HR Leads Business

Mar 30, 2018 | Tim Lemke, HRCI Staff Writer

Should Late-Night Emails from the Boss Be Banned?

Admit it. You’ve responded to texts from your boss while at the dinner table. You’ve fired off email responses while watching your son’s baseball practice. The hard separation between work and home life is no longer a thing at many organizations.

But now, some lawmakers are crafting legislation that would force companies to leave workers alone after they go home. The New York City Council is the latest to consider a bill that would make it illegal for employers to require workers to check email or texts outside of normal working hours. Each violation would result in a $250 fine.

The law would be modeled after the “Right to Disconnect” law enacted in France last year.

Could these laws aid in efforts to create a healthier work-life balance? Or is a full ban on communications even feasible or welcome?

And what are companies already doing to provide a clearer line between “on” and “off?”

Available After Hours

A study by the Center for Creative Leadership reveals that professional employees spend about 13.5 hours per day interacting with work. Clearly, that means workers are checking email and doing other work-related tasks long after they’ve left the office. More than 20 percent of workers with smartphones say they feel obligated to respond to their boss at night and on weekends.

Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that percent of surveyed managers have no qualms about contacting an employee after hours, and 28 percent said they expected a response within an hour.

This can be a source of stress for workers and destructive to workplace morale and creative thinking.

“When employees are constantly monitoring their email after work hours — whether this is due to a fear of missing something from you, or because they are addicted to their devices — they are missing out on essential down time that brains need,” corporate trainer Maura Thomas writes in the Harvard Business Review. “Experiments have shown that to deliver our best at work, we require downtime. Time away produces new ideas and fresh insights. But your employees can never disconnect when they’re always reaching for their devices to see if you’ve emailed.”

But have companies been proactive in crafting policies to prevent after-hours communication? To some degree. Healthcare marketing firm Vynamic discourages after-hours communications from managers, and some overseas firms including Volkswagen and Daimler have instituted similar policies.

But Challenger, Gray & Christmas noted that less than 10 percent of surveyed companies have any policies in place. Thus, lawmakers are stepping in.

“So many of us are glued to our smartphones and computers, it’s important to understand that we don’t have to feel as if our work has to spill into our personal lives,” New York City Councilman Rafael Espina tells The New York Times.

Are These Laws Feasible?

Some business leaders say that forcing workers to fully disconnect after hours is simply not possible these days, particularly in fields such as medicine or law enforcement. Such laws could also be viewed as unfair to companies that let workers conduct personal business during normal work hours.

Employees “should be given the flexibility to make it home on time for that Friday night dinner at 6 p.m. But if the boss calls at 9 p.m., don’t think you can turn off your phone and put off the conversation until Monday morning,” writes Cliff Oxford, founder of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs, in The New York Times. ”My gosh, with the speed of social media, revolutions can break out and change countries in a matter of hours. Major events that redefine companies can happen in a matter of minutes or even seconds—and that is why employees have to be on call, almost like firefighters, even when they leave the office.”

Others say discouraging workplace communication after hours is the key to a healthy and happy workforce.

“Employers need to encourage workers to switch off by 6 p.m. with no emails, internal or external, to be sent until the morning – include it in workplace policy,” Zac de Silva, the owner of Nurture Change, told Human Resources Director magazine. “I don’t believe there is a need for punitive action if the ban on after hour emails is broken but it needs to be discouraged because the health and productivity of staff is the priority.”

A New Frontier for HR

The Fair Labor Standards Act does offer some guidance on whether workers can be compensated for the use of cell phones and other devices outside of work hours. For non-exempt workers, the FLSA requires overtime compensation for all work in excess of 40 hours, even if that work was not specifically mandated by the employer. That’s why some legal experts advise companies to avoid issuing smartphones to non-exempt workers, and to prohibit them from accessing work communications on their personal devices.

But exempt employees—usually full-time workers who receive a salary — are not covered by this FLSA rule.

Writing for Forbes, author and customer service expert Shep Hyken notes that hourly and salaried employees are and should be treated differently when it comes to working after hours.

“Leaders, managers and salaried employees are held to a different standard than hourly employees. That’s not a higher or lower standard, or that one is better than another. It’s just the way it is,” Hyken writes.

Indeed, exempt employees may not be covered under the FLSA, but that doesn’t mean companies should not consider them when crafting policies.

“Practically speaking, it may not work for your organization or your customers to impose time limits on email and other communication, particularly if your business has a global reach,” Kent Employment Law writes on its website. “One solution may be to allow employees to shorten their time in the office on a particular day if it is anticipated that they will be spending their evening working online.”

Do Workers Even Care?

The American Psychological Association reports that 41 percent of people who constantly check work email over the weekend view this as a source of stress. But that means 59 percent of respondents may not be bothered by it. The APA says 65 percent of respondents like the idea of voluntarily unplugging or doing a “digital detox” but only 28 percent have ever actually performed one. APA surveys in both 2013 and 2017 suggest that while technology has allowed companies to be more in touch after hours, it has also let workers blend their work and personal lives in a way that works for them. 

“For many people, the ability to stay connected adds value to their work and personal lives,” notes David Ballard, the assistant executive director of organizational excellent at APA, in a press release. “We’re learning that not everyone wants to power down, and that’s OK.”