Why do exempt jobs have hours?

Okay. I confess. I work an exempt job that makes sense to have hours for, since I am also the receptionist for my office, so I have to be ready in case the phone rings, or at least be able to get back to the phone message quickly if I miss the call.

Some other people have exempt jobs that require them to work very hard all the time. And then there are the non-exempt folks who get paid by the hour.

But I know a lot of people who work salaried, exempt jobs and who have to be at work from a fixed hour to another fixed hour, regardless of how much work they have to do. That I find silly. If your job doesn’t require meeting people who randomly walk in or answering random phone calls, you should be paid to do your job, and not to be in an office for a specified number of hours.

But the culture of the American office workforce is “Work these hours,” not “get this job done.” Because of that culture, millions of employees spend hours of their time “on the job” talking with each other at the water cooler about what happened on some TV show the night before or surfing the internet and doing some online shopping. The best is the employee who spends all her time complaining to her co-workers about how busy she is (uh… the time you’re spending complaining about how busy you are? You could use that time to actually get your work done and then be a little less busy).

Imagine if you were a manager and had a project you wanted to be done well, do you think you’d get a better result saying, “Do as good a job on this project as you can. I’m going to be judging the project by how well it’s done. I don’t care if it takes you two hours or two weeks to do. Whenever you’re done with the project, go home” or saying “Do this project. No matter how good a job you do on this project, you have to be here from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM”?

I had a job once that was a lot like the latter. People would always marvel at how quickly I got things done, but I think that’s just because they had no incentive to get things done quickly… or even well. All they knew is they had to be in by a certain hour in the morning and leave by a certain hour in the evening. That’s it. What gets done or doesn’t get done in the meantime, for a lot of office workers, is just enough not to get fired.

Am I alone in thinking this way? Can my readers from other countries shed some light on whether this is a uniquely American phenomenon or not?


  1. I am an American, so I don’t quite fit your profile request. However, when I ran my business in Morocco, that is exactly how I ran it. My employees could come and go as they pleased, as long as the work was done well and on time and they showed up for appointments or meetings.

  2. Think about this way: why should you get paid for working? Would you rather get paid 24/7? You work 6 hours to get something done, but does it really provide value to yourself or others?

    Compare this: working 8 hours to get a non-important thing done versus being paid big money for working on something valuable that people would pay for.

    Then a solution would to become self-employed.

    See these links for reasons why to make your own business:

    Yes, I like this guy XD.

  3. You’re certainly not alone. What you’re describing sounds like Parkinson’s Law (1955): Work expands to fill the amount of time given for it. He was going on his experience in the British Civil Service, so it’s at least not a strictly American thing.

    It’s funny in a sad way that after over 50 years we’re still dealing with the same problem. Even if Parkinson was trying to be funny, his “law” has stuck around because it’s so true.

  4. I haven’t quite got my head around the term exempt in relation to a job. Anyway, I work for the British Civil Service and I guess Parkinson’s law still applies in some cases. However more frequently I see another phenomenon and it seems to get more extreme the further you get up the ladder. That is you are paid for say an 8 hour day, but you regularly work longer than that, take work home, come in at weekends and then answer mobile phone calls and e mails using your Blackberry while you are holiday (vacation). Utter madness in my view.

  5. Yes, that’s the other extreme, and I’ve seen it happen to a lot of friends who have high-powered jobs.

    They get paid a lot of money, but they work basically every working hour of the day.

    Hell, when I was a teacher, that’s practically what it was like!

  6. IMHO, the situtation you describe happens because bosses cannot understand that “exempt” means more than “you don’t have to pay these people overtime.” Even those who have had the reality beaten into their heads don’t think it’s right that a salaried employee can take half a day out of the office and not have to make it up sometime. Of course when the employee has just finished working a 70-hour week to accomplish a goal, that same boss is elated that they only have to pay them their regular salary.

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