How to tell my co-worker to stop working for free?
June 18, 2012 7:27 AM   Subscribe

How to approach a co worker who is voluntarily working off the clock?

I am currently working as a contractor on a project at a large company. It consists mostly of doc review, data entry, and filling in information gaps.

One of my co workers is fresh out of law school and this is his first "real" job. The bosses have taken a shine to him. He gets projects from them on a constant basis.

But lately, he has been staying late and as he says "working for free" to get his assignments done. I want to tell him that he needs to request overtime or cut back on the "free" work. How can I do so without seeming jealous or self-interested?
posted by reenum to Work & Money (39 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What exactly is your concern here? That he's going to overstress himself and get burnt out? That he's being undercompensated? That he's making you look bad by comparison?

I don't think you've given us enough information in this question to provide useful advice. The way the question is worded, it sounds like you are being jealous and self-serving. Obviously, I'm sure that this is not the case and that you actually have very altruistic motives for wanting him to work less, but it would help if you explained to us what those are.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:35 AM on June 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

There is no way for you to do this; it might even encourage him too keep it up. He has decided to do this and he will resent your interference.
posted by spaltavian at 7:36 AM on June 18, 2012

If he's an independent contractor, then he's effectively lowering his rate. That's on him. If you both work for a larger firm, he's cheating the firm out of billings, that's on the firm.

You have a choice, if you're concerned about appearances, lower your rate and work longer hours too. Or chalk it up to his inexperience and let him do what he's going to do.

No one ever disliked getting free work. So alerting the customer isn't going to do anything for you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:39 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sounds to me like reenum's complaining that it's not possible to compete on a level playing ground if someone is willing to do the same work for free.

There are ways to do this. Let him know you feel like he's being taken advantage of. Or that he's undermining the profession.

It can hurt people when someone is willing to be uncompensated.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:39 AM on June 18, 2012 [21 favorites]

Is the issue that he's breaking an established solidarity? In that there's a formal or informal agreement among the contractors to not work for free? If there is, I think you and a number of other coworkers need to have a talk with him about office culture. The more work he does for free, the more it screws not just him, but the other contractors out of paid work.
posted by griphus at 7:40 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

How he spends his free time is none of your business.
posted by TheCavorter at 7:40 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some workplaces will terminate an employee for working off the clock. If yours is one of them, then you should absolutely tell him. If there's no chance of him suffering formal adverse consequences, I can't think of a way to bring it up without seeming self-interested.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:41 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can see both sides - his working for free is, as has been said, effectively lowering his hourly rate and could call into question your efficiency compared to his.

I wouldn't talk to him, nor would I say something in a complaining tone to the customer, but I would, at some point it can be inserted in the conversation, make sure the customer contact is aware that it's happening. If you feel the customer is already aware it's happening, then say nothing. He's setting his own standards; you need to set yours.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:41 AM on June 18, 2012

Response by poster: Some more info that I hope will help: we are not currently authorized to work any overtime. The moment we hit 40 hours for the week, we stop working.

By working over 40 hours while only being paid for 40 hours, it makes it look like his workload is entirely doable within our current constraints. Thus, it increases the workload for everyone because the bosses give us more projects than can be handled within 40 hours.

Finally, if we work overtime, we should be paid accordingly.
posted by reenum at 7:43 AM on June 18, 2012 [23 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, we're not interacting with a customer. We're providing admin and legal support for the firm's internal operations.
posted by reenum at 7:46 AM on June 18, 2012

The only problem is that if he doesn't mind doing this, and the bosses are clearly taking the "40 hours a week, max" thing as a soft deadline/turning a blind eye to working unbilled hours, it's going to be rather difficult to get him to stop even if it's fucking things up for everyone else. You'll need to figure out a way to make this worthwhile for him, because rather than simplky working for "free," he's working his way into the bosses' good graces, which can be worth quite a bit. Are the rest of you actually working on getting overtime, or is the current situation the compromise?
posted by griphus at 7:48 AM on June 18, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, and we are all working as independent contractors.
posted by reenum at 7:49 AM on June 18, 2012

Response by poster: griphus, we have explicit orders not to work over 40 hours. I doubt the bosses notice him working the extra 2-3 hours per week.
posted by reenum at 7:51 AM on June 18, 2012

by "customer," I meant - whoever the client is. Whoever you're working for.

I'd say if you have a hard policy of "40 hours, no more," that is something you can take to him. Are you all independent of each other, hired separately by the firm you're performing the work for, or do you all work for a company which has been engaged to provide these services?

If it's the latter, I'd make sure THAT chain of command is aware. If this person has employee status with THAT company, they could get in trouble for having someone work off the clock.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Very often people simply don't put together the whole "if I work extra hours for free to get my work done, sure it makes me look good in the short term but it's actually screwing everyone over, including me, in the long term" thing. It might be worth mentioning to him how free work impacts everyone - and mention that maybe right now he's happy to work for free to look good, but if working for free becomes a standard expectation to keep the job....well, what happens in a couple of years when he has some family emergency, or gets married, or takes up another project and can't work off the clock any more?

I think it's worthwhile explaining this to people because it's not intuitive, especially with the decline of union discourse in this country.
posted by Frowner at 7:56 AM on June 18, 2012 [19 favorites]

If he's working as an independent contractor, then how many hours he works and how many projects he takes on is really up to him. As long as the firm is happy with what he is billing them for, I don't see why he has to stop working as soon as he hits 40 hours, even if it is making a bad situation for you and your coworkers. You're in a tight spot. If you are all independent contractors, then you are essentially all competitors and much as you are coworkers, which may make reasoning with him difficult. He is offering a very competitive service, being able to complete more work for the same billings.
posted by Nightman at 7:56 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, if you've all been hired as contractors through an external company, tell him that the company that placed him will be really, really pissed if they find out he's working unpaid overtime. I used to work for a temp agency (which operated in a similar manner) and working off the clock got you seriously written up, or pulled off an assignment and in the "DO NOT PLACE" bin if it happened more than once.
posted by griphus at 7:57 AM on June 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

(that "yeah" was re: randomkeystrike)
posted by griphus at 7:58 AM on June 18, 2012

Reenum, I completely understand where you're coming from--this happens all the time with junior associates underbilling to look good, or because they feel like they've taken too long on a project.

And your scenario has the added prisoner's dilemma element. He (theoretically) has an incentive to underbill to show how invaluable he is, get consistent flows of work, possibly even a full-time offer. All he loses is the marginal cost to him of 2-3 hours a week, which is probably low if he's just out of law school. He may have no interest in leveling the playing field, and the bosses have no incentive to police the hard stop at 40 hours if they're not going to bill the client for it.

Do you have any similarly situated colleagues who'd like him to stop underbilling? If it were me, I might just arrange a nice little lunch at the place around the corner and have everyone be friendly and then just mention--"hey! saw you working late three nights last week! You're making us all look bad, you know there's hard stop at 40 hours!" Hopefully he'll get the message.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:00 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think your best approach would be persuade and to demonstrate to him that you don't need to work for free to be a professional or to be successful. You mention that there are several other employees. Maybe you could schedule a group outing at the normal end of the workday and invite him along. Then you could converse with your co-workers about how the company wants to take advantage of you all by raising expectations beyond what can be reasonably expected and sustained over the long term, and how it would be to all of your disadvantages for any of you to play that game.

Of course you're professionals so you work hard and give good value while you're working, but you expect to be paid for your work as well.
posted by Reverend John at 8:02 AM on June 18, 2012

Response by poster: randomkeystrike, we were all hired by the company we perform services for separately, but are paid through a third party staffing agency so we're not technically employees.

We all have separate aspects of the project each person is responsible for, but we work with each frequently to get certain projects done.
posted by reenum at 8:24 AM on June 18, 2012

nthing randomkeystrike. IANYL, but depending on which country you are working in, working OT "off the clock" like that in the US is a FLSA violation in the making. While it may not get into him or the company into trouble immediately, it could get the company you are contracted to plus your own company into trouble later on because it would leave them open to a potential lawsuit to reclaim the OT ... He needs to stop working the extra time, especially since the company policy doesn't allow OT.
posted by Gingercat at 8:26 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe it's just from my perspective, but 2-3 hours per work seems more like a rounding error than "working overtime." I mean, do you actually follow him around all day, every day to make sure he's actually working all of his regular hours? Even at 3 hours, that averages out to a little more than half an hour a day. Maybe he's just making up for coming in a bit late, taking a long lunch, going to a doctor's appointment, spending an hour looking at cat pictures online, etc? He may just be staying a bit late out of guilt to make up for these factors. Or, sometimes when working on projects I just get "in the groove" and it's better to stay an extra hour while the juices are flowing than to stop by some arbitrary clock deadline and try to get that magic back the next morning.

If he was routinely working 10-20 hours overtime or more as I initially thought when I read the question, then that's clearly a situation that needs to be remedied immediately for his sake as well as everyone else's. But if this kid is just putting in an extra hour a couple afternoons a week because he's not a morning person you're going to come off as weirdly imperious about the rules.

So, I'd say just.. ask him. See if he's putting in extra time to brown nose or he feels pressured to comply, in which case let him know he's being taken advantage of and that the rest of the contractors have his back, or if he's just working in a way that's conducive to his personality. Frame is as an "I'm worried about you" thing rather than a "you're making us look bad" thing.
posted by Freon at 8:39 AM on June 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

I'm also an independent contractor.

I've worked some jobs where it's an unspoken thing that everyone is to a certain degree available to work off the clock as needed.

Other jobs, there's a sense of solidarity that Off The Clock is sacrosanct and we are only available in an absolute emergency.

It can be hard to tell which is which. In fact, just recently I got a talking to for working from home after I'd left the office for the day. Which I thought I was supposed to be doing. But apparently not. This is all fine with me: I hate working off the clock and wish every job had a firm policy against it.

So I'd say that if your workplace culture has an unspoken "we don't work weekends" vibe, definitely clue your coworker in. Preferably in a casual and friendly manner, rather than in a menacing "don't make me look like a lazy ass" type manner. If this is not about that, or if you feel you can't convey the right information in a friendly tone, then just stay out of it.
posted by Sara C. at 8:58 AM on June 18, 2012

You should dispense with the notion of "overtime". As an independent contractor, you are not covered by the FLSA and there is no such thing as "overtime". Any work is billed at whatever rate you agree to with the employment agency (note, there is nothing stopping you from negotiating a rate for hours over 40 hours per week that is greater than the hours below 40 hours a week). In addition, there's nothing stopping an independent contractor from not billing for time he works. Independent contractors are given essentially complete latitude with how they handle their own compensation.

It sounds like this question is heavily influenced by your work environment, as other posters have indicated. I agree with this, and think that your response to this coworker should be based on the details of the work environment, not any legalistic objection to his working practices. To be clear, so far as I understand the question, there is nothing illegal about what he is doing.
posted by saeculorum at 9:06 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are working through the same agency, then the next time you are talking to your agency contact, mention it. "Project's going great! Everything is fantastic. I'm a little concerned about the impression that the firm may be getting about the workflow though, as Bob has been working a lot of overtime, and he doesn't seem to be putting it on his timecard; they may be getting some mixed feedback on how long this work takes."

The agency contact will likely call him about it if she's diligent.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:12 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yo, by working free, he is actively taking away work that you and your colleagues are supposed to be paid to do. That is some bullshit, and it should not continue. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:13 AM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mostly, I think as you're not this person's supervisor, you need to be really careful here. But I have a tendency to be this guy you're concerned about, and I've been talked to about working off the clock on various occasions in various settings. It has been effective in almost all circumstances, but I can give you some idea of what works and what doesn't:

- The Talk is initiated by supervisors or senior staff: I have had two supervisors check on me concerning my "overtime" work. One was to say, "Really not appropriate to stay so late in the evening when nobody else is here." Fair. That was just an unknown office rule. I was salaried, and I had to get something done, so I stayed until 9 one night. I didn't think anything of it. There were a lot of factors involved there. Safety. Office security. And the fact that we were formally organized (state employees in a heavily unionized state). The second time, it was from a supervisor who wanted to make sure that I was keeping a healthy work-life balance. I assured her that I was not troubled by occasionally working late or on the weekends. And she expressed that she was grateful for the extra time. Again, this was for a salaried position, but in a place where predominant office culture was to work just shy of 40 hours.

-The Talk was initiated for my own good: At the second job above, a senior co-worker noticed that I was putting my nose to the grindstone a little harder than would be recognized. She clued me in to that fact, and I honestly appreciated it. Your coworker might be under the mistaken illusion that the extra work will ultimately improve his chances of being hired on a permanent basis. That may or may not be true. If it isn't, then approaching it from that angle might be helpful. If it is true, then I think all's fair in love and work. I appreciate what my coworker was trying to do, but ultimately she was wrong. Sure, my hard work was initially only noticed as a pat on the back (and I got the same 3% annual review raise that everyone got). But I was playing the longer game, and it ultimately yielded an additional 10% raise for me, which meant that I leapfrogged a couple of more senior analysts in compensation. In the end, the fact that she brought this up to be helpful, made me more receptive to it. (Another time, she did mention something that was correct, and I appreciated her feedback. I was processing a high volume of very easy disclosures just to make sure that our queue stayed cleared out. I said as much in a meeting. (Though, couching it in terms of "In ADDITION TO MY OTHER WORK I'm....") She said "totally with you on that one, just never admit to it publicly like that. I do it too. I totally understand what you're doing. Just never tell them you're doing it.")

- The talk was initiated away from everyone else: I didn't feel put on the spot because my coworker and supervisors all approached me when I was alone and nobody else was listening.

- The issue was approached as a conversation, rather than as a reprimand: all those folks sought feedback from me rather than just trying to lay down some truth on me. "Just noticed that you stayed until 9 last night, was there not enough time to finish a project during the work week? Cause the Chief really doesn't like anyone to stay beyond about 6pm for security reasons." or "Hey, I noticed that you've been putting in a lot of extra hours. Are you working on the Professional Development Model [our version of in-position promotion]? If so, having done that myself, I can give you some pointers on that process... and trust me, they might appreciate extra hours but it wont help you with the PDM." Again, she was wrong. But she did manage to get me to listen in a receptive way because rational humans like to rely on others' expertise/experience.
posted by jph at 9:53 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

What Freon said.

How can I do so without seeming jealous or self-interested?

It is hard for me to tell if you interpret his actions as ambition and competitiveness, attribute it to inexperience and lack of awareness of the impact this has on the team or some combination of all of the above.

Also, I will say at outset that my response is heavily influenced by the fact that I work for an organization that has strict no overtime and off the clock rules coupled with enormous pressure to meet unrealistic expectations.

If you do not want to appear self-interested I would suggest approaching him from a place of sincere and genuine concern for him and with the spirit of helping him. Does he believe he will be viewed as incompetent if he does not work off the clock, does he feel overt or subtle pressure to get the job done? Talk to him about avoiding burn-out. Reassure him that it is okay to stop working at 40 hours and that he need not feel responsible to doing more than his share of work.

You may get farther with him communicating a charitable and kind interpretation of his motives: that he wants to do a good job, prove himself and contribute to the success of your team.

From there you could argue that working for free undermines you, your team's, and your agency's ability to effectively argue that work expectations are unrealistic and doable within your current constraints. From there you could talk to your supervisions.
posted by space_cookie at 10:33 AM on June 18, 2012

I'm finding this a little hard to sort out. If you are independent contractors, then you set your rate and costs for your work. The firm most likely has the hard limit on 40 hours so that they stick to their budget. As long as your coworker isn't billing them for more than 40 hours, they aren't going to care that he is doing extra work. What you attribute to your coworker being naive, he is likely chalking up (and possibly correctly) to being competitive. If there is chance for advancement, more work, a permanent position, etc, then there is a good chance he will be the go-to guy and the 2-3 extra hours he puts in will be worth it.

However, it sounds like you might not be independent but rather employees of a temp agency or staffing agency, since you say that they are the ones that pay you. If that is the case then the answer is simple: talk to the staffing agency. The hourly rate that they charge is a lot more than the hourly rate that they pay each of you. They will be very concerned that they could be collecting more money and will quickly put an end to any "free" work that is going on.
posted by Nightman at 11:08 AM on June 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's my personal take, based on what little I can get from you in this thread: Someone mandated to you all that 40 hours is 40 hours, and nobody should work beyond it. Presumably they mandated that for a reason. It is none of your business as to why this person is working longer hours, and not your place to suggest he stop. It is, however, appropriate for you to contact the person who mandated the 40 hour hard stop and say "You said we have a hard stop at 40 billable hours. Is that because you don't want us billing overtime, or because it exposes us to some kind of risk if we work beyond the 40 hours, even if they aren't billed? I ask, because at least one of the team is working extra non-billed hours per week, and if that's exposing us to risk, I figure you need to know about it."

If the person setting the mandate is happy, then great! If the person setting the mandate is unhappy, then they'll deal with it, most likely by contacting the team as a whole and making it clear that such behavior is exposing the team to risk. It is up to you whether you want to answer (assuming you're asked) questions about the specific team member involved, or if you want to say "well, I really didn't come here to get anyone in trouble; I just wanted to make sure you have the information you need. If it is possible for you to address this with the team as a whole rather than singling someone out, I'd appreciate it" or somesuch.
posted by davejay at 12:19 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds a bit like you guys may not actually be independent contractors, even though the company is calling you that.

Many corporations try to call people who were actually employees "contractors" as it allows them to skimp on withholding, employment taxes, benefits, etc.

However, the IRS has some pretty clear regulations about who is and who isn't a contractor. Real contractors are typically not given rules like "you cannot work more than 40 hours maximum." Contractors typically put forward a pricebid for a deliverable and then work as many or as few hours as needed to get the deliverable out on time.

Here's an IRS publication about the misclassification of employees as contractors. If you google this question, you'll get a lot of information, including a 20-question test to distinguish between contractors and employees.
posted by jasper411 at 12:26 PM on June 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

He knows what he's doing. He's working off the clock to benefit himself, and that disadvantages you.

You are being self-interested here. Why pretend to be something you're not?

Really, being honest might be your most persuasive option. Tell him he's fucking you over and see how he responds to that.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:50 PM on June 18, 2012

I think this is one of those "MYOB" situations.
posted by spilon at 4:52 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bosses are taking advantage of your co-worker. Co-worker is throwing you under the bus with time he has. He's trying to curry favor with management at your expense. Put a stop to this before it sours labor relations in your company even further, and before he inoculates the bosses into thinking everyone should work as hard as he does for the same amount of cash.

The same reason you should always oppose spec work.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 5:45 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Either he's doing it on his own initiative or he's doing it because the bosses are loading him down with too much work. Regardless, its undermining everyone else's contributions and will, once the pattern is recognized by management if it hasn't been already, lead to a general raising of expectations without any pay raises. In other words, The Big Crunch.

Its not in his long term (or short term, burn out being an issue) interests to do this for the company. This is probably the best way of breaching the subject with him. If he continues, he may rise faster within the company but the company will also expect to get away with paying him less than his predecessor while having him work more. You could also bring up the rest of the workforce having to meet these expectations as well, though he may see this as laziness or contrariness.

Best of luck, here's hoping management hasn't caught on yet.

PS: Its not greedy, under-handed, lazy, nosy, or anything else to call this out. You work full time, should be paid full time, recognized for the results of you working full time (and only full time), and you should not have to deal with The Big Crunch effect.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:59 PM on June 18, 2012

You are self-interested. There's nothing wrong with explaining to him that his self-interest is colliding with your self-interest. But don't be disingenuous or condescending about it.
posted by ewiar at 7:08 PM on June 18, 2012

He'll stop the first (or second, if he's a real optimistic type) time HE really needs a favor from the company and it turns out they don't give a shit about HIS problems.
posted by ctmf at 10:45 PM on June 18, 2012

When someone is just starting out, how do you expect them to prove themselves without going above and beyond?

Our generation has grown into adulthood with the fear that even with relevant college degrees we may never get a real job. So, of course we'll work nights, and weekends, and overtime. Because it's a job. I understand your concern, but it's hard to find any job right now, related or not to what we'd hoped to do, and sometimes being willing to work overtime is the only edge that you have against other entry level employees.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 10:19 PM on June 19, 2012

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