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I'm exempt, but my boss tracks me every minute

Dear Evil HR Lady,

My colleagues and I are all salaried exempt employees. We are not people managers; we are project managers, even though that is not what we are called. Recently, there has been what I like to call "Much Ado About Hours" throughout our office, and especially in our department. Our manager has always kept track of days we are out of the office (vacation days, sick days, etc.). Now she is keeping track of what time we arrive, what time we leave, how long we take for lunch, etc., and she frequently brings the issue of "people not working their hours" up in meetings. We aren't talking about major absences -- maybe just someone arriving 15-30 minutes late or someone else leaving 15-30 minutes early.

During our busy months, I would guess that we average 45-50 hours per week, usually work through lunch and occasionally spend our weekends (with no comp time) for company travel. We are all good workers who manage our projects effectively with very little slacking.The office just moved 20 miles away, which makes for a longer commute for everyone.

As exempt employees, haven't we earned a little flexibility in our schedules? By tracking our hours in this manner, isn't our boss treating us like non-exempt employees? And if so, is there anything we can do about it? Certainly I can speak with her about this and I am happy to do so, but I would like to be able to back up my feelings with facts and figures; feelings alone will get me nowhere.

I appreciate any insight you can provide.

It's certainly legal to track the time of an exempt employee. It's also legal to fire, reprimand, write up or demote someone for not working the number of hours at the assigned times, if the manager decides to do that. What's not legal is to dock pay.

Now, as you suspect, this is a lousy way to manage exempt employees. In order to be exempt without managing people you have to be sufficiently self managing and have the ability to make decisions. Without that you are non-exempt and must be paid by the hour and given overtime (when appropriate). I'm going to assume that you are properly classified as exempt.

This is a management issue. You need to sit down with your boss and get to the bottom of the problem. You said this behavior is new. What has changed recently?

Did someone leave? Have people started coming in late more regularly and blaming the commute? Are people taking extra long lunches? Are all of you really on top of your projects? Are there budget cuts coming up? Is fundraising down? Does your boss have a new boss? Has something changed in her personal life? 

People don't just change their behavior because they are bored. If things were fine before and now she's got her stopwatch out, you need to figure out what that change is. It could well be the office relocation.

Logically, you'd think that wouldn't matter, but it's something that makes sense. If everyone is complaining about the new commute, your manager is going to be more aware of who is and who isn't in the office.

More on workplace issues: 5 things to do when the boss is wrong

Now, let me ask you a question. Are you or your coworkers justifying slacker behavior because of the new, longer commute? Are you coming in later and leaving earlier? Are you taking longer lunches? Because the reason for her obsession with time may be because all of you have started abusing the privileges you once had.

It's something that is possible. I wouldn't care one whit if an employee left 15 minutes early every once in a while. I would mind if that employee wasn't around when I needed her to do something and it's because she's always coming in late or leaving early because of "traffic."

You won't find a bigger fan of a results oriented workplace than me, but if the determination has been made that employees are to work in the office, you need to be, well, in the office, during core business hours. 

So talk with her. Ask her if there are problems with your performance. Don't worry about your coworkers, as you cannot defend all of them. Tell her that you're feeling a bit stifled. And here's the important part: Let her explain. Don't use the word "but" at all. If you're not regularly coming in late, or leaving early, she may not have a problem with you.

And one more thing -- I'm kind of laughing at the 45-50 hours a week during busy season. I, too, worked 45-50 hours a week during "busy" season in my last job. The only difference is that I was working part time and had a job share partner who was also putting in 45-50 hours a week. We were officially scheduled for 20 hours. A 45-hour week is seriously normal for many, many, many exempt level jobs. You're not being overworked if that's your busy schedule.

At the end of the day, your job is to make your boss happy. If that means you must always be on time, so be it. If that means you can't take an extra long lunch now and then, so be it. But I suspect that a good discussion with her about what is bothering her may resolve a lot of the problems.

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