What Should I Do About Coworkers Who Abuse and Misuse Overtime?

Question:

My department is very small and very loosely managed by a woman who is additionally in charge of a larger department. This means she is too busy to monitor us, so we are in charge of deciding our own projects and overseeing our own work.

This manager has delegated the approval of overtime to the person who has been at the company the longest (25 years) and is the most trusted. She signs off on it without actually checking if the projects were completed or even legit (they are not). This allows my co-worker to falsify how much overtime he is doing, and he allows his buddy to do the same. Last month they each claimed 40 hours of overtime, the legal limit.

During those hours they are either not at their desks or are surfing the internet. The manager is often in meetings so sometimes they even leave the building. I know this for a fact because I have witnessed it.
This bothers me not only because of how dishonest it is, but also because the projects they are ostensibly working on mysteriously never get finished. They are able to hide this because the manager doesn’t know exactly what they are doing, and believes all the work is necessary.

In my company culture, doing massive amounts of overtime is viewed as a sign of dedication and hard work. The manager believes these guys are taking on a heavy burden and are highly productive, when the opposite is true. In comparison, I look unproductive because I am efficient so I rarely have to do overtime. I expected a decent raise last year because I have done extra training at my own expense and completed a huge project all on my own. I was shocked to be offered only a small amount. I can’t help but think it because the company doesn’t see me as being as valuable. I can’t help but be angry and resentful every time I see those guys leaving their desks empty, and I am losing my motivation.

I see three choices to deal with this. I’d like your opinion.
1) I compile evidence and report them. However, the manager trusts this person and may not believe me. She also may not even want to deal with it since she is so busy dealing with the larger department, so this could be seen as rocking the boat. If I report and she does nothing, these guys will retaliate against me.
2) I say nothing, keep my head down, and keep working until I can get out of this company in a couple of years.
3) Do fake overtime myself to make myself look good. I can get away with it easily; but with my ethics, this is not really an option.

Answer:

Hello and thank you for sharing your workplace concern with us. This will be a very long response to your question, because it is a challenging one. I can see why you wonder about the options you suggested: Reporting the situation, ignoring it or participating in it yourself. I don’t know your complete situation, so I can’t give you a sure solution. However, you appear to be a very clear thinker and writer, so perhaps providing some thoughts to consider will help you develop a plan of action that will work for you.

It sounds as if this has been going on for a while, so you can take a bit of time to analyze the situation and organize your thoughts and information. Doing that will allow you to succinctly state what most concerns you, what has been done wrong and by whom, why it is a concern and what you think should be done about it by your manager. You’ll need that kind of clarity to help you with your decision about whether or not to report your coworkers for abusing the overtime policies and to help you decide what to do instead.

1. You said you were disappointed to not receive the pay raise you expected and you think it may reflect a perception that you are not dedicated to your work, because you don’t work overtime. Unless you know the pay raise given to your coworkers, you don’t know if you were treated differently and unfairly or not. Perhaps they didn’t receive a raise either. (Paying lots of overtime can affect how much money is available for raises, so they would be partly at fault!)

When you were notified of your raise, I hope you talked to your manager about your concerns, with the goal of having future raises accurately reflect your value. If not, I hope you’ll do it now. Your manager may not want to discuss it or may not be as open as you’d like, but it will at least be a way for you to express your concerns. Consider asking directly what you need to do instead of, or in addition to, what you are now doing, to receive a raise the next time one is possible. Asking that question may also cause your manager to talk about overtime policies. (More about that under #5.)

Even though your manager isn’t as engaged with your department as she should be, you can keep communication going by occasionally—but regularly– discussing your work, asking for her input, letting her know about your projects and schedules and other things that will keep your work in her mind. If you decide to talk to your manager about your coworker’s abuse of overtime policies, you will need to feel comfortable talking to her and you will want her to trust you and know you have the best interests of the company at heart. If she doesn’t feel that way now, the only way to get to that point is to have a recent history of positive, productive communications.

2. Your manager created a situation that allowed overtime abuse to exist and continue. The managers and executives above her in the organization would almost certainly think she has done a poor job, if they were to find out she has allowed excess salary payments and overtime abuse to go undetected. Few businesses would think it wise to delegate overtime approval to an employee, no matter how tenured and trusted they are. At the very least they would have a policy (or expect) that overtime claims are randomly verified. Further, no matter how busy your manager is, she should be involved enough in the work of her span of control that she is aware of the quality and quantity of work being produced by each person. The bottom line is that your manager is failing to do the full amount of her own work, which is why this situation has been allowed to develop.

Because of your manager’s culpability, she may feel she can’t respond very severely, even if she finds out about work irregularities and overtime abuse. She may only talk to the timekeeper employee and warn him to be accurate in the future. If you are the only employee not involved in the overtime abuse, the others would probably figure out that you reported them—if your manager didn’t tell them already. The results may be unpleasant or just slightly uncomfortable, but certainly your work relationships would change.

3. Another thing to consider is that your manager may be more aware of how your coworkers are spending their time than you realize. She may have a lot of respect for the tenured employee and want to help him with extra money. The same goes for the other employee. Often managers and supervisors have been found to be actively involved in getting extra money for their favorites or for those who need it, by authorizing overtime or purposely setting up situations to allow it.

You say that last month your coworkers accrued the limit for overtime—40 hours. Apparently they have quite a bit of overtime every month. If the manager has approved it repeatedly, but not approved any for you, she must surely have wondered about it. If she is at all aware of the work being done, she would know about quantity, even if not about quality. She may getting a lot of self-reporting from your coworkers and not as much from you. If she doesn’t know the effort you’ve put into projects, the set-backs you’ve had and the resources you’ve accessed, or how you have made an effort to get your work done without needing to do overtime work, that’s a clear indicator that you need to communicate more with your manager.

You don’t have to go to her for approval or keep her informed every day, if that is not what she wants. But, you can say, “Ms. Adams, I won’t load you down with emails or documents, but I would like to know that you’re aware of my general work quantity and quality, so you can give me feedback now and then.” If she says that’s not necessary and she trusts you to do good work, you could use your pay raise status as a reason: “I’d like to make sure when it’s salary evaluation time, that you know what I’ve been doing all year. Do you mind if I keep you informed, at least occasionally?”

In situations like that, when managers or supervisors are asked, “Do you mind?”, they usually are quick to say no they don’t mind, because it would sound very badly to say they mind being kept informed. If she says she doesn’t mind, it will open the door for sending her documentation of your work.

Or, it could be that your manager has a generous approach to the amount of work that should be done during the time onsite and she accepts that employees may not be working the entire time they are present. I am aware of a similar situation in which an employee reported that a coworker was making cell phone calls dozens of times a day, using the excuse of going to the restroom, going to get water, needing to talk to someone in another office, etc. The manager told me he knew the employee who was being complained about was away from her area quite a bit, but he thought the complaint was petty and he lost respect for the employee who complained. I pointed out that whether or not the employee was making phone calls, being gone from her work area for a total of two or three hours a day, for some reason or another, put a burden on other employees who had to do more than their share in her absence. He didn’t care! He had a false sense of what was camaraderie at work and he thought “snitching” was wrong—so he was angrier at the person who told him than at the person who malingered.

If your coworker’s actions are known by your manager they may not matter to her. However, if they are not known and she finds out, she will also realize that she was in error when she trusted the timekeeper to that extent and she will realize she has been repeatedly duped. Those feelings will have a strong effect on how she responds. There is no way to know that exactly how she will respond, but you may have an idea based on your experience of the work culture, similar situations in the company and the personality of your manager.

4. The three points to consider that I’ve mentioned do not mean I don’t think you should do anything about the situation. I just think it’s always wise to consider how a pattern of misconduct has developed. The reason links to what will be done about it. I also think you need to wait until you have established enough trust and credibility in the mind of the manager to overcome the status of the older employee.

If you can discreetly gather proof of overtime abuse or lies, I think you should do so, whether or not you intend to use it to support a complaint. If you decide to use it, you’ll have it. If you don’t use it, it won’t hurt to have it. The matter of work quality and quantity is another thing, because that doesn’t directly harm you and is the responsibility of the manager. But overtime is different because it gives the impression of hard work by those doing it and less work by those not doing it. In addition, it is stealing money that was not earned and is committing fraud, even though it usually is not treated in that severe a manner by organizations.

I don’t know how you could gain that proof, but the nature of the work and your schedule, may make it more easy than it seems. They are apparently onsite most of the time when they are supposed to be working, so the only issue is they don’t produce much work during overtime hours. Presumably you would not be working during some of their overtime occasions, so you won’t know about that. The only solid thing you can make a statement about is that you have seen them idling the time away rather than actually working. A list of those times might show a lack of a genuine need to work overtime, if your manager expects them to be working solidly on a specific project during that time.

5. That brings me to how you can open the door to the possibility of being able to bring your manager to a sense of awareness about this, then back off if you think you are not going to get a good result—and it comes back to #1. If you didn’t talk to your manager openly about your concerns over your pay raise, consider doing so now or do so again. Focus on your personal goals for work, your vision of what your work can be, the projects you are working on, what you have in mind coming up and anything else you can briefly explain, as a way to let your manager know more about your work.

You can say that you enjoy being self-managed but you are concerned that the reason you didn’t get the pay raise you thought you deserved is that she doesn’t have a way of knowing what you’ve done because you haven’t kept her informed. You can take the blame on yourself, to avoid having it sound as though she hasn’t done her job of staying aware of your work.

That is when you could mention that you work very hard to not create overtime costs and when you’re there you are working steadily to start and finish projects so you can move on to another project (or whatever explanation makes sense for your type of work). I’m an advocate of being direct, so I might say, “Here’s how I approach my work: I get here on time and I work steadily to get a lot of work done. In the last year I’ve paid for my own training so I could be better at what I do and I’ve put it to use by doing a lot of work, including the XX Project, all without incurring any overtime for the company to have to pay me. You’ve probably noticed that I rarely or never request overtime pay. It’s not that I’m not working hard, it’s just that I’m working efficiently. I want you to know that, in case my lack of overtime makes you think I’m not getting much done. I am and that’s why I would like to be able to let you know what I’m doing.”

This is when, if she says it’s not necessary, you can ask her if, even though she doesn’t think it’s needed, she would mind if you kept her in the loop on your work. (That phrase can sound less onerous to a manager than others). One employee told me she finally had to say, after her supervisor insisted she didn’t need to report what she was doing, “Mike, I WANT to keep you informed about my progress on work, I really do. You might not need to know it, but I feel better if I keep you in the loop. Is it OK if I do that?” He said, less than enthusiastically, that sure, it was OK—and two weeks later, for the very first time he commented on her work and said he hadn’t realized she was doing such complex, high-liability work. She told me she didn’t know if he figured he’d better comment or if he truly hadn’t been aware of her work, but she at least had the satisfaction of knowing he was no longer ignoring her as if she didn’t exist.

By talking to your manager about your work, you are putting the emphasis on yourself in a positive way not on others in a negative way. However, it may result in leading her to think more about the issue of overtime or even may cause her to discuss it. If she brings up the work of others, you’ll be on the spot about whether to be honest with her or not. I would probably not say anything at that point, except something general: “Yes, I know they claim a lot of overtime, but I’m confident that if you compare finished work and the quality of the work, you’ll see that I get as much or more done, without costing the company any extra money. It’s a point of pride with me to do my work that way.”

Whether or not your manager talks about overtime, you’ll have opened the door to further communications about your work. You can help her see that you are not adding to her work by sending her emails with quick updates, you are simply letting her stay informed, as she is supposed to do. She may have been feeling worried about her lack of oversight or feeling guilty that she has had so little to do with your department, so you can help her reduce that feeling.

Then, down the line if you feel the situation has become so blatant as to be completely unacceptable, you will have gathered some evidence and you can talk to your manager with a foundation of good communications.

6. You mentioned an option of faking overtime. Of course you wouldn’t want to do that, as you quickly said. Perhaps you don’t want to be at the office any more hours than necessary. But, if you have work that can benefit by extra time and you don’t mind being at work, maybe you would want to stay and get some things done, to show that you will request overtime when it’s needed but not otherwise. The contrast between the hours requested by you and by your coworkers will be stronger than if you do not request anything at all.

It will also require you to turn in your request to the coworker who is in charge of overtime. You didn’t say it, but it sounds as though you work in your mental space and he and the other coworker are in theirs. He knows you are aware of his actions, so he may feel you are being judgmental about it or that you keep yourself apart from him and others on purpose. By working a bit of overtime now and then and turning in valid requests, you can show that you are part of their work world. It probably won’t make a difference in their actions, but will give you a chance to even more accurately compare how work is being done after regular work hours—and make you a bit more money too.

I wouldn’t suggest that idea if you indicated you barely have enough work to keep you busy, but I expect you are producing a lot of work and could occasionally benefit by staying at work to finish it.

7. A final thought: You said you will be leaving there in a couple of years. That can be a long time if you’re very unhappy, but it’s doable if you can find ways to keep moving forward. Communicating in positive ways with your manager and coworker can help make that happen. If you can get a more sizeable pay raise by pushing it a bit with your manager, that will be very positive and may make the apparent misconduct of your coworkers more tolerable.

I hope some of this long response can help you think through things and develop a plan that will work for you in your specific workplace. None of it may seem to fit your workplace, but perhaps you can adapt it. I don’t think now is the time to go to your manager about your perception that your coworkers are scamming the system, but now is the time to start building a foundation of influence that will make it possible to do so, if you feel it is necessary in the future.

Best wishes to you as you work through this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how you approach it and what happens.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors