Working off the clock: how to avoid it

The days when it was profitable for companies to have their employees work off the clock are long over. In fact, it is considered a violation of labor laws.

Working off the clock is usually the consequence of overloading an employee, who then struggles to comply outside of office hours. This speaks well of the worker's level of commitment, but not of their manager and can turn into an HR nightmare.

Many employees do not report this situation because they fear that their ability to finish their workload during working hours will be questioned, and this will lead to being fired.

What is exactly working off the clock?

Working off the clock labor is that which is unpaid or not contributing to overtime pay. Off course, it is usually illegal: working off-the-clock should be compensated by an employer at a standard hourly wage.

By definition, an employee should never be working off the clock if they are not going to be compensated for it. It is their right, and the company must pay them for all the hours they work, including overtime if requested. Their motives may be valid, but they must know that they are breaking the law themself by working off the clock.

In fact, if a company discovers that a worker is working off the clock, it can be a reason for reprimand or dismissal, since they are violating the provisions of their employment contract.

Any overtime must be collegiate and approved by the supervisor, and if this is the one that requests an additional effort in a timely manner, they must include the hours required in the worker's salary.

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Other problems that working off the clock brings

In addition to the legal aspects, working off the clock is a practice that involves additional problems for the work environment.

First, it prevents the supervisor from perceiving the actual workload of the employee. If the worker needs overtime to complete their work and does not report it, what the supervisor perceives is that the worker has sufficient capacity to do the job in the agreed time.

Then it makes it difficult for the company to have a true understanding of the financial impact of hours worked, by paying less than it should for the work assigned to its employees.

Third, working off the clock is a source of discontent and stress for the worker themself, who perceives that they are being exploited but aresilent for fear of dismissal.

This raises an additional problem: when a worker assumes a greater burden than the one officially paid by the company working off the clock, they make their colleagues look bad. In the eyes of the manager they are not doing their job well, but in reality it is all because the worker who is working off the clock spends more time on theirs.

Companies expect their workers to complete their work within the hours they are paid, and to speak with their supervisor if they feel the workload is too much. Working off the clock can only be due to two things: either the work is poorly distributed, or the worker actually doesn’t meets work expectations to do the same work as the rest of the team.

Why do supervisors allow it?

Many managers do not know that their workers are working off the clock, and others decide to ignore it and turn a blind eye to that matter.

The reasons are simple: they get free work and the department's budget is not affected. That looks good in statistics, because their own supervisors think that they are doing their job with greater efficiency.

In fact, if workers report long hours working off the clock, supervisors would have to account to their bosses for their mismanagement of the workload, or authorize overtime pay. For that reason, they prefer to ignore that there is a problem and leave things as they are.

However, none of the foregoing is a justification for illegality, nor should working off the clock be a reason to fire an employee. Ignoring overtime is not the solution: the company needs to reconsider the burden it is putting on the worker's shoulders, and hire more labor if necessary and overtime exceeds the limit of what is healthy.

Working off the clock: the HR role

In this particular matter, the HR department plays a hero role for the employee working off the clock. If working after hours becomes a regular act, the worker should go to this department and raise their concern, so that no legal infraction is incurred.

HR is in charge of auditing the actual hours of paid work and making the pertinent budget adjustments, so that the off-the-clock hours are paid. In addition, HR must deal with managers and alert them to improve their management style, so as not to overload their workers to the point that they need overtime to do the work for which they are paid.

Preventing off-the-clock work

The best way of avoiding liabilities for off the clock work by employees, is to strictly control task times, including breaks and lunches. Employers can implement a strict program of work process, taking the steps to control off-the-clock work, monitoring work activities and informing regularly to managers and other supervisors about it.

There are some criteria to determine whether specific off-the-clock activities are compensable, but each case depends on a close analysis of the particular facts. Employer guidelines should be clear of what are considered working off the clock to not foster misinterpretations. This should also be well defined to managers and other supervisors, informing them of their responsibilities under wage laws.

The employer must also communicate their expectations for after-hours work to supervisors. During this difficult economic times, employees may even think that working off the clock is expected if the employer does nothing to specifically discourage them from doing so.

Nevertheless, they should understand that working time must be recorded: working off the clock doesn’t help the company and can trigger a lawsuit.

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