What to Do When a Dream Job Isn't

What to do when the seemingly hot-shot boss has you working 14-hour days.

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Suzanne Lucas

I took a new job (along with a pay cut) because I was impressed with the new boss and it gave me an opportunity to branch into management. I am listed as "Exempt - 40+" and my minimum hours are 9 - 7, which, if you actually take a lunch, is a 45 hour work week. But since IT usually works through lunch, it turns into a 50 hour week. OK, I can suck that up, but in the 7 weeks I’ve been on the job, my average workday has been 14 hours, and although I am pretty much the definition of a workaholic, I’m beginning to burn out. The only reason the IT department is working these insane hours is because upper management won't spend the money to upgrade their equipment and/or hire new people. My boss says that things will get better after the first of the year, and has promised a large raise and a very large bonus, but my trust level is low and sinking fast.

I know you aren't an employment lawyer (see, I read your blog!), but this just seems wrong to me. I know the standard answers: 1) the hot-shot boss I really wanted to work for isn't as wonderful as I thought, otherwise he would be better able to protect his employees, and 2) start looking for a new job. For a lot of reasons, changing jobs again isn't a great idea. First, we are in California, where unemployment is worse than the already dismal national average. Second, I’ve changed jobs a lot, and really need to stick at one place for more than 2 years.

So, is this situation legal because anything goes, with regard to exempt employees, or is it illegal? Not that I am going to sue or anything like that (see above), but I think I could mentally deal with this better if I understood the rules better.

Of course it’s wrong. It’s wrong on a lot of levels. I’m not sure it’s illegal, though. (I say not sure, because you’re in California and heaven knows California has a boatload of laws I’m not familiar with. I intend to stay unfamiliar with them as well, because working in HR in California is at the bottom of my to-do list.) I’m afraid that the big rule is that exempt employees don’t have limits on the number of hours they can work.

There are two possibilities here: one is that the hot-shot boss isn’t wonderful because he should have disclosed the totally nasty work schedule to you in the interview. The second is that the boss said all this, but because you were so enamored with the idea of the new job, you didn’t hear it.

The latter happens quite a bit, actually. We desperately want a new job, or to work at a particular company, or any job (it’s a slow market), so we gloss over the unpleasant details. Our little brains just say, “oh, it couldn’t really be like that.” Or, “I don’t really mind doing X,” even if reality is you do mind doing X and it’s the reason you left your last job.

The first possibility is far more likely, however. A boss with even half a brain knows that advertising a position as “14 hours a day. High stress. Low rewards. No senior management support,” is not going to get a lot of applicants. So a manager may convince himself that it isn’t really that bad, or he may just lie outright to candidates. I think the former is more likely.

So, if you are not willing to change jobs, what can you do? Well, unfortunately, taking that off the table makes your bargaining position very weak. If you aren’t willing to leave, your boss has no reason to make changes. After all, you are doing the work, even if you hate it. And, the reality is, if you rock the boat, you may lose your job. And even if you do the work, you may get so stressed out that you quit in a rage after 17 hours in the office. So, you need to be looking for a new job no matter what. Sorry about that.

You need to go to your manager and have this conversation. “I know you said the working conditions will be like this for another year, but I can’t continue for that long. What can we do to make it better?”

Your manager will reiterate his offer of a bonus and a raise at the end of the year. Now, here's the risky advice: You could acknowledge that and state again, “I can no longer work 14 hour days and still perform to the best of my ability. I’m going to limit my work hours to 10 hours per day.” Or whatever you think is more reasonable.

I honestly don’t know what your manager’s response will be. He may rage. He may say, “I understand.” He may threaten to fire. He may fire. It’s a risk. You have to decide if it’s a risk you are willing to take. You already feel like you are at risk, so in facing this head on, you are at least choosing between your risks.

Here’s something in your favor: your job will be hard to fill. Because, of course, nobody else wants that nasty job either. So you do have a bit of leverage on that point. If you leave, then the work you’ve been doing for 14 hours every day has to be done by the remaining staff, until a replacement can be found.

Your boss has been hiding his problems from senior management--probably out of fear that they’ll fire him. I never recommend hiding serious problems from your boss. They always come out in the end and it’s worse when it sneaks up on you in a meeting. Better to face it head on and be in charge. He can’t control whether they’ll give him the funding and headcount he needs, but he can control how his staff is treated.

And speaking of staff (although you didn’t ask), you had better be looking out for yours. It’s the manager’s job to take the heat for his decisions. If you’ve got people reporting to you who are working 14-hour days, you need to protect them as well.

None of this is easy, and none of it guarantees a job at the end of the day. You have to decide how much you want this job. I know that a previous record of job hopping doesn’t help much, but you can’t change your past.

Have a direct conversation with your boss and set limits and then stick to them. Hopefully, things will get better. If not, at least your resume is still polished up nicely.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human resources experience, most of which have been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resources Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.