Working 40 Hours Per Week: A Normal Schedule, or Career Suicide?

© japonico -
© japonico -

The question in the headline of The Wall Street Journal story jumped out at me because, well, I’ve heard it so many times before: Is 40 Hours a Part Time Week?

My answer to that has always been, “it is for me,” and it pretty much has been all of my career as an exempt, managerial, supervisory, professional employee.

As a manager running a department, or more commonly, a newsroom operation, I’ve worked whatever it took to get the job done — and that rarely was just 40 hours in a given week.

And yes, it WAS career suicide to try to do it otherwise.

Majority of Americans working longer hours

The Journal’s blog post is based around the premise that I have lived under for all too much of my life: that “the  40-hour work week (is) considered part time for white-collar professionals …”

But is that an abnormal permutation of working in the 24/7 news business, as I have, or something that has become fairly common for most exempt professionals?

The Journal’s blog post pointed to an article on The Huffington Post that said:

Over the last 30 years, the majority of Americans have started working longer hours while earning less, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.

The report finds that in in 2006, American families worked an average of 11 hours more per week than they did in 1979. Indeed, now many top-level professionals, lawyers and doctors view the traditional 40 hour work week as a “part-time” job, according to the report:

“Many feel, with some justification, that a 40-hour week would be career suicide. This schedule is seen as ‘part time’ in many professional-managerial jobs, and tends to spell a less-prestigious and less upwardly-mobile career path.”

Supplanting the traditional 40-hour work week, many employees now work 50 hours or more. According to the report, male professionals especially work longer hours. 37.9 percent of men with professional and managerial positions worked over 50 hours a week between 2006 and 2008, compared to 34 percent from the years 1977 to 1979. With professional women, the change is even more striking: 14.4 percent work over 50 hours currently, while only 6.1 percent did 30 years ago.”

Non-exempts working more than 40 hours

This notion that it is unacceptable to work “only” 40 hours if you are a manager isn’t new, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own during the long recession and slow recovery when so many organizations improved their productivity pretty dramatically — and often on the backs of exempt managers working a helluva lot more than 40 hours per week.

I’ve always wondered how HR dealt with this problem, because in many of the places I worked for, it spilled over into the hourly, non-exempt employee arena where having people work more than 40 hours was a big no-no unless you paid overtime. And, lots of those hourly employees I worked with didn’t put in for overtime — and lots of HR people never asked about it even through it was happening right under their nose.

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For example:

  • There was the Fortune 500 multi-national media company I worked for where top editors and managers were hammered with the directive to “do whatever it takes” to meet unit and corporate goals, but who also got beat on from above when doing so meant that you blew out your overtime budget. At one of the newspapers I edited, I had three hours — yes, 3 hours — in my OT budget per week. One reporter getting stuck on one night at a late running city council meeting would blow that out, and my HR Director and Publisher both knew it but did nothing because they knew that in order to meet the corporate directive, I had to get people to work more than 40 hours per week without breaking my overtime budget.
  • Then there was the magazine publisher where just about every editorial employee was given an “editor” title — assistant editor, associate editor, whatever — because the guy who owned the place thought that made them “exempt” from overtime. Just about any HR pro knows that thinking won’t fly, because it’s not the title that determines whether someone is exempt or not — it’s their actual job duties and whether they meet the legal test for an exempt employee. Needless to say, this publishing house got hit by state wage and hour investigation when a disgruntled employee complained, but I always wondered, “why does the HR Director let this go on when they clearly know it is illegal and wrong?”

Working more than 40 hours is the norm

I could go on with a lot more examples, but my point is this: people who want to get ahead in their career, whether they are an exempt employee or not, frequently work more than 40 hours a week. Sometimes, if they’re non-exempt, they do this without putting in for the proper overtime they have coming because they know doing so would cause grief for their supervisors and they would be accused of not being a “team player.”

Is this just a quirk that is unique to working in media companies, as I have, for most of my career? Maybe, but I also encountered it in the last couple of years at my part-time college teaching job where, due to state budget cuts, I was told I had to designate certain “furlough” days even though the notion of furlough days for a part-time college professor who preps for classes and grades papers whenever they can is ludicrous and impossible to enforce with a straight face.

Yes, the 40 hour work week is a part-time schedule for anyone wanting to get ahead in their life and career, and that’s true for exempt and non-exempt employees alike. Sometimes overtime gets paid to the non-exempts, but frequently, it doesn’t. But that doesn’t matter. People who want to get ahead, rightly or wrongly, know they need to put in more than the usual 40 hours if they want to succeed.

Is that how it is at your organization? And what role does HR play in it if it is? Do they demand that every non-exempt worker get OT, or do they bend the rules somewhat to suit the goals of senior management?

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.