Organizational Wellness

Exempt vs Non-Exempt Employees: Differences, Pros & Cons

Oct 9, 2023
Last Updated May 17, 2024

Correctly classifying employees as exempt or non-exempt is an important responsibility of employers. It is a legal obligation that employers must adhere to in order to ensure compliance with labor laws and regulations. There are some specific rules laid out by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that determine which category each employee falls into. 

Why does it matter? It affects employee rights, benefits, and how employees get paid. Employers need to understand exempt vs non-exempt to ensure they are doing right by their employees and staying on the right side of the law. It’s all about keeping things fair and square and avoiding any legal headaches down the road. 

Discover how to tell the differences between exempt and non-exempt employees, the advantages of each setup, and how to manage employees no matter their classification. 


What Is the Difference Between Exempt and Non-Exempt Employees?

Two key factors distinguish exempt and non-exempt employees: how they are compensated and eligibility for overtime.

They get their name based on whether they are exempt or non-exempt from overtime pay. Exempt employees (who are typically salaried) are not eligible to earn overtime, regardless of how many hours they work beyond the standard 40-hour workweek. On the other hand, non-exempt employees are entitled to receive overtime pay. Since they usually earn an hourly wage, their overtime is often calculated at a rate of 1.5 times their regular hourly wage for any time worked beyond 40 hours.

Employers must carefully evaluate an employees' job duties and salary levels to determine the correct classification and ensure compliance with labor laws, as misclassifying employees has the potential to lead to lawsuits and penalties. As an HR manager, you will need to:

  • Understand the job responsibilities and required qualifications. You must have a clear understanding of the job responsibilities and the qualifications required for a specific position to properly determine the classification. This means assessing the level of decision-making authority, supervisory responsibilities, specialized skills, and educational requirements associated with the role. 
  • Consult FLSA laws. HR managers are also responsible for familiarizing themselves with the FLSA laws and regulations to ensure compliance when classifying employees. The FLSA outlines specific criteria and exemptions for different categories of employees, so you will want to stay up to date with any changes in the FLSA guidelines. 
  • Clearly communicate the job classification. During the hiring process, you should communicate the job classification to candidates. This includes discussing the implications of the classification, such as overtime eligibility, work hours, and compensation structure. 

By keeping these considerations in mind, you can get ready to navigate the process of hiring exempt and non-exempt employees. Adequate preparation helps you stay in compliance with labor laws, andn helps set clear expectations for both the organization and the candidates. 

Exempt vs Non-Exempt Employees: How to Tell the Difference

An exempt employee is someone who falls into a special category of labor laws and regulations. A non-exempt employee, on the other hand, is subject to all of the provisions outlined in the FLSA. 

There are a few key characteristics that differentiate the types of employees.

Salary vs. Hourly

Exempt employees are typically paid a fixed salary rather than hourly wages. Their salary remains consistent regardless of the number of hours worked and their pay is dispersed equally throughout the year. Non-exempt employees are generally paid on an hourly basis rather than receiving a fixed salary. They are entitled to receive overtime pay, calculated at 1.5 times their regular hourly wage, for any hours worked beyond 40 in a workweek. 

Overtime Pay

Since they are salaried employees, exempt employees are not entitled to receive overtime pay. This means that even if they work more than 40 hours in a week, they won’t see those extra hours reflected in their paycheck. Non-exempt employees are entitled to overtime pay.

Minimum Wage

Exempt employees are exempt (hence the name) from some of the provisions of FLSA, like minimum wage. Their compensation is based on their salary, not on an hourly rate. Non-exempt employees have the right to receive at least the minimum wage as mandated by federal or state law. This ensures they are paid fairly for their work.

Job Duties & Pay Level

The classification of employees is determined based on two factors: their job duties and their salary level. The specific criteria can vary depending on the FLSA exemptions, but generally, exempt employees hold executive, administrative, or highly specialized positions and earn a salary above a certain threshold. Non-exempt employees generally perform non-executive and non-administrative roles and are typically paid below the threshold specified by FLSA exemptions. 

Work Hour Flexibility 

Exempt employees often enjoy more flexibility in terms of their work hours since they are not bound by strict timekeeping requirements. They may have the freedom to set their own schedules or work outside of standard business hours. This flexibility benefits employers as well since 43% of workers report that flexible working hours increase their productivity, as shown in a study from Gartner. Due to their hourly wage, non-exempt employees have strict limits on their work hours. They are expected to adhere to the standard 40-hour workweek and receive overtime compensation for any additional hours worked beyond that threshold. 

Meal and Rest Break Requirements

Non-exempt employees typically have designated meal and rest breaks, as mandated by state labor laws. These breaks aim to ensure that employees have adequate time for meals and rest during their work shifts.

The Pros and Cons of Exempt Employees

Now, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of being an exempt employee, both from the employer’s and employee’s perspectives: 

For Employers

Hiring exempt employees allows employers to demand a certain level of performance and commitment. They can maintain a fixed budget since their salaries remain consistent, regardless of hours worked. Exempt employees often bring specialized skills and expertise to the table.

However, exempt employees typically cost more than non-exempt employees due to their higher salaries. Employers must ensure that they accurately classify employees to comply with labor laws and avoid potential legal issues. 

For Employees

Exempt employees enjoy paycheck stability since their salary remains the same, regardless of fluctuations in how many hours they work. They may also be eligible for benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, and paid time off. 

One of the disadvantages is that exempt employees are not entitled to overtime pay, even if they work more than 40 hours in a week. 

The Pros and Cons of Non-Exempt Employees

So is it better for employers to hire non-exempt employees? Just like exempt employees, there are certain pros and cons of non-exempt employees. 

For Employers

Non-exempt employees provide employers with scheduling flexibility as there is no minimum requirement for how many hours they should work each week. This flexibility can be beneficial in managing fluctuating workloads. 

Due to hourly wages instead of salaries, employers must carefully and accurately track non-exempt employees’ work hours to ensure compliance with overtime pay regulations. This can require additional administrative effort and potentially increase labor costs if overtime hours are incurred. 

For Employees

Non-exempt employees have the opportunity to work overtime hours and be compensated for every additional hour worked, which can result in a higher take-home pay compared to exempt employees. 

However, they may experience a less stable or consistent paycheck since their income is dependent on the number of hours worked. Their work schedules may not adhere strictly to standard business hours, depending on the nature of their job. Additionally, non-exempt employees may have limited or no eligibility for paid vacation or sick time.

Managing Exempt and Non-Exempt Employees

Proper classification, effective communication, and fair practices allow employers to successfully manage exempt and non-exempt employees, and to deliver a positive work experience for both.

This starts with accurate classification. By correctly identifying whether a position should be classified as exempt or non-exempt, employers can set appropriate expectations, which allows for fair treatment and prevents potential legal risks associated with misclassification. 

Effective communication plays a vital role too. Clearly articulating job expectations, compensation structures, and benefits packages helps employees understand what is expected of them and what they can expect in return. This fosters transparency and trust, leading to higher job satisfaction and engagement. Transparency is especially important when it comes to salary — 72% of workers who are not given full transparency will seek other employment within six months of being denied raises, according to a study by Payscale.

Additionally, implementing fair and compliant scheduling and overtime practices is essential. This involves adhering to labor laws, including tracking hours accurately, providing required breaks, and compensating non-exempt employees for any overtime work. Establishing and maintaining fair scheduling practices ensures that employees' work-life wellness is respected, leading to higher productivity and employee wellbeing. 

Providing a Quality Employee Experience for All

Employers have a legal obligation to accurately determine whether employees should be classified as exempt or non-exempt based on labor laws and regulations. The classification of employees has implications for their benefits and compensation, and employers must understand the differences to ensure compliance. Accurately classifying employees is the preliminary step in creating a positive employee experience.

Continue to cultivate that employee experience by offering wellness programs that are tailored to the needs of your workforce. Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist today to make sure your team is receiving the support they need.

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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