Month: September 2015

What Salaried Really Means

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I was talking to a person who did graphic design for an architecture firm. She often has to produce work on short deadlines, often working late hours and coming in early.

I wish I was salaried, she told me.

I assumed, like most people, when she said salaried, she meant exempt.

Why? I asked, you’d lose your overtime. You wouldn’t get paid for all those extra hours you work.

Yes, but I’d be salaried.

Like most people, she equated exempt with being a professional. Getting paid for the work performed, rather than the hours worked. To her, it’s a sign of status, like a corner office or a vice president title. And like those things, she was willing to sacrifice pay to get it.

Now the Department of Labor is proposing changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which will make it harder for you to be classified as exempt. Basically, one of the requirements is that you earn a salary of$23,660 annually. They proposing to at least double this (IT positions, for all you techies out there, follow a different set of rules).

This rule change means a lot of people who are currently exempt will either have to receive pay raises or be reclassified and get overtime. NPR featured just such a person. A bank branch manager getting paid $30,000 a year was told when he was hired that his was not a 9 to 5 job. He would always be on call. As a result, he often works 60 hours per week. Because he’s exempt, he doesn’t make a dime more for it.

I worked this out. At 60 hours per week, he earns the equivalent of just over $9.50 per hour. Some bank tellers earn more than this, and don’t have near the responsibility. For all practical purposes, he is probably earning less than many of the loan officers and personal bankers he supervises.

Low paying industries have been doing this for years. They give someone the title of manager, work the hell out of them, and get to keep all the additional results of that labor as profit. In addition, many of these people aren’t even true managers. Due to their companies’ constant budget cuts, they are short-staffed, so they make up the difference. Most of their time isn’t spent hiring or developing staff. It’s spent working behind the coffee counter or stocking shelves, with less than half of it

Of course, some of these employers complain that if the law changes, they won’t be able to make money, forcing them to cut jobs. They may even have to shut their doors. Good. As I’ve said before, if your business model depends on taking advantage of your workers, you have a poor business model and deserve to go out of business.

Other employers are naturally looking for ways around the law before it even goes into effect. Most will merely move the employees at issue to hourly, but pay them less so that they’ll have to work overtime to maintain their current rate of pay. Then they’ll turn around and say it’s not their greed, but big bad government’s fault.

Nice, huh?

It’s too bad that any of these rules are even necessary. The workplace would be so much better if employers didn’t see employees as a resource, like computers or shelf space, but rather as a stake holder, just like their customers and shareholders, people invested in the success of the organization who employers need to invest in for their success.

Until that time comes, the Department of Labor will continue to enforce the FLSA, and employers will continue to find ways to work around it, or flaunt it all together.

And as long as she’s salaried, that graphic designer and millions like her will be thankful for the privilege of being considered a “professional”.

Work-Life Balance: The Broken See-Saw

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Work-life balance is like pornography. It’s highly popular, but everyone has a different definition of what it is, and it does not exist in the real world. defines work-life balance as, “A comfortable state of equilibrium achieved between an employee’s primary priorities of their employment position and their private lifestyle.” So if work-life balance were a see-saw, it would look like this:


Sounds great, but if you try it, you’ll quickly learn how difficult it is. Oh, sure, you can stay this way for a few minutes, but eventually, one side begins to go down while the other goes up, simply because no-two people are the exact same weight or always exerting the same pressure. It’s unsustainable and unrealistic, and you’ll just frustrate yourself if you try to maintain it. Ask any child who’s played with one of these:


Workers have a different definition of work-life balance. Whenever someone explains to me why they need better work-life balance, they never say they are not working enough. Instead, they want more time and flexibility to pursue interests outside of work such as family and friends, hobbies and interests. They aren’t looking for balance. For them, the see-saw should be weighted towards life.

An employer sees work-life balance as the ability to work whenever and wherever the work needs to be done, whether you are in the office, mountain biking or watching your daughter’s dance recital. As one manager told me, it’s not work-life balance, it’s work-life integration. Their see-saw is also out of balance, weighted towards work.

All these definitions are wrong. The trick to being happy and fulfilled in both work and life is to realize that the see-saw is broken and to never get on it at all. It’s not about work-life balance or work-life integration. It’s all about work-life separation.

People have often asked me how I can do my job all day without suffering a nervous breakdown. Dealing with people’s problems, issues and concerns, not to mention having to fire people, can take its toll. Simple, I tell them, I compartmentalize. Sure, I may discuss work with my wife sometimes. She’s a good listener, and can provide me with a different perspective. But when I am with my children, reading to them, making dinner, coaching their soccer team, work is left behind. And if I’m out with my friends, having a couple of beers, work is almost never mentioned. Sure, there is the occasional email or phone call or text that I have to deal with while I’m not physically working, but these are few and far between.

Work-life separation.

“You’re lucky,” I had one manager tell me when I explained this to him. “My job is 24-7. I can’t divide the two so easily.” I had to agree that his job demanded more of his off-hours time than mine. He oversees safety and security, which in his role, is a round-the-clock responsibility. But actual situations in which he received middle of the night calls are rare. Besides, I see it as his choice. He has a team of people he could count on to help him, but he chooses to be the first line of defense all the time. He could just as easily delegate some of his off-hours responsibilities, freeing himself up except in the most dire situations.

Some will say that work-life separation will make you worse at your job. After all, if work isn’t your number one priority all the time, how can you be any good at it? I look at myself as an example. I used to stay up nights worrying about the next workday. Friends complained that all I talked about was work. Sometimes, I’d even become physically ill thinking about it. Was I great at my job? I was good, but I could have been better. I was constantly stressed about it, getting worked up over the tiniest of issues. It stressed out my coworkers, hurt the work environment. Over time, I learned let go, and as my personal life improved, I found that I became more efficient, more relaxed, better to be around when I was at work.

So how do you put work-life separation into practice? Here are some tips:

Don’t let work define you: Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone lists what he thought of as his major accomplishments. President of the United States was not one of them. It wasn’t who he was, it was something he did. If you wrap your identity up in your work, you won’t be able to break from it when the workday is done.

Have transition time: I know a man who works long hours. When he gets home, the first thing he does is go out and putter in his garden. It gives him time to unwind and let the workday go. My Dad used to relax with the afternoon newspaper. Do something that helps you make the transition easier, whether it’s listening to music on your commute home, sitting down with a good book, or just sitting quietly.

Turn off your phone (or tablet, or whatever): When you aren’t working, don’t check emails or texts from colleagues. Unless you are the head of a nuclear power plant or a brain surgeon, there’s nothing that can’t wait until you get back into the office. Likewise, if you are at work, don’t waste time shopping for a Halloween Costumes for your pet cat or updating your Facebook status. Spend it getting your job done. Your employer will appreciate it.

Develop outside interests: I had a project manager tell me that she was one-hundred percent about work. She was proud of the fact, but her desk was a mess, she was always in meetings and whenever I saw her, all she could talk about was how stressed she was. How sad, I thought. What will happen to her if she gets laid off, or when she eventually retires? She’ll be lost. We all need to have more to life than work.

Most of us drag ourselves into work every morning, not because a deep yearning to do what we do, but to keep a roof over our heads and our bellies full. There are those lucky few, however, whose jobs are also their avocations. They are making a living doing what they always dreamed of doing, and cannot see a life without it. For them, work-life separation makes no sense. Then again, they don’t have work-life balance, or work-life integration, either. They just have life.