Do I have to stay late to prove myself?

I'm on a graduate fast-track scheme. All my peers suck up to the boss and stay late. But I need to have a life as well. Am I harming my chances of progression?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 May 2013

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Q: I joined a graduate fast-track scheme three years ago at a large pharma company. It's a very competitive environment and my peers work all hours, as if they are trying to be the last one to leave the office. They suck up to their bosses and never miss helping them out, no matter what the task is. I have a different attitude. I get my work done and get very good results, but I need to have a life as well, and I am happy to leave on time. Yet I seem to be the only one to think this way. Am I harming my chances of progression?

Miranda: I sympathise with you, caught as you are between your logic as to best practice and the mores of prevailing culture. You argue rationally that if you are efficient and well organised and accomplish your tasks within official working hours you should be rewarded for your behaviour, rather than being subject to discrimination for not spending every hour in the office.

However, in many organisations, uncertainty over job security has contributed to an epidemic of 'presenteeism', where working long hours is regarded as a mark of loyalty and commitment.

This behaviour may be characteristic of your sector. Some years ago, I coached a number of senior people in a large pharma company. One of the organisation's stated values was 'a sense of urgency', which was quite understandable, given the race to bring a product to market and make a profit. Each of the many steps from formulation, through clinical trials, to gaining health authority certification, and eventual marketing, sales and distribution is very time-consuming.

This sense of urgency, at its best, encouraged efficiency, minimal bureaucracy and the avoidance of delays. But the negative impact of this imperative was overworking and frequent criticism of those who, like you, went about their work in a more measured and methodical way, despite the fact that quality and attention to detail are vital to pharmaceutical development.

It's not just pharma businesses where overwork is the norm. A junior hospital doctor of my acquaintance was asked to sign up to the European Working Time Directive so that the hospital could comply with regulations, then immediately summoned to a meeting with other junior doctors to be told that if they didn't work longer hours than those they'd just agreed to, they couldn't expect to keep their jobs.

In these uncertain times, where many people are vulnerable to job loss, it's not surprising that you see your peers desperately trying to impress by apparently putting their loyalty to the company above their personal commitments.

Whether you need to change your behaviour to match that of your colleagues depends on two things: your performance (and particularly the results you achieve) and the attitude of your boss. Do a little detective work to establish how you are perceived. It's likely you have regular appraisals, which should give you an idea as to whether your efforts are appreciated, especially if there is an element of 360-degree feedback. It may be that your boss appreciates the value you bring and is unimpressed by your colleagues' attempts to curry favour, but if you detect any doubt about your degree of commitment then maybe you will need to make some adjustments.

But even if all seems well on that front, it is still worth making sure that the pride you take in managing your workload within statutory hours doesn't come across as a smug air of superiority over others who have different ways of working. Another danger is appearing inflexible and unwilling to put your shoulder to the wheel at times of genuine emergency, when evening and weekend work may be required. Rigidly sticking to the letter of the obligations set out in your employment contract is very unlikely to be acceptable to your managers.

My guess is that if you stay in the pharma sector and reach more senior levels, you will find that your workload increases beyond what can be comfortably achieved within your contracted hours. If you can't adapt to this, you may need to change sectors, but be aware that long working hours are likely to remain a feature of employment for the foreseeable future.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk

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