Do you get promoted faster if you work more?

A lot of us go around thinking that working extra hours will help our chances of getting a promotion. But is that really the case? Reader Niels Larsen asked and we investigated

By: Tine Santesson

Niels Larsen has become increasingly convinced that there is a connection between the number of hours you work and how quickly you get promoted. In one instance he recalls, a manager even praised him for holding meetings at clients’ offices during the middle of the day, even though it meant he was in the office less and disrupted his workday.

That got Larsen to thinking, and he recently wrote to us to ask us if we would look into whether the two are related.

When I call him, he tells me he’s worked as a civil servant and a consultant, and that he’s always put in a lot of hours, even though he was never explicitly told to do so.

“I always just assumed that working a lot was necessary if you wanted to be promoted,” he says. “No-one ever said it outright, but in a lot of jobs it’s implied that you need to put in the hours if you want to get promoted. It’s more important to show you are enthusiastic than it is to show how competent you are.”

Larsen says he’s never pursued managerial positions.

“I didn’t necessarily want to have employees reporting to me. I just wanted to get promoted and not spend the rest of my days as a civil-service clerk or a garden-variety consultant in some consultancy.”

He got the promotions he wanted without ever having to be a manager, but recently he’s got to thinking over whether it was the extra hours that did it. Now that he’s a father, he’s chosen to cut back on how much he works. Today, he works 30 hours a week for Atkins, a consultancy.

“In hindsight, it just doesn’t seem as if all those extra hours were really necessary. My choice to work 30 hours a week is probably a sign that I don’t believe there is a connection.”

Bosses work more

My first stop brings me to Djøf’s Data and Analysis Department. I’m hoping someone there will be able to tell me whether they collect the type of statistics that can help me answer Larsen’s question.

Kirstine Nærvig Petersen, the head of analysis, tells me that the most recent salary statistics show executives work 48 hours a week on average. Managers average 43 hours and “non-managers” 41 hours. The question, though, is whether executives and managers were also working all those extra hours before they got to where they are. The stats can’t tell me that.

Another Djøf report shows that 56% of non-managerial public-sector employees work more each week than they need to and that 17% of them say they do it so they can improve their chances of being promoted. Still, that doesn’t tell me whether it actually plays any role in whether they get promoted.

That was then. This is now

Next, I decide to call Morten Ballisager. He’s the owner of a recruiting firm. That means two things: firstly, as a manger himself, he knows what he’s looking for when he’s considering someone for a promotion. Secondly, as someone who helps firms hire people, he knows what other employers are looking for.

When I put Larsen’s question to him, he answers with a prompt “of course there is.”

“Now that doesn’t mean that just because you work a lot then you’re guaranteed to get a promotion. But in my experience it’s evident that the more hours you work, the better you get at your job and the more you get noticed by the people who do the promoting.”

Is that the way he looks at it, I ask.

“I look at talent and motivation, not hours,” he says. “But, again, putting in extra hours helps you get better at what you do, which means there is an indirect connection. I’d also probably look at the person who stays two hours extra and think that they were more motivated and deserving of a promotion. That might be an assumption, but it’s the assumption I go by.”

What about his clients? Is the number of hours worked a criterium for them when they ask him to find candidates?

“They look at it differently now than they might have eight or ten years ago. It’s my sense that the vast majority of employers understand the need for a work-life balance. But we do have some clients that ask about candidates’ ‘work ethic’, as they prefer to put it.”

Ballisager appears to be an authority, but I’d like to hear what Larsen feels about his views. He mostly agrees, he says – just not when it comes to the connection between being good at your job and working a lot.

“It would seem to me that he’s going by his gut feeling when he determines who’s good at their job. He thinks there is a connection because he feels he chooses the candidates who work a lot of hours.”

And that biases his decision, Larsen believes. He brings up his own example to illustrate: a period when he worked a lot, without his boss being aware of it.

“When I met with clients at their offices, I would schedule it either first thing or at the end of the day,” he says. “It was often on my way to or from work, so I could save time that way, but on the other hand it meant that I didn’t get to the office until 9:30, or that I left at 3:30 some days. When it came time for my annual review, my boss mentioned that I often came late or left early. In that case, his opinion of me was formed by whether I was at the office or not, and that had consequences for my review.”

So, what did Larsen do? Right. Scheduled meetings during the middle of the day.

“And suddenly my boss was pleased with the improvements I was making and the motivation I was showing. The reality, though, was that I was spending more time in transport, my workday was constantly being interrupted and I was frequently absent from the meetings the department held.”

Branch dependent

A manager’s gut feeling and an employee’s strategic thinking are hard to quantify. Instead I try to find someone who’s taken an academic look at the matter. I try the National Research Centre for Work Environment first, but to no avail. Then I try the Rockwool Foundation, which has conducted several studies of people’s working hours, but they can’t help either. Finally, I get a hold of someone who can: Nabanita Datta Gupta, a professor at Aarhus University, and a member of the Economic Councils, which advises the government.

Gupta does have an idea of how important presenteeism is when managers in various industries consider someone for promotion. She says she’s too busy to speak, though So we agree she can send me her answers in writing.

“At the micro level, there is a big difference firms in various industries place on the importance of working hours. In a highly competitive line of business, where promotion and pay rises are linked, there will always be pressure to do more and to stand out from the crowd, and that could be by working more than everyone else.

These are industries like finance and firms like consultancies and export-oriented businesses, according to Gupta, all of which hire a lot of Djøf members.

For young women, long hours can be a particular hurdle, she says.

“There is a Norwegian study that shows that when a firm starts to export, the pay gap between male and female graduates grows. A part of the reason why is that an exporter needs to be available when the people its exports to are working, and its employees need to travel more, and that makes the job less flexible.”

In a situation like that, hours and promotions would be related.

“In other positions or industries that are less hierarchical, or where pay is based on qualifications or the number of years you have been on the job, rather than performance or flexibility, we don’t see that the chances of promotion are closely related to hours worked.”

The public sector, she says, is a good example of this in Denmark. But, beyond that, not enough is known to be able to say much for sure.

Boss dependent?

Larsen would like to hear directly from the bosses themselves, so I try Hanne Kristensen. She was the deputy director of the Competition and Consumer Authority when he worked there and remembers him clearly. Today, she’s a department head at the Tax Ministry.

I ask her whether she worked a lot as she was moving up through the ranks, and whether it played a role in the promotions she received.

“I was probably one of those people who worked less than my co-workers,” she says. “I’ve actually always made an effort to not work too much.”

Working a lot was never something she tried to use to get a promotion.

“There have actually been times that I’ve had to tell my boss that I had too much on my plate. And I’ll admit that’s not the most pleasant situation. It’s something you really don’t want to have to do, because managers want to see that you can take whatever is thrown at you. That’s why there are some people out there who are willing to work until midnight.”

That, though, is something Kristensen won’t do.

“I’ve drawn a line a few times, and when I did I also thought about whether it would come back to haunt me.”

She can’t see that it has, but she also recalls co-workers letting her know that that wasn’t something people normally did.

What about when she’s looking to promote someone? Does she consider how much they work? Never, she says.

“It’s always irritated me when other executives would argue during salary negotiations that working a lot of hours should automatically be rewarded with extra pay. In my opinion, being able to create results in the time you have available to you is a competency in and of itself.”

In fact, managers who look primarily at how much people work are ducking their responsibility, she believes.

“It’s easy to use a quantitative metric to reward or promote people. And something like hours is easily measured, but it’s a way to avoid making the subjective evaluation of people’s work that is required of managers. And why should we reward someone who works themself sick? I believe working a lot of hours is bad for your performance in the long run. I think it’s bad for a lot of things. So in my mind automatically rewarding extra hours is stupid. I would call it poor leadership.”

No clear picture

I let it rest there. I want to check back in with Larsen before I finish, but before I do let’s recap – and make it clear that this is a topic that I could have written an entire issue of Djøfbladet about. There were a lot of people I didn’t speak with about the connection between hours worked and promotion. But no matter how many people I had spoken with I still wouldn’t have been able to say anything with any certainty.

Still, I think there are some things that we can conclude. Firstly, some bosses do look at how many hours you work and some don’t. And, secondly, in some industries working until late at night puts you on the path to promotion.

Larsen feels he’s learned a lot from what I’ve found out, even if he didn’t get a clear answer to his question.

“The interesting thing is that it’s so individual. There’s no formula, no management theory, that drives a boss’s decision. In reality it comes down to their opinion.”

What about Larsen’s own hours? Does he expect to keep working 30 hours a week?

“I imagine I’ll go back to 37 hours a week,” he says. “The way I see it is that you can’t expect to be promoted if you’re working fewer hours than everyone else.”

This article was originally published in Danish in Djøfbladet - 'Bliver du lettere forfremmet, hvis du arbejder meget?' | Djøfbladet (djoefbladet.dk)