Why I Don't Do Unpaid Overtime and Neither Should You

As a programmer in the U.S. for 30 years now I have spent some of that time working more than 40 hours in a week, which is not all that common in this industry, and when I was salaried I rarely if ever got more pay.

No more, I now find the whole idea nauseating.

I am not talking about running your own business, or working at a startup or other business entity where working more hours might get you a big payout. I ran two small software companies from the mid 80's to 90's and we did work a lot of hours; but all of us shared in whatever we made and in the second company worked under contract so the more we worked the more we got. But that's not the point of this post.

If I worked at some big technology company and agreed to some salary, my expectation is that I am being paid to do my best for a standard work week, which is generally considered (at least in the U.S.) to be 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. If they told me I have to work 70 hours a week, or some manager expected the team to show up 7 days a week, I would refuse today. Why?

When we agree to work for money, the assumption is that the primary reason we work is in exchange for that which we need to pay bills, buy stuff, etc. The employer's expectation is that they will receive value for the the money paid. The problem, especially in the US and in Asia, is that the employer's concept for value is often very different than the employee's. Many companies expect that a salary is a fixed amount but that the work to be done for them to receive value is variable. The employer assumes they can increase the value they are receiving from the employee by expecting, assuming or demanding more work to be done; in this way they can essentially reduce the cost of the labor by simply getting more hours out of each salary.

What does this mean for the employee? If you agree to this you are essentially agreeing to work for less. You could even calculate it as working for free. What benefit do you as the employee gain for this free work? At most large employers you get -- nothing. Maybe if you are a manager you might get a promotion but as a programmer there are generally few ways to advance without becoming a manager. If you bust your butt for 80 hours a week writing code for months at a time the reward is generally the same as if you worked hard 40 hours a week.

In some industries like AAA gaming studios crunch time can be a hellish experience trying to ship a big game. Then you read a lot of stories where people worked enormous hours only to be laid off soon after the ship date. Sure, now you can rest, but at what cost and with what benefit?

Now imagine yourself as a contractor (which I am at the moment). If you are asked to work more than the agreed upon time the company is billed and the contractor paid. Maybe nothing extra but it's not less than normal. Now you are actually getting value for your work. The odd thing about this is that companies are of course paying way more for your time than what you are getting so sometimes they won't allow a contractor to work overtime. Why should they if they can simply demand an employee to do it for nothing? Or even have the employee volunteer.

American workers generally get an average of 10 days paid vacation a year, sometimes with a few extra sick days; but a full time American worker averages taking only 5-7 days a year. In most parts of the world, and especially in Europe the government mandates 20-30 days per year, and in most cases people take most of their time. In many countries working overtime is unusual and unpaid overtime is rare or may even be illegal. People value having a life outside of work and the thought of slaving away for their employer for nothing is unimaginably stupid to them. Yet we in the US (and in many parts of Asia as well) often think nothing of it.

I once had a friend who's boss expected her to have her Blackberry on and respond to any request 24x7 as soon as possible. After a year of this one day she refused and quit. Her boss was livid that she wouldn't do it anymore. Yet in all that time she got no additional pay of any kind. Why do we do this?

One big difference between the U.S. and Europe is that in the U.S. health insurance is generally tied to your employer, something that exists virtually no where else. If you lose your job you may have to pay a lot more (COBRA) for a limited time; even if you get a new job your coverage might not start for as long as 6 months. So the fear of losing your job and its health coverage might make you more likely to accept longer free hours. It's almost as if the system was designed to keep you from switching employers (especially if you have a family). In Europe your health is not tied to your employment in any way. If companies want to keep a valuable employee they have to do something positive and entice them to stick around. Many European countries (and the Eurozone) also make it difficult to expect or even ask for free overtime.

Another side effect of free overtime is that fewer workers will be hired. If you can routinely get your employees to work 60 or 80 hours a week you don't need to hire more. But for the employee's what is the benefit? In most cases nothing.

My point is that if you are paying me and I give you good work for 40 hours and someone else is willing to work 60 or 80 hours, are they more valuable and I less? Should I be fired for failing to devote my entire life to my job? Is the person willing to working twice as many hours actually delivering twice as much value as I am? You could argue that if the company were billing by the hour then the 80 hour person is twice as valuable but that's looking at it from the employer's point of view only. The employee is producing more value in this case (more income for the company) but is receiving nothing in return. Sure you could get rid of me and find more of them (and companies routinely do this) but I find this modern concept of "slavery" highly unappealing.

Life is more to me than working all the time. This is definitely a European idea, that work cannot and should not be the entire reason for living. It's a very pro business view in the US however, that companies cannot succeed if they have to pay for every hour someone works, that they will fail if people take 20 days of vacation every year, that an employee's life is worth little more than a collection of working hours.

One interesting fact I heard from the Steve Jobs story. A few weeks before the iPhone shipped Steve demanded that they switch to glass instead of plastic screens, so they called up the manufacturer in China, who promptly woke up thousands of workers, gave each a biscuit and a cup of tea and had them start working 12 hour days continuously until the iPhone shipped. An amazing story. But it is also a sad story, that people are happy to surrender their lives so easily (though I believe they are paid by the hour at least) just to have a job. Of course I can hear employers using this story to encourage similar devotion - "if you don't work 80 hours a week someone else will take your job in China". Yet companies succeed in countries where this would evoke laughter.

Economics is a complex "science" and I am not going to argue with it. But from an individual worker's point of view, a unit of work is worth a unit of money. I have skills and a company has a need and I can be a valuable worker but there is a limit. I can't speak for you or your situation but for me my capacity or desire for work is a limited resource. Maybe it's my German heritage, maybe it's all those 80 hours weeks I did working for my own little company, maybe it's being older and wiser, but I'd rather have a work and life balance that I can enjoy.

In my first job at General Dynamics I knew a young dynamic manager who worked seven days a week and always put in long hours. One day in a meeting he dropped dead. So what did he get out of all those hours?

No thank you, not for me. I work hard and go home. You should too.