I’m Exempt — What Does That Mean?

If you feel you're owed flexibility, you're wrong

Back Q&A Dec 3, 2015 By Suzanne Lucas

I just started a new job where I am an exempt employee. When I started, I was asked to provide a “regular work schedule” that I selected as 7:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m. When I inquired about coming in at 8:30 on Monday and Friday mornings, my employer said they didn’t favor that and as a new employee,  I didn’t feel comfortable pushing back. As an exempt employee, what are the rules about standard hours?

First of all, congratulations on a new job. When you start a new job — no matter how many questions you asked during the interview — you won’t truly understand how the culture works. It’s impossible, frankly. But before we address the cultural issues, let’s address the exempt issues.

Being exempt means that you aren’t eligible for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. A manager can’t just decide that someone is exempt; employees have to meet standards. For instance, an exempt employee needs to perform certain functions, such as managing other employees, performing high-level work or doing outside sales. There is also a minimum salary requirement. Right now that’s pretty low ($455 per week) but the Department of Labor has proposed raising the salary minimum to $970 a week in 2016.

In addition to the work functions, your boss has to pay you the same amount every pay period, although you can be awarded a bonus. But regardless of whether you work 20 hours or 60 hours, your paycheck remains fixed. Now, an exempt employee can be fired for not working enough hours, but she still must be paid the full amount each pay period. In practical terms, this means that if you cut out early for a doctor’s appointment or shoe shopping, your manager can’t deduct your pay. He can deduct from your PTO bank, though.

With these requirements to be paid the same no matter how many hours you work during a week, many exempt employees feel that they should be in charge of when they come and go. In theory, exempt employees should have more flexibility, but the law doesn’t require it.

So, can your boss set your hours? Absolutely. Does this make sense? Well, it depends on the job. For instance, if you’re a retail store manager and there always needs to be a manager on duty, it is critical that you come in when scheduled. It doesn’t matter if you are going to put in 16 hours that day; if you’re 30 minutes late, the store can’t open. On the other hand, if you’re a graphic designer, you really only need to be onsite when you have meetings. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter whether you do your work at 2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.

Lots of other jobs fall in between the extremes. If you work as part of a team, you need to be there when the team is there. If your job is highly collaborative, you need to be around to collaborate. If you manage employees who need a lot of oversight, you need to be there to manage them. On the other hand, if you manage a team of other independent exempt workers, you don’t need to be in your office at fixed hours.

Sometimes flexibility makes a lot of sense. In your case, it sounds like you were originally given flexibility when you were hired. Your boss asked, “What do you want your hours to be?” and you answered. Now, a few weeks in, you want to change that schedule. It probably wouldn’t make a big difference to your job functions because (in theory) you could have picked the different schedule on day one. But your boss said no.

Should you have pushed back? You’re a new employee, and this is where culture matters. Some cultures are really flexible, and some bosses are like, “Yeah, whatever.” Your boss isn’t. In this case, you were smart not to push back. You asked, and he answered. End of story. Your boss was probably annoyed that you asked for a change in schedule. After all, he let you choose your schedule when you started and probably feels that you should have asked for this when you started.

Does this mean your boss is ignoring the spirit of exempt employees? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, it’s his choice. Most likely, you will have a chance to change your schedule later. How? Work really, really hard. Prove yourself as a valuable employee who is effective and completely dependable.

Your plan as a new employee should be to follow the rules, be on time and take a minimum amount of time off. Even if you were promised extreme flexibility, it’s best to ease into that flexibility after you’ve shown how awesome you are. Being exempt from overtime doesn’t mean you’re exempt from a manager’s rules, but there’s a high probability you’ll be allowed to change your schedule in the future.


LJ (not verified)December 7, 2015 - 2:55pm

I applaud your analysis, but ask that you refrain from using "he"s. They're not universal. "They," "s/he," or "the manager." Thanks.

Visitor (not verified)December 7, 2015 - 5:48pm

The author alternates pronouns (sometimes she uses "she" in articles for managers, as she did with the previous one on 5 Great Habits and sometimes she uses "he.") That is a better way of doing it then using s/he (in my opinion) or saying "they" when referring to an individual person.

Allison JoyDecember 8, 2015 - 2:17pm

And this would be reflective of our standard policy at the magazine as well. We refrain from using "they" and alternate between he and she.

Vicki (not verified)December 7, 2015 - 7:44pm

And this is why I hate being an "employee".

Suzanne - I feel like I should post the link to this article in the comments on most of the letters you get answer.