Never Promote Based On Overtime

Here are three reasons why I will never promote someone for working overtime:

If you’re like me, you’ve probably worked at a job where the people who are seen as the “best workers” are the ones who show up early, stay late, and skip lunch. They’re the ones who get promoted first. They’re the ones who set the standard for the rest of the team. But what if all of that was bullshit?

Now don’t get me wrong, I do think there is a strong correlation between one's level of dedication to the number of hours worked. I’m not here to say these people don’t care. They usually care a lot actually. I’m here to say that they might not be ready for leadership, a senior role, or even a raise. In fact, I’m here to argue that working overtime in order to accomplish your goals, on a regular basis, is not the sign of a good leader.

Here are three reasons why I will never promote someone for working overtime:

First, there are already several well-known sayings around this concept that can express this better than I can. For example, have you ever heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder”? There is true genius behind that saying. We say it so often that it loses meaning and becomes just another meaningless trope. Even looking at a trivial example will show just how true that is.

Let’s say Bob can build a widget in 5 hours, and Sally can build it in 2 hours. Let’s also assume that the overall quality of the end result is roughly the same. Now immediately I’m sure you’re thinking something like “Wow, Sally is way faster than Bob! She must be a pro!”, and I would agree.

Now let’s try something a little closer to home. Let’s say Bob hit all of his quotas this quarter and worked 45 hours a week on average. Sally also hit her quotas but never went over 40 hours per week.

Who would normally get promoted in this situation?

Do you see how backward our system is? We incentivize brute force labor over clever planning and efficiency. They see Bob’s overtime as a sign of “dedication” and “work ethic”. I see it as a sign of poor planning and a lack of skill. Bob only has one lever to pull, more hours. Even without knowing Sally, you could argue that she demonstrates the ability to work smarter just by reviewing timesheets and quarterly goal results.

Second, the law of diminishing returns is real. Do you want an overworked and tired pilot flying your plane? Of course not! Humans have limits. If you’re in a job that requires extreme attention to detail, you simply can’t run on empty forever. You might look like a hero at the moment but your inability to take breaks could cost someone their life depending on your job. Rest is just as crucial as hard work. You can have quality and quantity but, not at the same time. So, why would a company want the extra risk that comes along with the employee who has already worked 50 hours this week and is trying to squeeze out a few more hours? The odds of quality deterioration are all but certain. Which means your employer is paying you for “junk volume”. More is not always more.

It also just sucks to live that way. No one has ever looked at a Japanese Salary Man with envy. Work-life balance isn’t just a buzzword in a job description. We’re all going to die folks. There’s even a term for it in Japanese called “Karoshi” meaning “death from overworking”. If you want to work overtime, do it on your side hustle. Give back to your community. Build a legacy. Odds are you won’t be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, so keep things in perspective.

The last and most important reason why I would never promote someone for this kind of behavior is that it doesn’t scale. In the software agency world, we call this the “Hero Model”. You have one or two people who seem to always be there to put out fires. People call them when things go wrong and they’re always happy to help. Even if that means that no one else ever learns to help. They become the Easy Button. Sure, that makes everyone’s life easier in the moment but what if they quit tomorrow? What if the company makes a key acquisition and suddenly doubles its clientele? Can that same hero still support all of these new clients?

Real heroes make more heroes. They lead the way, show people what’s possible, and then quickly step aside to let others learn the ropes. This is actually better for them too. If they don’t have to constantly run around saving everyone all the time, maybe they could finally get out of the day-to-day and get that truly deserved promotion where they can focus on higher-level goals.

In this post, I’ve talked a lot about what not to do. So let’s take a minute and clarify when it actually is appropriate to promote someone. Spoiler alert, it’s basically the opposite of our first three points.

They demonstrate the ability to see problems before they happen. Instead of working late to fix that issue, they saw it coming from a mile away and put a plan in place to mitigate the risk ahead of time. No overtime is needed.

They take pride in the quality of their craft. Now, this point can be very specific depending on your industry to be fair. For example, if you’re an hourly employee at a fast-food restaurant, you might not run into as many issues. That kind of work tends to be more about volume and less about quality. However, if you build the website that the fast food company uses to sell millions of dollars worth of food every year, it matters. Having a website go down during peak hours because you made a careless mistake when you were “tired” could cost a company tens of thousands in revenue.

They have elevated others around them. They have just single-handedly done the company a huge favor. Instead of leaning on the Hero Mode where you trade overtime for respect and job security, they have created an entire team of leaders. They have “worked themselves out of a job”. Their reward should be to rise up to the next level of leadership where they can apply that same strategy again.

I hope you gained some insights from this post. Maybe you thought of ways to change how you work. Perhaps you took notes for your next review cycle with your boss. Now go forth and work smarter, not harder.