Dilemma of the Month: Changing the Terms of Employment

Back Q&A Oct 5, 2017 By Suzanne Lucas
My assistant “Jane” has a reduced work week, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. I agreed to this when she was hired. However, two years later, I now need her to work more hours. I don’t need or want to hire an additional person — I just need her to work an 8-hour day. But she doesn’t want to. What can I legally do? Can I fire her if she doesn’t want to work more hours?

The short answer is that as long as you don’t have a contract with her, it’s perfectly legal for you to change the conditions of the job. You can say, “I now need you to be here from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with a 30-minute lunch. If you can’t do that, I’ll have to terminate you.” If she says no, you can fire her.

But, I suspect you’re a nice person, or you wouldn’t be asking me this question. So the longer, more involved answer is that you really shouldn’t fire Jane unless you have to. Your needs may have changed, but hers haven’t. So let’s consider some additional information and some options:

Think About Jane

Why does she need reduced hours? Does she have children that get out of school in the afternoon, so she needs to be home to greet them? Does she wish to pursue her dream of becoming an artist? Both are valid reasons to want to work a reduced-hour schedule. However, her reasons will make a difference in how this plays out — if she needs the extra time for family reasons, she’ll probably be more open to flexible options than if she wants the extra time to pursue something else.

Consider A New Hire

If you fire Jane, you’ll have to replace her. For a complex job, it might take months to bring the new person up to speed. You’ll have to take away time from your day to train the new person. In other words, you won’t see the benefit from the new, full-time replacement for at least six months, if not more.

If the job is simple and anyone could walk in off the street and do it, you could hire someone to come in for 10 hours a week to pick up the extra work that Jane can’t get done. In a college town, this would be an ideal part-time job for a student to get a bit of spending money. Advertise at the college and your problem will be solved. At 10 hours a week, the employee won’t be eligible for benefits, so you’ll just be paying the hourly rate plus employment taxes — same as you would Jane.

Ask Jane

Do you have a list of tasks that aren’t getting done — and have you shared them with Jane? Maybe she has suggestions for getting them done within her current schedule. Frequently, employees have better ideas on how to get things done than their bosses do. It’s not because the boss is incompetent; it’s just because the employee knows better what it takes to get their work done.

Suggest Working From Home

If tasks aren’t getting done in the office, could Jane do them from home? Instead of working two hours later every day, could she come in two hours earlier? Could she work four 10-hour shifts and then have a three-day weekend? Would she be more likely to work 40 hours a week if she could work two or three days from home? If you need more coverage in the afternoon, could she come in later? Would one hour more a day, instead of two, work?

Have Her Available for Clients

If you need her available for clients, could she be on call for those two hours but not expected to do additional project work — just answer questions? (And, of course, paid for any time she does put in.) Is it a money thing? Would Jane be interested in working more hours if a big raise came with it?

The 40-hour work week isn’t something decreed from above; we’ve just decided on it as a culture. There’s nothing immoral about it, but there’s nothing immoral about working less, working more or working a different set of hours altogether.

My strong recommendation is that you work with Jane to come up with a solution. Remember, it’s difficult to find a good, part-time job as well, so Jane should be motivated to work with you to search out a solution.

Proceed with caution and save the idea of terminating her as a very last resort — hiring an unknown may not bring the results you want either. A good, experienced employee is worth her weight in gold. 

Have a burning HR question? Email it to evilhrlady@comstocksmag.com

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