Cool Boss Moves is a series where we share the tips, tricks, and strategies we stole from other great managers.

This week: Give people bonus cash for being on-call. (Or maybe don’t have them be on-call at all…?)

Emma: We heard about this Cool Boss Move on a forum Andy’s a part of. One of the members posted a very reasonable vent about an on-call system gone awry: announced to the team via a Slack message over the weekend, launched on a Sunday, phones ringing at 12:30 am on Monday. Not great.

Andy: There was a lot of commiseration about what a change-management mess it was. Emma and I started reminiscing about the various after-hours on-call “systems” we’d both cobbled together over the years.

Emma: We had pretty much agreed they are all hunk of junk, but a necessary evil, when this comment popped up:

“I get compensated for being in the rotation at all and an additional heavy compensation if my phone so much as rings outside work hours when I’m on call. Does your company have all of this setup as well? Otherwise, I wouldn’t agree to ever be on call.”


Andy: Incredible. You get a bonus for being on-call. Then more bonus for getting a call. And the whole thing is optional!

I love the whole concept. Opt-in and if you do get a call, you’ll also get a nice bonus that makes it feel worth it. Opt out and you’re clear that you’re opting out of an extra thing, not opting out of your actual job.

Emma: I’m positive this isn’t a new concept for plenty of people reading this newsletter, but it’s wildly outside of the realm of my experience. I have never in my life been paid for being available, let alone for hopping on a task after dinner. I have also never thought to compensate anyone extra for these things.

Instead, I’ve always used some sort of mandatory rotation system so different people are on-call on different days, ideally spaced nice and far apart. That last part is key because being on-call is a burden, and I feel guilty if I’m asking that of the same people too often.

…which probably should have been my clue that it would have been cool to pay them for it.

Andy: Lol, yes. I remember once feeling so guilty about having an on-call system that I made myself the only person in the rotation. It was the only solution that came to mind. I didn’t feel good making other people do it, so I guessed I’d just do it instead? It somehow felt like part of what I’d already signed up for, even though that wasn’t in my job description.

Emma: That’s the tricky part, isn’t it? I have always struggled with determining what is extra. It’s not just me, is it? I was reading through the Department of Labor’s advice on when to compensate for on-call duties, and even they admit it’s a case-by-case determination. The best they’ve got is you should probably pay if an employee “cannot use the time effectively for his or her own purposes.”

Andy: Why do we have to be doing everything effectively!? Frankly, I appreciate my time outside of work for how ineffectively I’m able to use it. Either way, I choose to interpret the threshold as “being drunk on a boat in international waters with no cell signal.” If that can’t happen as soon as I log off, every time, I would like to be paid.

Emma: The thing is, those labor laws don’t even apply to salaried workers!

Andy: And that’s one of the sources of these fuzzy boundaries. Today I feel a lot more comfortable saying no, similar to the woman who responded to the forum post. But back then I didn’t, either out of team spirit, or a desire to be a top performer, or simply because I didn’t realize that my life is my life, not my company’s.

Emma: I have never had good boundaries around if and when the work day is actually over. It’s an ambivalence I know I’ve imparted onto the people I’ve managed over the years. I learned it from my bosses. I remember one boss was very particular about making sure we all called it “work-life integration” instead of “work-life balance.” That phrase makes me want to eat my shorts, but I get where he was coming from. How else could we possibly get our heads wrapped around checking our work email one last time before we go to bed?

Andy: I think it’s very normal to be vague about these boundaries as a manager, and absolve ourselves of boundary-setting by leaving it up to our employees. Yet, when you’re a manager and you don’t make things explicitly optional, they’re implicitly required. Your team may feel like they have to say yes (or else!) no matter how vague or invented the consequences are.

Emma: Absolutely. Ultimately, the Coolest Boss Move of all is being explicit, and simply saying, “This is outside the bounds of your job. I do not expect you to do it for free.” I get that not everyone has the budget to start handing out bonuses for after-hours work, and if you’re in that boat, it’s a place to put some serious thought: If we’re not willing to pay for this work, why are we expecting it to be done?