Cliff Bowen came into the accounting world with a background in construction work. He was used to a crack-of-dawn start to the workday. So he continued on that schedule when he began working behind a desk.
He liked to get in before everyone and start plugging away at the work that had piled up.
When he was done, he'd get up and go home.
That is, until someone mentioned to him that it wasn't a good idea to leave before everyone else.
"My co-workers were used to coming in later. If the group's tasks weren't done, you'd have to stay with the group until the group decided it was time to go,'' said Bowen, 31. "When I thought it was time for me to go home, they were just getting into things."
It was a frustrating situation. He had a life outside of work, and he believes that work is a means to enjoy life. He says that's not possible if you have to spend 12 hours a day at the office, even if you're done by 6 p.m.
So after his little faux pas was brought to his attention, Bowen began to set aside busywork, such as filing and organizing, so he had something to do until it was "time to go.'' As might be expected, he recently left the job.
The frustrating scenario of hanging around to save face plays out in many offices: Even as the boss leaves at 8 p.m., Employee X is still sitting at her desk working away. Everyone notices, and the boss assumes she's the most productive member of the staff.
Whereas Employee Y, who goes to work in the early morning, sheepishly wanders over to the elevators at 6:30 -- and his boss and co-workers label him a slacker.
Does anyone notice when Employee Y gets to work at 5:30 a.m.? (When an employee walks in at daybreak and there's no one else there, does he make a sound?)
Are you Employee Y? Coming in early -- usually before anyone else gets there -- just works better for you. Part of that may be so you can get the kids to day care or school. Maybe you come in early because you want to leave early to pick the kids up. You want to miss traffic. Or part of the reason you get in before most coffee makers even start burbling is simply that you're more productive as the sun comes up.
Whatever the reason, you probably don't get recognized for it in the same way that those who stay late do.
And frankly, do you or should you care?
"My observation of this sort of thing probably applies more to people on their way up," said Karen Bloomfield, spokeswoman at Management Recruiters International Inc. in Cleveland. Those who are more established don't need to prove themselves beyond simply getting the job done.
Despite best intentions
But employees in the Washington region have often wondered why, despite their best work and best intentions, their boss tells them that if they only showed their face for a few more hours at night instead of rushing off at 5 p.m., then maybe, just maybe, they would get that promotion.
About two years ago, Wayne Weita, a 33-year-old producer and director in the media department at Management Recruiters, began going to work at 8 a.m. instead of everyone's usual 8:30 a.m. start time. He takes a half-hour lunch, then leaves at 4:30.
He started this schedule so he could get his 18-month-old son to and from the baby sitter's house on time.
He admits that he still occasionally feels as though he needs to slither out so no one sees him leaving early. But then, no one sees him opening the office in the morning, either.
"Sometimes, if I'm at the elevator and someone's going downstairs for a drink or candy bar, I do try to throw a reason for leaving early into the conversation subtly.''
Some workplace experts give a few hints if you want someone to notice you're pulling your weight -- especially if you are -- but the bosses wonder why you're not sweating it out at your desk past "Must See TV" time.
Send early e-mails
Some of those hints include sending an e-mail to your boss in the morning, so he or she knows you are at the office, working before regular hours.
Ask for keys or other necessities because you come in before most of your pals do.
Tell them how it is. If you got there early for the past month to finish the project, let it be known.
Weita said he doesn't feel that his boss judges him. His is the kind of work where, if he doesn't get everything done, people notice. And he gets it done.
But as one woman said, her New York firm told her at a review that she needed to hang around the office a bit more.
"I'm working 80 hours a week, on the road most of the time. Do you just want face time?'' she asked incredulously.
Her supervisor dropped the subject, and she subsequently noticed that the co-workers who stayed around the office until 9 p.m. usually were there listening to songs from Napster.
She doesn't work there anymore.