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Would you like your boss to be fined for making you reply to emails?

It sounds great, but what about companies with employees or clients in different time zones?
Smiling businesswoman using laptop late.
Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Workers in the Big Apple could be banned from checking or replying to after-hours emails, if New York City lawmakers pass a newly proposed bill.

Americans are chronically stressed by work, with many struggling to establish work-life balance, so the idea of protecting time outside the office by enabling workers to be off the digital clock should prove popular. So why does this legislative action have experts scratching their heads — if not adamantly shaking them?

Note that the bill does not ban emails being sent after hours — it just makes it "unlawful for private employees in the city of New York to require employees to check and respond to email and other electronic communications during non-work hours.”

That’s a key distinction, highlighting that this is a law geared not toward shutting down connectivity after work, but managing bosses’ expectations around it. If the bill passes, employers would still be able to send post-working hour emails to workers — who could still respond, if so inclined.

If the bill were a ban on electronic communications outside of work hours, companies would probably have to implement "software cutoffs that actually restrict access to work accounts during off hours,” noted Chris Young, a former transactional attorney. But this bill doesn’t have a cut-and-dried answer as to how it would be logistically addressed, which is its biggest problem. If employees can still be contacted off the clock, and still reply of their own free will, then what does that mean for the employees who do take issue with it and don’t engage post-work? Potentially they could miss out on a promotion or another opportunity because they didn’t express their eagerness by replying after hours. Sure, they weren’t forced to do it — but why didn’t they want to do it? That’s a question their supervisors could privately consider.

“You can say people aren't required to reply to an email, but if one employee does respond and the other doesn't, who will get a higher performance rating?” said William J. Becker, co-author of the study Exhausted, but Unable to Disconnect: After-Hours Email, Work-Family Balance and Identification. The bill — designed to protect the employee who chooses to disconnect when not working — arguably exposes that employee to the risk of being judged as less invested in the job than the employee who chooses to connect.

Would a fine matter?

Employers found guilty of breaking the law would be liable to pay a civil penalty — a maximum of $500 for the first violation and $100 for each succeeding violation.

Steve Wang, a human resources manager, thinks $500 is “an inconsequential amount” for bigger companies and that they’ll likely be “willing to take the risk, especially when the benefits of outside-of-work communication can be so much greater than the $500 fine.”

What’s more, this law covers electronic communications, which it defines as “electronic mail, text messages or other digital means of conveying data electronically.” But what about calling someone on their landline? Or sending a messenger over to their house? These may seem like unlikely last ditch efforts, but anyone who has had a super-demanding boss is probably immediately noticing those loopholes.

So how do the French pull it off?

A similar law was passed in France last year, requiring businesses with 50 or more employees to negotiate after-hours email rules with workers, potentially allowing them to ignore post-work correspondence. But is it really fair to compare France to the U.S. in terms of work culture? France legally standardized a 35-hour workweek in 2000 — and employees may not work for more than 4.5 hours without a break.

“The phrase that most French and Europeans go by when it comes to work is that you ‘work to live’ whereas Americans are generally seen as workaholics and 'live to work,'” said Young. “When this law was passed in France it was in response to demonstrations and violent street protests requesting labor reforms. We aren’t seeing that level of passion for these types of workers' rights here in America because the culture isn’t ingrained in the same way.”

Employees could miss out on a promotion because they didn’t express their eagerness by replying after hours.

Scott Marden, chief marketing officer at Captivate, added that America seems to be going in the opposite direction of France in terms of general work-life culture.

“Our work days are getting longer and employers are trying to do more things to make the workplace [appealing] with various amenities,” said Marden. “They’re becoming centers not just for working but for living, while France is about making sure life happens outside the workplace.”

Curious as to what white-collar workers thought of the proposed NYC legislation, Captivate conducted an Office Pulse survey on the topic. Of the 315 respondents, 54 percent deemed the bill a good idea, while 24 percent did not. Twenty-two percent thought it wouldn’t deter bosses from expecting email responses after hours.

“[This law could] help cut down on things like procrastination and disorganization,” said Rafael Romis, founder and CEO of Weberous web design. “In the current climate, a person might not email you about something important because they can just send it whenever they feel like it. So, if they have a busy day themselves, they’ll just hold off emailing you until the evening when they have more time. If they knew they weren’t allowed to email you past a certain point in the day, they would be forced to be more organized and get all their emails sent out within working hours.”

What about multiple time zones?

What’s potentially the most detrimental aspect of this law is its local nature. If you only have one location (in which all your staff is based) and you don’t do any dealings with companies in other times zones, then this law is arguably quite feasible. But that isn’t the standard case for many companies in a major metropolitan hub.

“If this were to become an actual law, it would create a lot of issues with time zones,” said Romis. “The vast majority of companies have someone working remotely. At Weberous, we have employees from different states, and clients all over the world, so if we were to strictly work only during the typical work hours, then some deals would be compromised or not even possible. That is a big one.”