My view of the major difference between Exempt and Non-Exempt

For some stupid reason, I always have trouble remembering which is which when it comes to hourly and salary employees. I often look it up–I don’t know why–but essentially Exempt means that they are exempt from the labor rules around being paid an hourly wage and overtime.

So, you might be thinking that I’m writing to say that this is the major difference between these two types of positions.


I think the major difference between the two positions is totally something else and a lot of people don’t really see it. I think it’s kind of a forest through the trees thing. It’s so obvious that it’s pretty much invisible.

I’ve talked about it before, and I think the difference frustrates both employees and managers because they don’t understand the difference. My intention is to provide my simple view. My view doesn’t always work, but I believe that is because some jobs are classified incorrectly.

The difference has to do with the work itself and how they approach it.

A Non-Exempt, Hourly employee comes to work every day to perform the same set of tasks pretty much the same way every day. When you come into work, there is a queue of work normally waiting for you and your job is normally to get these items or a specific amount completed on your designated shift. Work for hourly employees can normally be broken down to widgets. When the amount of widgets increase beyond your normal work day capacity (8 hours), that’s when overtime is authorized to get the work done before you leave. Hourly employee tasks are normally very repetitive and completed rather quickly.

The general mentality around this work is that it is assigned to the employee to fill their day. The employee’s work is done when they have run out of work and they either clock out or they help others complete their work so everyone can get out of work on time or early. Work that has to be completed before that employee leaves, requires overtime to work it and work that doesn’t will go into the queue for the next morning or the next shift. This is a very simple model of work to operate under, but obviously it could get rather monotonous and boring. However, what you do and how you do it is pretty cut and dry.

Clearly, some people are getting paid a salary, but the work they’re doing really fits in this category and hourly paid people sometimes don’t work like this specifically. However, in my mind, this is the general rule around non-exempt employees.

Exempt employees are paid a salary and are not subject to hourly wage and overtime. They are exempt from the labor law essentially. But the work they get and how they approach it is very different. This can be very frustrating for employees and managers, especially if employees are new in the exempt role.

The tasks that are performed by exempt employees, for the most part, are repetitive, but the frequency of those tasks vary a great deal more. Normally, you don’t come in and have a queue of like things every day. The things that need to be worked on vary every day. You normally work on the same things for the most part all the time, but sometimes what they are is harder to define.

The major difference is that most exempt-type work spans more than a day to complete. Many times you can work on part of the task and then you have to wait for someone else or something else to happen to proceed to the next step. Thus, work spans days, weeks, and even months. Also, an exempt employee’s day is generally filled with many more meetings than non-exempt employees. Meetings are how much of the work is identified, scoped, discussed, worked, and accepted.

The beginning and end of work in exempt positions are normally not as clear as well. This can be very confusing.

The biggest thing is that exempt employees are expected to “find” things to do that need to get done, not wait for these things to drop in their lap. Also, they are expected to simply work later to get things done that need to get done, but should be allowed to leave and take care of personal things during work hours if they need to go.

You can imagine an employee’s transition from hourly to salary work. Your whole approach to your daily work has changed. However, many employees struggle with this. I often see one of two things happen.

1. The employee becomes bored with a feeling of not having enough to do during the day, or they feel overwhelmed and frustrated that they never can accomplish anything the day they come to work. Managers get frustrated with the employee who isn’t looking for things to get done or putting in the hours to get needed work done.

2. Employees aggressively attack the work and become overworked quickly. They are constantly finding things that need to get done and tend to work long hours trying to get them done during the day. They get frustrated that they can’t get things off their plate fast enough and the burn themselves out and/or ruin their work/life balance. Managers tend to like the drive and enthusiasm of this behavior, which can make it worse then better.

The two rules for exempt employees are:

1. If you don’t have any work to do, you aren’t looking for it.

2. The work will always be here tomorrow.

You are expected to have more work to do then you can get done in one day. If your work can be completed every day, you probably should be paid an hourly wage.


About johnrknotts
John Knotts is a results-oriented business professional leader, manager, and supervisor with experience from the military, small business, several nonprofits, and is currently a management consultant. Working out of the San Antonio, Texas, he retired from the Air Force in July 2008 and worked with Booz Allen Hamilton from the end of October 2008 to December 2011. Now he is a Strategic Business Adviser with USAA. John leads large and small strategic transformations and has extensive experience in the areas of change management, strategic planning, process improvement, strategic communication and marketing, strategic human capital and resource management, education and training, facilitation, organizational design and development, modeling and simulation, financial and budget analysis, activity based costing and management, quality management, competitive sourcing and privatization, leadership development, and business development.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: