THE INC. LIFE

Does an Exempt Employee Need Permission to Leave the Office?

Just how much control does your boss have over you?

Share on
BY Suzanne Lucas - 11 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

A reader sent me the following email:

Recently my dept hired a new manager, my first interaction with her happened when I broke a tooth and had to go to the dentist on an emergency work in basis.

I sent an email to my new manager letting her know that I would be leaving for the emergency appointment and giving full details; then coming back after. I also explained that my calendar was free for the afternoon with no pending obligations and notified my coworkers of my whereabouts. She was unavailable for instant messaging or phone calls at this time. I did, however, inform my Director that morning of my pending appointment.

Upon my return, I received an email asking if I had approved this through another manager (none were available) and that in the future she had to approve time off for doctor/dentist appointments - period.

I was adamant that I did my due diligence under the circumstances and do not believe I need approval to go to doctor's appointments other than giving as much notice as I am able to and have consistently done. This is the first emergency visit to a doctor/dentist in my entire work history.

For informational purposes, I am salaried, have an exemplary work record, have taken 1 sick day in the last 12 months, and schedule minimal doctor's appointments.

I would appreciate your advice, applicable laws on this subject and any other information/advice you might be able to offer before I take this to HR.

This is a good question that comes up often--just what are the obligations of an exempt employee when it comes to scheduling and being physically in the office? In theory, an exempt employee is hired to do the job not work a set number of hours. In theory, that should mean you have control over your own schedule and do what needs to be done.

In practice, though, that's not how it's played out. And, according to the law, your boss can still determine your hours and demand that you get approval for any time outside of the office.

In this case, the new manager is legally allowed to require specific permission for leaving the office--even when faced with a dental emergency. (Some states have sick leave laws that may run into conflict with this, but federal law doesn't require sick leave unless covered by FMLA or ADA. It's doubtful a broken tooth would qualify for either.)

In practice, this manager was out of line. I suspect as a brand new manager (at least to the department, as I don't know if she had previous management experience) she wanted to set up a hard line: You don't leave the office without her permission.For many offices this is a fine rule--but for one where the boss isn't reachable (as was the case here), it's pretty ridiculous.

Managers, you can control your exempt employee's day, but you should not. Especially when it's for something like an emergency dentist appointment. Remember, you should be worried about performance, not about butt-in-seat time. And, even if this employee had been non-exempt, it should not be a big deal to leave for a couple of hours for an emergency appointment, especially since she had nothing time sensitive that afternoon.

Remember that, often, what you can do and what you should do are two very different things.

In this case, though, I'd advise the letter writer to apologize to her boss, by saying, "Normally, I wouldn't leave during the day without express permission, but given that this was an emergency, I did everything I could." I wouldn't go to HR over this--I would save that for later if this manager continues on a micro-management path. This is a one-off situation and not likely to be repeated. The proper person to go to is her boss, which I presume is the director, who was already involved. So, it's time to let this go. But, if you're the manager and reading this, you screwed up.

Have a problem employee, problem manager or a people management question? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.