How to handle tricky overtime requests

Extra hours bump up costs that the company can’t always incur but sometimes staying late really is essential – so how do you strike a balance?

How to handle tricky overtime requests
It’s a typical scenario. It’s approaching five pm, the clock is ticking down slowly but surely. Anxious employees look furtively to it, then back to their computers. The boss walks by, fingers stealthily click ‘x’ on the browser where only a moment ago Facebook was open. “How goes it” asks the supervisor. “Ehh...not so good. I’m going to need to stay for another couple of hours to finish things up.” “Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” “Sorry, but no. I really need to get this done today.”
            Sound familiar? It should, because the next scene in the play is the employee walking into your office, the HR professional, asking for a chit that the supervisor can sign to authorize overtime pay. Exasperating isn’t it? The fact remains however, employees love getting overtime and managers hate signing off on it. Because it’s always a trade off with a human resources nightmare lurking just around the corner. Management can sign off on the overtime which keeps employees happy but hurts the company in terms of added operational costs (compounded when employees take advantage of the system). Or, management can refuse to authorize overtime which means a safer bottom line for the company but an angry employee. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.
            As HR professionals, most of this falls squarely on your shoulders because more often than not you’re stuck squarely in the middle between employee and management conflict. So how do you manage this situation and have each party walk away satisfied? Every province has its own laws in place regarding the typical work week but with the introduction and increased rollout of flextime in workplaces across the country, managing employee expectations regarding overtime is typically a lot easier said than done.
            Usually, disagreements regarding overtime centre around appropriate compensation. To put this another way, what is appropriate to the employee as well as management? Sure, the employee may like to earn time and a half for extra hour or two of overtime he says he needs but management might prefer to compensate the employee through increased time off. “If you need to stay here for two more hours today, come in a couple of hours later tomorrow” is an easier pill for to swallow than “I understand that you need to get this done but I’d really rather not have you stay late tonight.”
            Adding tension to the overtime struggle is that not all jobs are alike. Some are geared more towards overtime than others. Industry publication Canadian Business for example, cites software developers as a profession in which overtime simply doesn’t make sense. Game designers work very long hours but are also extremely well compensated and given numerous perks, all of which are designed to boost performance and keep employees happy. Echoing this is the notion that there is a distinct difference between necessary and unnecessary overtime. Put simply, some employee requests can and should be honoured but there are some that to be blunt, can simply be left to 9am the following morning.
            Part of the issue with overtime compensation is that in many cases, Canadian law simply hasn’t kept pace with workplace changes. As a result, millions of dollars are spent each year in corporate lawsuits where disgruntled employees are demanding compensation for hours worked. Then again, not all jobs are ‘overtime compatible’. For example, while some corporate positions require 60 to 70 hours a week in the office, current labour law would require them to be compensated. Sound odd if they’re making more than six-figures annually, doesn’t it? Well that’s because it is odd. The flip side of that coin however, is the low level employee making minimum wage or not much above it. A few hours of overtime a week makes a significant difference in their lives and on their bottom line with not much of a dent in the company at all.
If you think about it, different jobs tend to attract different personalities. Commission type jobs tend to attract individuals with driving personalities and a flair for independance. These are the Type A personality types found in the upper echelon of finance and banking. They’re attracted to the job for what it is and most have no issue with having their livelihoods linked to how much they can sell or trade. These are important questions because at the end of the day, HR professionals have a responsibility. Not just to the company they work for but also to its employees. Be fair, but also remember to be firm.
Adam Bajan is a researcher and writer contracted to Ashton College, an accredited post-secondary institution offering flexible education options for working professionals including a Human Resources diploma and a variety of professional development seminars.
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