When the Boss Calls After Hours

Cliff Oxford

Monday, May 12th, 2014

We shouldn’t laugh too hard about the agreement announced last month in France that sought to protect employees from after-hours texts and emails but confused a lot of people.

Despite the early reports, no law was passed, far fewer than a million workers are likely to be affected, and even for those covered by the agreement, there is no set time after which communication must cease. In fact, I give those folks in France credit. They were at least trying to address the issue of modern-day, after-hours communication standards for employees. As far as I can tell, that’s more than can be said for most fast-growth companies in the United States.

Here in the United States, where we are known for our relentless work ethic, we are ignoring this issue and letting confusion govern what is expected from employees after they leave work.

In this age of social media and instantaneous, global communications, there is tremendous pressure for many of us to be “on” 24/7. It’s as if the Internet is making the concept of after-work hours as much of a relic as the right of privacy.

As someone who has experienced the uncertainty and insanity of building a start-up, I sympathize with entrepreneurs who are hoping that, if employees sign on to work for the company, they understand that there is no guarantee of an after-hours work stoppage if the company needs them. In other words, leaving work doesn’t mean they can go totally off the grid. Not surprisingly, many employees don’t see it that way.

We need to have a conversation. And we need to come to an understanding between the company and the employee up front — before the hiring takes place. Happily, there is much we can agree on. No one should feel obligated to interrupt Friday night dinner just to check in. And certainly there are many employees who should not be bothered after they punch out at 5 until they sign back in the next morning. But times have changed.

For example, if a Level 5 customer complaint comes in that is the responsibility of an employee who happens to be on vacation, that employee needs to get electronically and emotionally engaged. Maybe it will take only a quick text to provide information that will help the entire team get home to enjoy time with their families, but whatever it takes, the complaint has to be resolved.

The best leaders not only resolve the problem at hand but also take action that will address the root causes of the situation and assure that the next vacation or dinner will not be disturbed. While I think in this day and time, people should be ready and available to answer a text to avert a crisis or win a big account, they should also know that they won’t be annoyed or pestered with petty stuff. And they should be given the flexibility to make it home on time for that Friday night dinner at 6 p.m.

But if the boss calls at 9 p.m., don’t think you can turn off your phone and put off the conversation until Monday morning. My gosh, with the speed of social media, revolutions can break out and change countries in a matter of hours. Major events that redefine companies can happen in a matter of minutes or even seconds — and that is why employees have to be on call, almost like firefighters, even when they leave the office.

Unlike in France, we should not wait for the government to take action. Companies should get specific and keep it simple, clearly establishing which employees are expected to engage electronically after hours, on vacations and on holidays. In short, companies need escalation and response standards outside of normal work hours. We have to quit hoping that situations will just resolve themselves or that we can handle everything on a case-by-case basis. It is time to face the music: We live in a 24/7 globally interconnected economy, and sometimes we need all hands on deck to thrive.

Of course, few here would have been surprised if France really had passed a law banning communication with employees after 6 p.m. We all know that such a law would be a dagger in the heart of entrepreneurial growth. But it’s worth noting that such a law can hurt employees too. Bad decisions like this one tend to end with a lot of unintended consequences. Here is how a do-not-bother-me rule will hurt employees.

First, if I am an employee who has the knowledge to answer calls after hours, that extra value will get built into my standing at the company and eventually my salary. Also, that added job value will bring leverage in getting extra days off and more training — it may even enable the employee to leave early every Friday. If you are the go-to employee after hours, you can name your demand. One minute of an employee’s time at 10 p.m. can be more valuable than eight hours the next day.

How about this: Employees who do not want to take calls after 6 p.m. can ask their bosses to make other arrangements. I once had an employee ask us not to call after 4 p.m. because her husband worked the graveyard shift and she did not want the phone to wake him. Guess what — we didn’t call. It did not take a law. It took her asking and the company working with her.

Only one time did we bother her, and we drove to her house and went to her window and waved her outside. You know why we did not call her? Was it because we were all sugar and spice and everything nice? Well, maybe, that was part of it, but the real reason is we didn’t want to lose her or have her husband upset with us.

Believe me, I understand that being available 24/7 is not going to be acceptable for all employees, and that is why there will always be other job options for those who want them. But I can assure you that there will always be opportunities for employees who are thankful that there is a call to take at 6 p.m. or 6 a.m.

Cliff Oxford is the founder of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. You can follow him on Twitter. Email Cliff at cliff@oxford-center.com

About Cliff Oxford

Cliff Oxford, who is founder of The Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs and writes The Next Level blog for the New York Times, started his career at U.P.S., where he developed a technologically advanced help-desk system that was recognized for saving the company more than $250 million in its first year. In 1995, he left U.P.S. to start STI Knowledge, an information technology company with offices in the United States, Britain, South Africa, India, Hong Kong and the Philippines that made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America three years in a row. After selling the company, Mr. Oxford endowed Emory University’s executive M.B.A. program and created a fully accredited Entrepreneur MBA with Brenau University. More recently, he has started an education company, the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. Its mission is to encourage business economic development by helping business owners and CEOs thrive in fast growth. Used with permission.