How quickly should I have to respond to an email? My boss expects an answer within minutes of it arriving in my inbox even during the weekend! I feel harassed.
You’re not the only one! Smartphones, working across multiple time zones and client demands mean that private equity specialists, hedge fund analysts and many more will be nodding empathetically in response to your question.
Most high-flying employees in the City will have a clause in their contract stating that they can be required to work outside their contractual hours to meet business requirements, but it very rarely spells out exactly how much out-of-hours work will be required. Assuming that your contract contains such a clause, you can be required to work outside office hours.
The next question is whether you could be disciplined (or even fired) for failing to respond promptly to a weekend or evening email. This boils down to whether you have been given a reasonable and lawful instruction to make yourself available to respond swiftly to emails outside office hours. From the sounds of things, your boss has told you that you need to respond.
So, is the instruction reasonable? There are several relevant factors here. One is seniority and type of role – assuming you’re in a well-paid, senior role, it probably would be regarded as reasonable to require you to keep an eye on your emails outside working hours. However, if he/she is emailing you about matters that could sensibly be dealt with during normal working hours and aren’t time-critical, a requirement to respond immediately may be unreasonable. A further point to consider is whether this is a requirement applied to everyone doing a particular job, or whether you are being singled out (in which case you may have a potential harassment claim).
There’s also a health angle. Employers have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure their employees’ safety at work. There is a body of medical evidence that suggests that never switching off can lead to significant stress levels and damage employees’ health. Although employers are generally entitled to assume that an employee can cope with the normal pressures of their role, the expectations on you might go beyond such “normal pressures” and so if you did suffer a stress-related illness, your employer could be liable.
I’m assuming you have been told to respond immediately, but perhaps you are assuming that. It might be worthwhile considering why you have made this assumption and if it might be wrong. Either way, I would suggest speaking to your boss directly to clarify exactly what his/her expectations are and to agree what types of query genuinely need an urgent response outside work hours and which do not. It may even be worth highlighting the potential impact on your and other employees’ health, to emphasise the seriousness of the issue.
Depending on the organisation, you might also consider seeking the support of your HR team. That need not necessarily be when you have reached the stage of needing to raise a complaint or grievance. They may be able to help you discuss the expectations with your boss or they may be able to assist with providing guidance to managers generally on good management and how to get the best from their team: sometimes stressed managers do not appreciate that passing that onto their teams can be counter-productive.
• Jane Amphlett is a partner in the employment team at Howard Kennedy