Working 40 Hours Per Week: A Normal Schedule, or Career Suicide?

© japonico -
© japonico -

The question in the headline of The Wall Street Journal story jumped out at me because, well, I’ve heard it so many times before: Is 40 Hours a Part Time Week?

My answer to that has always been, “it is for me,” and it pretty much has been all of my career as an exempt, managerial, supervisory, professional employee.

As a manager running a department, or more commonly, a newsroom operation, I’ve worked whatever it took to get the job done — and that rarely was just 40 hours in a given week.

And yes, it WAS career suicide to try to do it otherwise.

Majority of Americans working longer hours

The Journal’s blog post is based around the premise that I have lived under for all too much of my life: that “the  40-hour work week (is) considered part time for white-collar professionals …”

But is that an abnormal permutation of working in the 24/7 news business, as I have, or something that has become fairly common for most exempt professionals?

The Journal’s blog post pointed to an article on The Huffington Post that said:

Over the last 30 years, the majority of Americans have started working longer hours while earning less, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.

The report finds that in in 2006, American families worked an average of 11 hours more per week than they did in 1979. Indeed, now many top-level professionals, lawyers and doctors view the traditional 40 hour work week as a “part-time” job, according to the report:

“Many feel, with some justification, that a 40-hour week would be career suicide. This schedule is seen as ‘part time’ in many professional-managerial jobs, and tends to spell a less-prestigious and less upwardly-mobile career path.”

Supplanting the traditional 40-hour work week, many employees now work 50 hours or more. According to the report, male professionals especially work longer hours. 37.9 percent of men with professional and managerial positions worked over 50 hours a week between 2006 and 2008, compared to 34 percent from the years 1977 to 1979. With professional women, the change is even more striking: 14.4 percent work over 50 hours currently, while only 6.1 percent did 30 years ago.”

Non-exempts working more than 40 hours

This notion that it is unacceptable to work “only” 40 hours if you are a manager isn’t new, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own during the long recession and slow recovery when so many organizations improved their productivity pretty dramatically — and often on the backs of exempt managers working a helluva lot more than 40 hours per week.

I’ve always wondered how HR dealt with this problem, because in many of the places I worked for, it spilled over into the hourly, non-exempt employee arena where having people work more than 40 hours was a big no-no unless you paid overtime. And, lots of those hourly employees I worked with didn’t put in for overtime — and lots of HR people never asked about it even through it was happening right under their nose.

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For example:

  • There was the Fortune 500 multi-national media company I worked for where top editors and managers were hammered with the directive to “do whatever it takes” to meet unit and corporate goals, but who also got beat on from above when doing so meant that you blew out your overtime budget. At one of the newspapers I edited, I had three hours — yes, 3 hours — in my OT budget per week. One reporter getting stuck on one night at a late running city council meeting would blow that out, and my HR Director and Publisher both knew it but did nothing because they knew that in order to meet the corporate directive, I had to get people to work more than 40 hours per week without breaking my overtime budget.
  • Then there was the magazine publisher where just about every editorial employee was given an “editor” title — assistant editor, associate editor, whatever — because the guy who owned the place thought that made them “exempt” from overtime. Just about any HR pro knows that thinking won’t fly, because it’s not the title that determines whether someone is exempt or not — it’s their actual job duties and whether they meet the legal test for an exempt employee. Needless to say, this publishing house got hit by state wage and hour investigation when a disgruntled employee complained, but I always wondered, “why does the HR Director let this go on when they clearly know it is illegal and wrong?”

Working more than 40 hours is the norm

I could go on with a lot more examples, but my point is this: people who want to get ahead in their career, whether they are an exempt employee or not, frequently work more than 40 hours a week. Sometimes, if they’re non-exempt, they do this without putting in for the proper overtime they have coming because they know doing so would cause grief for their supervisors and they would be accused of not being a “team player.”

Is this just a quirk that is unique to working in media companies, as I have, for most of my career? Maybe, but I also encountered it in the last couple of years at my part-time college teaching job where, due to state budget cuts, I was told I had to designate certain “furlough” days even though the notion of furlough days for a part-time college professor who preps for classes and grades papers whenever they can is ludicrous and impossible to enforce with a straight face.

Yes, the 40 hour work week is a part-time schedule for anyone wanting to get ahead in their life and career, and that’s true for exempt and non-exempt employees alike. Sometimes overtime gets paid to the non-exempts, but frequently, it doesn’t. But that doesn’t matter. People who want to get ahead, rightly or wrongly, know they need to put in more than the usual 40 hours if they want to succeed.

Is that how it is at your organization? And what role does HR play in it if it is? Do they demand that every non-exempt worker get OT, or do they bend the rules somewhat to suit the goals of senior management?

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


6 Comments on “Working 40 Hours Per Week: A Normal Schedule, or Career Suicide?

  1. After a trip to Cardiac Care in 2000, I decided to get off the steadily increasing treadmill and establish a few “boundaries.”  The first was to dump one of my employers.  The second was to establish how much time I would devote to my employer of choice, first personally, then with my manager.  I was full-time exempt – an HR Master Trainer, so my responsibilities were global.  We agreed that a “normal” (office hours only – no classroom time) week was to be 40 hours, with “travel” weeks bursting up to 50-60 as necessary to meet customer demands.

    What that also meant was a reassessment of responsibilities and priorities. We looked at what I was investing my energy in and where the best return on investment would be.  Once those were established, if new “opportunities” came in, we would discuss what would be put on the back burner to keep my energy level at its operational best.  This worked very well for almost 10 years, but it required regular communication regarding workloads.  No customer was ever without our assistance.  We just worked “smarter.”

    Our company was acquired and our new parent decided to push our envelope.  As a result, we both left the company.

    Keeping work hours in reasonable line is an achievable goal.  What is career (and personal) suicide is constantly “red-lining” your employees engines.

    1. I know several software engineers. Some of them work an average of 60-70 hrs a week (average – meaning often pulling 80 hours). I also know several working 40-50 hours a week.

      My observation is that the overworked engineers write more code, but it is not as efficient or reusable. In the end, the same amount of work gets done per week, from what I have seen (I have seen the code for both of their projects and collaborated with them on their progress). Difference is, the 40-50 hr employees produce more stable and reusable code.

      Ambition seems to be overtaking knowledge, reason, and even humanity in America. It is terrible to see this happen.

    1. That thought passed my mind, and my answer to it was that people may not use the term “part-time,” but they definitely more than hold the concept. In the end, the author asks about HR’s role. I am sorry to be so cynical (please help me here) but when has HR ever been effective for anyone besides upper management? In my experience, they are very nice, friendly and will help with safe activities, like helping people process forms, and in family or medical emergencies, but when it comes to serious actual workplace issues, they have no choice but to advocate for upper management, albeit as quietly as possible.

  2. I guess the social engineering of America is paying off for Those In Charge. If you want a productive hive of workers who are beaten down, submissive, and largely unable to pursue anything more than survival, you just have to tax them and design society in such a way as to keep their noses to the grindstone. “Yes,” our all-knowing elite are saying, “work longer hours. Your family needs the extra money after what you will lose from Social Security, health insurance, and paying for the welfare of everyone who’s given up already.”

  3. I work as a salaried employee in the entertainment industry, my average work week is 60 hours a week. It is stated on my paycheck that in order to receive over time I must work 80+ hours a week. We often work normal 8-5:30 office hours and extended hours when we have events, meaning several 14 hour days and often Saturdays. we are not compensated for the 6 day work weeks, we get one day off. It seems to have become a culture where if you are not in early, out late, and working weekends you aren’t ‘trying’… I plan to leave the company soon as I have no work/life balance.

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