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Each week, The Ethics Centre’s executive director Dr Simon Longstaff will be answering your ethics questionsThis week:

My employer expects me to work additional hours in my fulltime job without pay. If I don’t agree, there is little chance of me progressing in the company, or my career, but I think it is unfair to expect me to work without being paid. How can I reconcile the choice between what’s fair and my career?

I think that there are many people facing a similar dilemma — especially during a time of high unemployment — when the balance of power tilts decisively in favour of employers.

At such times, we rediscover the value of trade unions, collective bargaining and the tried and tested mechanisms for achieving solidarity when individuals would otherwise be at a relative disadvantage if left to fend for themselves.

However, not everyone is in a position to take advantage of such arrangements. Instead, they need to depend on the ethical restraint of the employer rather than the power of the collective. So, what does ethical restraint look like in this case?

As a start, I think we should distinguish between what is accepted and what is expected by an employer.

I know many people who work more hours than they are paid for. They do so quite willingly; volunteering a certain percentage of their time because they enjoy their work or want to make a larger contribution to the success of their enterprise. Indeed, discretionary effort, by employees, accounts for a large chunk of the labour productivity gains achieved over the past few decades.

However, I gather from your question that you are not wanting to volunteer any of your time, Instead, it seems you feel forced to make a choice between taking on extra unpaid work or paying the price of not doing so.

At one level, it seems obviously wrong that you should be expected to do extra work for no extra pay. After all, isn’t the whole economy based on an exchange of value — in this case, labour for money?

However, this formulation of the problem assumes that workplaces are defined solely in terms of formal transactions and modes of exchange. Instead, what if we think of work as an arena defined by more fluid relationships of give and take?

In such an environment there might be mutual expectations that go beyond strict formalities. For example, employees might be expected to work a reasonable amount of unpaid overtime, or occasional irregular hours, etc. However, the employer might reciprocate with corresponding benefits such as additional leave, more flexible working arrangements, etc.

If it was me, I would be approaching the situation with this broader perspective in mind.

Perhaps, offering to do some unpaid overtime might lead to the receipt of benefits other than money — but of equal or greater value. That way there would be no need to sacrifice one good (time) for another (career).

If that option is not possible … and your boss is just out to exploit your vulnerability … I would be looking for another place to work (easier said than done in the current environment).

After all, why would you want to progress your career in a company like that?

Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre. If you need support in addressing an issue or dilemma you can make an ethi-call appointment at: www.ethics.org.au.

Please let us know if you have a question for Simon. We will select one question to which he will respond each Friday.

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