can you say no to overtime?

A reader writes:

I am a permanent, non-exempt employee, and I qualify for overtime at my workplace. I work overtime every now and then when needed, which I don’t really mind. However, my boss has been talking about an upcoming project where he sees us all working a lot of overtime — comparing it to a past project where people slept at work and did 18 hour days.

As an employee who qualifies for overtime, am I allowed to say no to my manager? At what point am I allowed to say that I don’t want to work overtime and would rather go home? “Occasional overtime” is what I was told when I was hired. When does overtime become more than “occasional”?

Here are the relevant facts:

* Generally, you should try to be flexible and accommodating when you’re asked to take on something at work outside of your normal work schedule, particularly when it’s temporary, but there’s a point beyond which it’s reasonable to push back. Certainly sleeping at work and working 18 hours days falls well over the line of reasonable (unless you knew you were signing up for that, such as if you were working on a political campaign).

* Your employer can require you to work whatever hours they want, and can change it at any time, unless you have a contract that states otherwise.

* A reasonable manager will work with someone who isn’t able to take on additional work hours, particularly when it’s many extra work hours, and particularly if the employee is willing to be flexible to the extent they can be.

* Not every manager is reasonable. But plenty are.

What that means in your situation is that you can absolutely talk to your boss and see if there’s a way to limit your overtime on this upcoming project. There very well may be — in which case, problem solved. But also be prepared for the possibility that he’ll tell you no, this is an all-hands-on-deck type thing … or that he won’t require it, but everyone else will be doing it and it will hurt you professionally if you’re the one person who opts out. In that case, you’ll need to decide if you want the job under those terms.

Start the conversation by saying something like this: “Can we talk about what kind of hours you think we should expect when work starts on X? I can work about 10 extra hours a week (or whatever) during it, but it would be difficult for me to be work significantly more than that on a regular basis.”

Once you hear his answer, you can decide how you want to proceed.

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