When Early Isn't an Option
How does a night owl who arrives at work after noon each day succeed in his career?
The first story in this series covers the basics about a type of circadian rhythm disorder called delayed sleep phase syndrome (also DSPS, or delayed sleep), which half a million Americans suffer. In the second story, a writer with delayed sleep says she felt like death holding down a 9-to-5 job, and ultimately felt better when she began freelancing. In this third story, you’ll meet Tom Lemmon, a software engineer at a top Internet company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lemmon, who doesn’t want his real name revealed because of the stigma that night owls face, shares how his employers have accommodated his unusual sleep needs, enabling him to start work after noon over the past 17 years.
"I do high-quality work in a field that puts a lot of weight on that, has trouble finding qualified candidates, and has a tradition of flexibility in the workplace," says Lemmon. "If any of those ingredients were missing, I imagine that I would have had a much harder time."
The Importance of Being Likable
Lemmon addresses another important component of his success. "I believe that I'm considered pleasant to work with,” he says. "It helps to be cheerful and the kind of person other people want to be around. Many inconveniences are overlooked when someone is well-liked."
However, he adds that at times his performance has suffered a lot because of his sleeping habits. For example, he has faced challenges when he has needed constant access to his colleagues to make progress, but they’ve left for home. Despite that, says Lemmon, "I've found that managers -- at least the ones who are relaxed and don't like to micromanage -- won't move to get rid of someone, or even "ding" them too much when writing annual performance reviews, if that person is easy to manage and contributes something worthwhile. Unless something is really forcing the manager's hand, such as a headcount reduction imposed from above, or a greatly expanded work load with no budget for hiring additional workers, it doesn't matter if someone is less than perfect -- as long as they're useful and not a management headache."
Lemmon defines management headaches as routinely writing malfunctioning code or upsetting other team members. He continues, "Arriving at noon with the potential to get stuck with a question after everyone has left for the day is not a management headache—as long as the other team members aren't upset by it."
How Night Owls Can Gain Wiggle Room
Based on his own experience, Lemmon says a delayed sleep sufferer will do best in fields in which: (1) traditional displays of professionalism (such as being at one's desk when the manager's manager walks by) do not matter much; (2) there is a tradition of flexibility in the workplace; (3) it's difficult for employers to find good workers; (4) the business is successful enough that managers can relax if not every employee is hyper-productive; and (5) you are among the "rock stars" of the organization, gaining a certain level of respect simply because everyone in your position is treated with respect.
Examples Lemmon shares are doctors in hospitals, programmers at software companies, and scientists in laboratories. "A counterexample would be a programmer working at a bank, or a risk compliance officer at a hedge fund—that's a job I'd never want to have," he adds.
Staying Up Late is a Biological Necessity for Some People
"My disorder started in my mid-teens, and at that time I didn't know what to call it, but I felt strongly that it was biologically-based, considering that other people I knew -- such as teenagers who stayed up late with me during summer vacation -- could simply use an alarm clock for several days in a row to return to a normal sleep schedule," says Lemmon. "That didn't work for me no matter how many days in a row I tried it," he adds.
He says that he just couldn't fix his sleep schedule and feel normal. He continues, "It was 20 years before I learned that other people had the disorder -- and related disorders that are far worse." At that point Lemmon also realized that delayed sleep was recognized by physicians involved in circadian rhythm research.
Balancing Sleep & Work Needs
When Lemmon’s work absolutely requires that he show up early, he says he just does it and puts up with the discomfort. He says that that works well enough if it's only for a day or two. However, he adds, "I usually get enough sleep -- meaning that I'm coming in to work pretty late. My work requires mental clarity and alertness, so in my field it's not an option, in the long-term, to trade alertness for keeping traditional working hours."
How Unusual Sleep Hours Can Impact a Career
"I've stayed in a purely technical role without management responsibilities," says Lemmon. He adds that he would have chosen to explore other business roles if he were able to maintain traditional working hours.
As a result of his delayed sleep hours, Lemmon says that he has taken fewer risks and switched jobs less often. Why? "If an organization is treating me well, I stay put," he says. "Fortunately, in my 17-year career, spanning four organizations and at least 10 managers, I've had only one manager who wasn't willing to accommodate me at all, and I had to quit. In engineering, managers tend to be tolerant of all kinds of eccentricities, but in addition to that, I suspect that I've been pretty lucky."
An Understanding Boss is a Must
Lemmon says that whenever he gets a new manager, he gives that person a brief "heads up" about his sleep disorder and work schedule needs.
"In R&D (research and development), nobody cares about getting approval from higher-level managers or HR. Honestly, there have been times I've had this sort of discussion with a new manager and minimized the degree of my disorder, figuring that I'm better off making it as palatable as possible to him until he gets to know me better. That's worked out well so far."
How about when he starts a new job? "I've always struggled to get my sleep schedule as early as possible -- for me," he says, "and then hoped for the best. I have mentioned my late-shifted sleep during job interviews, primarily to gauge my potential manager's reaction, but I've generally minimized it."
How to Explain Your Situation to Prospective Employers
"For a person who (1) is looking for a technical position in the R&D side of a business, and (2) can get into work early enough to have a few hours of overlap with those on a normal schedule, there's no reason to mention the issue to HR at all -- or to say much about it to potential managers right away," says Lemmon. However, he adds that it's important to gauge the organization to ensure that you'll be a good fit.
Here's how Lemmon says candidates at an R&D job interview can handle disclosing information about their delayed sleep needs: "The candidate typically meets with the hiring manager, as well as several members of the team one at a time or in pairs. Ask them when they start work, when they have meetings -- and how often -- and try to understand how they collaborate."
"For the late-shifted job candidate, teams working on problems that tend to require loose collaboration with longer deadlines are better than those requiring tight collaboration with shorter deadlines -- that is, hours or a few days," says Lemmon. "In particular, in software, avoid teams that use 'agile' methods that have 'stand-up' meetings in the morning. If the team seems like a good fit, and you know that the hiring manager you're interviewing with will, in fact, be your manager, then you should bring up your late-shifted sleep schedule with them -- though perhaps minimize it," he adds. "Otherwise, omit it and take your chances with whomever becomes your manager. Why let the hiring manager filter you out if the person you end up working for has a different opinion?"
In Part IV of this series about night owls who suffer from delayed sleep, you’ll meet Julie Peggar, president and chief storyteller at Gaze Ethnographic Consulting who found success by creating her own business on her own terms, keeping hours that meet her biological needs.
Let Salary.com Help You
The first thing you need to do is get some sleep. Then, when you're ready for the job interview -- and hopefully it's in the afternoon -- you'll need to negotiate salary after you've gotten an offer. And Salary.com can help.
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