I’m early in my career and have always been paid hourly. While being hourly sometimes sucks, it’s also nice because you know exactly how many hours you have to be at work and how long you have to take lunch.
But I’m currently job-searching, and the potential options are all salaried. There’s so much I don’t know about being salaried! How do you know when it’s OK to leave work for the day? How do you know it’s OK to take time off? Do you always eat lunch at your desk? Are you expected to answer email at 9 p.m.? How does this all work?!
It would be easier if there were just one set of answers to these questions and things worked the same way at every salaried job... but practices vary from job to job and from workplace to workplace. The real trick isn’t to come in already knowing these answers, but to know how to figure it out once you get there.
When you start a new job, you’ll usually be told what the standard work hours are. If no one tells you, it’s fine to ask, “What are your typical work hours, as far as when people get in and when most people go home?” (Ideally, you’d ask this before you accept the job to avoid discovering after you start that everyone works 12-hour days! But it’s smart to confirm on or before your first day, as well.)
You might get an answer that still leaves you unsure—like, “Well, our formal hours are 9–5, but people generally manage their own time.” That could mean anything from, “No one will care if you duck out early if all your work is done,” to, “Your workload means you’ll be here until 10 p.m. most days”... with all sorts of variations in between, like, “You can take off early on occasion, but we frown upon doing that regularly.”
The best way to figure out how things really work is to observe your boss and co-workers during your first few weeks. Do most people leave at 5:00 on the dot? Do people mostly drift out between 5 and 6 p.m.? Is the office still full at 7 p.m.? You’re going to learn a lot about what’s really expected of you by watching what other people actually do.
The same is true of lunch. How people handle lunch can vary significantly by office, and even by individual within the same office. You might find that people are religious about taking 30 minutes or even a full hour every day, or that everyone eats at their desk. Or you might work somewhere with a mix of practices. On your first day, it’s perfectly OK to ask your manager, “How does lunch typically work? Is there a particular time I should break for lunch, or a set amount of time to take? What do most people usually do?” Definitely don’t assume that being salaried means you’ll need to eat at your desk! You might choose to do that on days when it fits your schedule better, but it would be fairly unusual for you to be expected to do that daily if you didn’t want to.
Taking time off is usually more straightforward. Typically, you’ll receive a certain number of paid days off annually, which might be awarded all at once at the start of the year, or might accrue with each pay period. As long as you have enough leave accrued, in most offices you’d simply say, “Is it OK for me to plan to take vacation time April 21–23?” or, if you’re not wed to specific dates, “I’d like to take a week off this summer. Are there any times that are better or worse for me to plan around?” Give as much advance notice as you can for vacations, particularly for longer blocks of time; get to know any software your company uses for requesting or tracking time off; and be sensible about the dates you propose (e.g., don’t ask for a week off right before the gala you’re in charge of organizing).
As for whether you’ll be expected to answer email at night or over the weekends, that’s very, very dependent on the specific job you have. Some fields are notorious for expecting people to be accessible around the clock, but those jobs are more the exception than the rule.
It’s more common for people to disconnect from work once they leave for the day, or to only check email if they have something particularly time-sensitive going on. You can ask about email culture in job interviews, and once you’re on the job, you can also ask colleagues what most people there typically do.
With all of these things, paying attention to what your managers and co-workers do will tell you a lot about the expectations in your particular office. Just make sure you’re modeling yourself on co-workers who you respect and admire; don’t use the office slacker as your guide! If you’re unsure about how to navigate the expectations in your role, know that you can always ask your manager for guidance. These are very normal things to be unsure of, especially early on in your career, and a good manager will be both glad to answer and happy that you want to get it right.