Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

Is it OK to leave the office right at 5 p.m.?

I feel silly for asking, but more and more I feel as though it's frowned upon to come in right at 9 and leave right at 5. I've been at my job for about 4 years now. In the beginning, I was always early to work and never batted an eyelash if a project required me to stay late. Along the way, though, I got married and had a baby. Before my daughter was born, when it was just me and my husband, I never really watched the clock. Now that I have a family, I am out the door right at 5 p.m. There's a lot to be done when you have a baby, and working late just isn't an option most days. Plus, after spending a long day away from her, all I want to do is snuggle my little girl until bedtime. Is that a crime?

I understand there are going to be days where I'll have to stay late and tweak our normal family routine. When they've happened, I've survived just fine. But I don't want to make a habit out of it. My job will always come after my family. I worry about starting a new job with this mentality, especially because some PR firms seem to be uber competitive when it comes to who can stay the latest, who can come in the earliest, and who can use the least amount of vacation days.

So, I ask, is it OK to come in at 9 and leave at 5?

It depends on your particular field and your particular company. There are plenty of offices where this is normal, others where it might not be the norm but won't be an issue, and others where it will indeed be an issue.

The best thing to do is to screen for compatibility in this area when you're interviewing, and not to take a job where you're going to be out of sync with an employer's expectations on hours. But since you're already in this job, talk to your boss about this. Say that your schedule has changed since you've had a baby and ask if it's something that concerns her.

This will lead you to one of the following likely outcomes:

  • Your boss will tell you it's fine... and you will believe her because of the impressions you've formed by watching what others in your office do and how they react to your hours.
  • Your boss will tell you it's fine... but you won't entirely believe her because of the impressions you've formed by watching others in your office, how they react to your hours, and your manager's own demeanor during the conversation.
  • Your boss will tell you the job does require longer hours to get ahead, and that if you're not willing to put in those hours, it might impact future promotions, raises, and/or your reputation.
  • Your boss will be vague and unhelpful, leaving you to decide for yourself what your work habits portend based on impressions you've formed by watching others in your office and how they react to your hours.

Regardless of how the conversation goes, it's useful to bring this issue to the surface and talk about it, both because you're wondering about it and because you've made a change from your former habits. Either of those are conditions that should generally trigger a conversation with your manager.

If you do conclude that your new schedule is an issue or has the potential to become one, that doesn't mean that you need to change your hours. It's just a new piece of information for you to work with. You might decide you're okay with not being first on the list for promotions, for instance, or with being seen as less committed than others. (Or, more realistically, you might decide you're not fully okay with it, but you're willing to accept that as the trade-off for working better hours.) Or you might come to an agreement with your manager about how to fit more high-impact activities into the hours you are at work, or explicitly agree that as long as you get certain results, your hours won't be an issue. Or you might decide this isn't the right culture for you and so you're going to look for an employer whose ideas about balancing work and nonwork life are more in line with your own.

Overall, the idea is to gather information about the expectations around this specific job in this specific workplace culture, and then decide how you feel about it and whether you want to change anything in your life as a result.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Oct 21, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.