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So the other day my boss (let's call him Colfax) asked me to work on a project, but that I should not discuss it with anyone (including the other programmers on my team) and that it would have to be done outside of normal work hours. In exchange, Colfax offered me "off-the-book" vacation days equal to the hours spent on the project. When I asked Colfax if his boss (let's call him Schuyler) knew what he was offering, Colfax said that Schuyler does not know and implied that he (Colfax) would get into trouble if Schuyler found out. My boss also said that if I were to go along with this, my efforts would be remembered for "future consideration".

The work is for our employer so everything there is on the up-and-up. However, I have an uneasy feeling about the whole thing. Part of me wants to work on the project -- as it's you know -- coding and coding something cool and fairly simple. On the other hand, the whole thing seems seedy and underhanded.

Would I be a "bad employee" for refusing extra work? Or am I morally justified to not do the work?

UPDATE

I know it's been a while since I posted this question, but I thought the folks who participated in the discussion might be interested to know that Colfax quit a couple of months after this conversation. So, if I had followed along, it would have probably been for nothing. Regardless, thanks for the comments everyone.

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That is a very exciting secret mission :) It looks like a nice opportunity. –  user2567 Oct 1 '10 at 21:59
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If something is wrong enough about this that Colfax gets fired (and assuming you don't), who is going to honor your off-the-book vacation days? –  Kyralessa Oct 2 '10 at 14:30
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@Kyralessa Company could go bankrupt too. In real life there are rarely absolute protections against something going wrong. –  dbkk Oct 3 '10 at 2:49
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Good choice of a name... ;-) –  Shog9 Oct 4 '10 at 18:33
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Work for $$$ not free time. You should be insulted he's trying to trick you into working for free. –  iterationx Jul 19 '11 at 14:41
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closed as off topic by Yannis Rizos Aug 17 '12 at 6:46

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12 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

The fact that Schuyler can't know is very suspicious. That alone makes me say:

"STAY AWAY"

Colfax is asking you because you think coding is neat. Maybe that means you're even good at it. But it also means that if you do it, he will almost certainly remember that you said "yes" in the future. Mostly when he has another "after hours" project for you. There's every chance that "future considerations" never materialize and he tries to get you to defer these off the book vacation days until far in the future, probably long after one of you leaves the company. If he can hide the fact that you're on an off the book vacation, why can't he just hide you in plain sight while you work on this "project that benefits the company" ? Answer:He probably can't do either.

If this is one of those deals where it's truly a case that management doesn't believe in it but Colfax thinks it's worth doing, I would suggest telling him to forget about the comp days and that you want to present the results along with him (it's not for the benefit of the company unless the company finds out about it, right?). His response to that will tell you a lot about where he's standing ethically. And you could do the project with a clear conscience. That's is also the best way to make sure you get "future considerations" as his bosses will know your contribution.

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I know it's been a while for his question but having been in this situation I understand the potential motivations for Colfax to do so. At the time I did agree to do it, in fact I was hired for this very purpose and did the work as asked. However... 5 years later, the internal situation in the company still has not changed, the project I Was working ended up being discovered and we were ordered to shut id down in spite of all that it did better than what was originally there and as for the overtime. lets just say I donated 800+ hours of my personal time to the company. I know better now! –  Newtopian Jul 19 '11 at 20:22
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If you have serious doubts about whether something is ethical, it's probably not. That inner voice is there for a reason; listen to it.

A real red flag should be the boss offering you vacation days "off the book." That could easily be interpreted as a confession of intent to commit accounting fraud, which is a pretty serious no-no. Plus, if the boss is willing to hide things from his boss, how do you know he's not willing to hide things from you? You could be getting set up for something here.

Time to take this to someone with authority. If what he's asking you to do is flat-out illegal, go to the police or the FBI. Otherwise, go to Schuyler and explain what's going on. You won't regret it.

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Don't be too hasty though. You don't want to ruin someones life just because they are being a idiot. –  ChaosPandion Oct 1 '10 at 22:35
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Fair enough. But depends on how big of an idiot they're being. As with anything, exercise good judgment. –  Mason Wheeler Oct 1 '10 at 22:44
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Also, vacation days "off-the-book" can easily be forgotten by Colfax because there is no paper trail. So, you could end up doing the work for free. –  Jim Schubert Oct 2 '10 at 3:48
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You may be a "bad employee" in "Colfax"'s eyes for not doing the work, but if there is no support and possible retribution for doing the work from higher up or the company, you would be a "good employee" only to Colfax, and a "Former Employee" or "Reprimanded Employee" as far as your employer is concerned.

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First you should find out the reason for the need of this hush-hush overtime. Then you can decide what to do about it.

It sounds to me like your boss has made a mistake in the planning, and needs some more man hours to complete the project without having to admit it...

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I forgot to mention that. I did ask him why the need for secrecy, and Colfax says that Schuyler doesn't like people working extra hours, regardless of whether or not they get compensated. Furthermore, this project is not high on Schuyler's radar, but Colfax thinks it is very important and thus just wants to get it done. –  RHPT Oct 1 '10 at 22:27
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That doesn't smell right. If it was a company project then it will eventually come to light and the subterfuge will be exposed. Without more detail about your boss and the work it's a hard call. If it's conceivably something he will use OUTSIDE of this company then you are way out of bounds. I am a wee bit paranoid so I would get something in writing OR I would save e-mails OR I would surreptitiously record a conversation so that I had something as a backup in case everything went south. Failing that, just assertively refusing to do the work would most likely be best. –  Todd Williamson Oct 2 '10 at 14:05
    
@RHPT, that completely changes things, so please edit it into the original question. If this project is a success, is it likely to change Schuyler's opinion of its importance? –  smci Jul 15 '11 at 18:51
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This kind of thing happens a lot, actually. I agree with Lance, it sounds like a project that he really thinks is important, but can't convince his boss to buy off on it. If that's the case, the risk is all his.

He's making a power play, and it'll end good or bad. Most often when I see this, the manager wouldn't get fired if it doesn't pay off. At worst, they may reprimand him, but usually his subordinate (you) would be completely off the hook. You were just doing what you were asked, being a team player, and not doing anything questionable (I assume, based on your details).

Even more to the point, sometimes developers do this. I've done it a couple times. Convinced that an idea will work, I will attempt to slap together a prototype to show my boss and/or colleagues. It's a delicate line, in this case, since you are using company time. But it can really pay off (good visibility and reputation of a go-getter) if it works out. It is a risk though.

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It does happen a lot. The "off the books" vacation time is usually called "comp time", and my last two employers both used it, although for both it was a company policy rather than a personal agreement. Also, the OP says, it's a company project Schuyler knows about but disagrees with Colfax about its importance. So I don't see this as having any moral implications at all unless you're uncomfortable with Colfax trying to prove Schuyler was wrong about the project. I'd say it's more of a political risk than anything else, and a lot depends on how you feel about Colfax, Schulyer, and the project. –  Bob Murphy Oct 2 '10 at 6:54
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Your boss may just be trying to do a "skunkworks" type project that will help the company. As long as he's reimbursing you the time, then there should be nothing wrong about it. As long as you trust him to reimburse that time, then it will at least be good experience for you.

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That second "as long as" is key. –  Kyralessa Oct 2 '10 at 4:10
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The real problem here is that after the work's done, and you've taken the leave, you're vulnerable. Try explain why it is that you took N days extra of paid leave, and next you're explaining a whole lot while Colfax steadfastly denies everything.

That's the real problem OTHER than your boss lying to his higher-ups, that is.

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If it's a "skunkworks" project as some others have guessed, I would tell Colfax (I love the codenames :p) that you don't want to take the time off, but that you do want to be in the meeting when the (presumably successful) project is presented to Colfax's bosses.

Now, I wouldn't tell Colfax, but the reason I would do this is because you want to make sure that at least some of the credit for doing the work goes to you, not to Colfax. Skunkworks projects are common, where people work on prototypes or proofs-of-concepts in their own time because their boss doesn't think it's worth the effort. If this is what Colfax is doing, and he's just getting you to do the work instead of doing it himself, then you don't want him to take your work and get all of the credit for it (he should get some for coming up with the idea in the first place, perhaps).

But you need to use your best judgement. If you think the project is iffy (doesn't sound like it) then definitely stay away. But if it's really going to benefit the company as a whole, then don't be scared to take a risk.

It all depends on the precise nature of the work, of course...

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The whole thing seems a little creepy. Do you trust Colfax? Because you'll have to for a long time if you do it.

You said you have an "uneasy feeling" about it. I wouldn't ignore that.

I try to avoid putting my future in one person's (not mine) hands.

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I somehow get the feeling that, although the work is for the company's client, your boss made side arangements with the client. That he found out that something was too expensive for the client by your company's pricing policy so he ofered him a side deal for smaller price. Of course, your boss wouldn't do any work (that would be your job) and would collect all the money and in return he would give you a bonus days off. If you're caught doing it, you'll be the one to blame and he'll deny everything. Check what's in your contract. You might as well loose your job and good reputation if you're caught doing it. You should go to your boss's boss and talk to him confidentialy and ask him what to do.

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If it's legal, and you're not stealing.. then I'd consider it. However that situation is rare.

First find out what is going to happen to your intellectual property. As long as he will not personally benefit from the code you're writing it might be OK. My bet is that he is using his position of authority to get some personal endeavors done so that he may make a profit.

The truth is that if he profits from your work (by a side business), and your compensation is time off from your day job, that is stealing. You don't want to open that can of worms. Because this individual is a boss, has been appointed by your copmany power that a friend or colleague may not have that creates a conflict of interest and may be something that your HR department would be very interested in hearing about.

Do share what you decide to do with this thread (and any potential outcome) I'm curious

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Given your description, I would see it as an opportunity. It's not a tremendous amount of hour - just do the work and don't take the compensation in time. This way you don't take any risk since Colfax asked you do this work.

The possible win is a bonus or perhaps Colfax can push your career. In terms of loss, you can only lose the hours you invested in a cool project.

If you refuse Colfax will definitely not like you.

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