pay for it then all you're showing is that your work has a lower fiscal value. –  glenatron Nov 4 '10 at 10:19
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You can disagree that is also an acceptable way of looking at things. Throughout my work experience I have noticed that most people who work more than they are paid for are rewarded with more recognition and responsibilities sometimes even by a promotion. So even if extra work doesn't get converted to monetary benefits it surely does earn you some points. Most bosses and VP's do work more than 8 hours. If you only look at work = pay than probably you should not event take the salary of the day on which you don't work. This is subjective each individual has to decide for himself. –  Geek Nov 6 '10 at 6:35

If you're forced into working extra time, you should be able to take some time off later.

Work hard - rest hard. That's just the way it works, or at least should work.

When I work overtime and don't seem to get anything out of it, I think:

Am I learning?

If the answer to that question is yes, then the extra effort you put in at work is also an investment in yourself and your skills. That's worth a lot.

Still, you should get some kind of compensation for being forced into working extra time. If you don't get anything, it's a huge blow to the company you work for, because you probably won't stay for that much longer. And it's hard to find other developers who are willing to work extra for basically nothing.

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Your manager is either ignorant (he simply repeats what he learnt, and honestly thinks it is the way to go) or he does that on purpose and knows it's bad.

In both case it's a bad manager. But like everyone, he can change! Will you help him figure it out by leaving?

Regarding your last question, I think that the perfect employee must sometimes do sacrifices for his company, if the company do sacrifices sometimes too. An exemple? Because lack of cash I decided to cut my own salary for a full year in order to be able to pay everyone. No one knew that, but I'm sure that if they did, they would have helped me a bit when we had to finish that userstory before monday.

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Its totally disrespectful. They clearly view you as a means to their personal ends, and couldnt care less about you.

But, I wouldnt characterize it as 'forced' overtime, as its still your choice. Tell them no, you have plans that night, so you cant stay. What are they going to do? Fire you? And then how far behind are their projects going to be?

Programmers & IT folks have this tendency to let themselves be abused. Why, I dont know. But programmers can do things that most other people cant even be trained to do. Good ones, at least. Your boss wants you to workovertime? Let him finish the code. See who needs who. Or let them outsource it and see how well that works out for them.

Seriously, the modern world runs on software. Programmers have more bargaining power than they think. They just need to wield it.

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"Seriously, the modern world runs on software. Programmers have more bargaining power than they think. They just need to wield it." -Truth. It's actually quite frustrating watching talented senior developers take crap. It happens a bit where I work - they're usually senior people who've been with the company forever and are too timid/comfortable to consider quitting. Unfortunately, the more people act like this, the more power companies and tyrant managers have. This is where some form of unionising would come in handy. :) –  Bobby Tables Nov 4 '10 at 3:49
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You have no bargaining power. –  kirk.burleson Nov 6 '10 at 23:04
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+1 for "Programmers & IT folks have this tendency to let themselves be abused". It's unbelievably true and seems to be a global phenomena. I think one of the reasons this happens is the lack of social skills with most devs. –  Jas Dec 14 '10 at 2:16
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@kirk.burleson Agreed. As much as I hate to admit it being a programmer, I think we actually are far needier as a group than most others. I don't see Accountants demanding flex time, casual dress and free soft drinks. I've never another group of people so determined that they shouldn't have to work overtime. –  Mike M. Feb 25 '11 at 21:50

You do have a choice in the matter - you can leave if it's not worth it !

To answer the question: If you had promised a certain project by a certain date, and it is running late even though there were no forces outside your control why it may be late - then perhaps said manager may have a point. That is about the only reason I can think of that overtime could be 'expected' since its just about making good on a promise.

Any other reason and it sounds like the manager is on a power trip.

As a side question, what are good ways to get an employee to work overtime if you can't directly pay them?

Gain respect, and people will do things for you and actually enjoy it.

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+1 for "Gain respect, and people will do things for you and actually enjoy it." I've been fortunate to have 2 jobs in my past that were pretty crappy jobs, but due to my managers I enjoyed working and put in all kinds of extra effort/work during crunch periods because of the mutual respect we had for eachother. –  Steve Evers Nov 4 '10 at 3:05
Is this a sign of an ignorant manager or just a disrespectful one?

It's a sign of an ignorant, disrespectful asshole who is pushing your limits (and probably other developers too) to see how far he can abuse you for his own interest (promotion in the company, salary bonus..).

Either say no, or leave the company. Oh, and make sure you leave a letter for the upper mgmt. (the guys above your mgr.) explaining why exactly you left.

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"Oh, and make sure you leave a letter for the upper mgmt." - I wouldn't. Doing things like that can come back to haunt you. –  Stephen C Nov 4 '10 at 6:28

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