/ Startup Culture

An honest response to "Will you work late?"

[Note: this is a re-working of an older medium post I've written]

"Will you work late?" It's one of the worst questions to hear from a prospective employer. Other forms of the question include:

  • Are you ready to do 'whatever it takes' to ship on time?
  • Will you turn your avocation into your vocation?
  • Are you dedicated?
  • Are you ready for a healthy work-life balance?

All of these are essentially the same question. They all probe for the same quality and should be answered the same way.

Why would anyone ask?

There are two possible reasons for asking this question: one ethical and one not.

What to expect in a crisis

The legitimate version of this question is probing to find out what the employer can expect from you in a crisis. Sometimes projects were made with unrealistic deadlines, or with resources that suddenly get taken away, or a slew of other unexpected problems. In these cases, heroics are necessary to save the project. It might mean extra work for weeks or months on end.

Irrespective of how these circumstances arose, the employer is essentially asking what you will do if you encounter such circumstances at this job. They want to know you'll pitch in.

Can we exploit you?

This is the non-legitimate version of the question, and is also used by (unfortunately) many organizations, especially against younger and inexperienced employees.

Basically, you'll start a project, and then at some point you'll recieve nonsensical reasons as to why you'll need to work beyond your initial agreement, and without extra pay. It's actually part of the organization's standard operating proceedure, and they need to know that you'll be OK with this ahead of time.

Probing for the difference

So, as a prospective employee, you want to indicate that you are reasonable enough to help out if it's an emergency, but that you won't be exploited regularly. My go-to response sounds something like this:

“I understand that there are emergencies and that the unexpected happens. When it does, I’ll do everything within reason, including working late and off-hours, to solve the problem. (pause) How often do you have those kinds of emergencies here?”

The answer to the second part will tell you what you need to know.

To be clear, any time an employee is asked to work beyond what they've contractually agreed to, it's a failure in management. The manager had certain resources (time, money, human resources etc) and was not able to acquire and allocate them in the right way to complete the project. This is ok; managers are human and mistakes happen, but it must be treated as a mistake.

That means, organizationally, there should be an analysis, a post-mortem, or some proactive steps to determine the original cause of the mistake and actions to stop it from happening again.

If no such steps are taken, then it will happen again. Sometimes, it happens so much it becomes standard business practice. The organization reaches a point where it actually can't operate without heroics, meaning if you join, you will be exploited and burned through.

So listen to the response you're given. If it's overly defensive or otherwise dismissive, you probably don't want to be working there.