Fined … for Late-Night Texting

“Right to disconnect” laws that ban firms from off-hour contacts are gaining steam in the EU. But would they work elsewhere?

Your workday has been over for a couple hours when suddenly the boss jolts your evening with a text. The rest of the night is ruined, but no worries: you screenshot the text and call the authorities.

The idea of government-granted rest and family time, and imposing fines on firms that don’t comply, is gaining renewed steam in the European Union. Portugal is the latest country to pass regulations limiting employers from contacting employees after-hours. Bosses and employers cannot call, text, or email their staff during an 11-hour rest period each day. (Emergencies are granted an exception.) France put a similar law on the books four years ago, and earlier this year, the European Parliament voted in favor of a broader “right to disconnect.”

In the United States, where vacations or paid leave time are much shorter already, such laws are not likely to emerge. However, amid the Great Resignation and a stress-filled pandemic, a handful of firms are considering the concept informally. Increasingly, experts say, many leaders have started encouraging employees to disconnect, and are training managers to eschew nighttime emails and calls so that workers don’t burn out. But Dan Kaplan, senior client partner for the Chief Human Resources Officers practice at Korn Ferry, says blanket policies wouldn’t survive in most work cultures. “We live in an Amazon world, where customers and clients expect immediacy,” he says. “The idea that you wouldn’t give them an answer because you’re not allowed to talk to your team just doesn’t take the realities of business into account.”

Some experts say that codifying rest-time efforts in large-scale blanket policies can have unintended consequences. “It really matters how the work gets done, and what that work is,” says Juan Pablo González, sector leader for professional services at Korn Ferry. For example, mergers and acquisitions deals are often made over the weekend, and curtailing employee communication would hinder those efforts. “The policy needs to correspond with how that organization creates value.”

Blanket policies also likely discriminate against employees who prefer off-hours work, says Andrés Tapia, ESG and DE&I strategist at Korn Ferry. For example, a parent who prioritizes being present for school drop-offs and pickups might want to send out emails at 9 p.m., after the kids are asleep. The answer here isn’t to deny those employees respite but to “address it on a one-on-one basis that corresponds with that person’s lifestyle,” Tapia says.

Of course, attempting to carve out private time for employees is not a bad instinct, says Bradford Frank, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology practice. In the pantheon of bad actors in the corporate world, the underlying intention here is laudable. But experts say it may be best expressed and enacted as a company value. For example, a company might state that most groups of employees are not under any obligation to respond to emails until they resume working hours. “Within each company’s culture, it needs to be embedded,” Frank says.