How to Respond When Your Boss Changes Your Schedule

One of the most frequent questions we receive is “Can my boss change my schedule without notice and without my consent?”. After all, it hardly seems fair that you can be hired for a position advertised on the day shift and then be told you have to work nights. Or you shuffle your personal life (childcare, carpool, medical appointments) to accommodate your work schedule, and then everything changes last minute.

When your boss changes your schedule unexpectedly it is important to follow these steps to get the best outcome: know your employment terms, consider your situation with the new schedule, meet with your boss to understand the business need, and suggest a solution that works for you and the business. Finally, document the decision with an email to your boss.

Workers in the service sector, particularly retail, foodservice, and healthcare, are most likely to be affected by work schedule instability. In the U.S., around two-thirds of workers receive their schedule two weeks in advance, with one-third getting their schedule the week before (source) – this number goes over 40% when looking at early-career workers and more than half of workers report “clopening” shifts are common.

Know Your Employment Terms

If you work under contract or a collective bargaining agreement, check the terms of your employer’s obligations. Does it specify a work schedule or just minimum hours? Does it say when and where you will work or provide advance-notice requirements for changes?

If your schedule and/or working hours are specified in an agreement then you are in a much better position when you discuss the situation with your employer – you need to remind your boss of the agreement terms.

However, if you are among the approximately 74% of American workers employed at-will your employer can change your schedule however and whenever they see fit.

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has no provisions regarding scheduling for adult employees. According to the US Dept of Labor, an employer may change an employee’s work hours without prior notice or consent. Unless bound by a contract or written agreement, your employer can change your schedule however and whenever they see fit.

Many employers establish their own rules and policies covering schedule changes, shift premiums, on-call pay, and required notice periods. Be sure to check your employee manual and company intranet and hold your boss accountable.

Work schedule instability is an active topic with several state legislatures reviewing predictive scheduling bills. We did the research on employee protections in this post Employed At Will: 7 Things Your Employer Can Change Without Notice

Consider Your Situation and Alternatives

You can go guns-blazing into the conversation with your boss, furious about the change and making demands, but you are unlikely to get much satisfaction. Instead, think through your options and consider the following points:

  • Can you make the change work? What would it take?
  • If your boss stands firm on the schedule, what are your options?

This is the time to think of the personal (and financial) impact on you and your family:

  • Will your childcare costs increase due to additional hours or special schedule?
  • Does the new schedule conflict with classes you are taking to advance your career?
  • Does your commute change due to carpool availability, traffic, etc…?
  • How does the new work schedule interact with your work-life balance?

It is easy to focus on the negatives when you get blindsided by a major change, but also look for potential benefits:

  • Does the new schedule mean that you won’t be fighting rush-hour traffic?
  • Is there a shift premium for working nights/weekends?
  • Will you be moving to a shift where you have more experience than your peers and can demonstrate your leadership capability?

When you speak with your boss their first priority is to the company and its needs, not your personal life, so experience the emotions before you start the conversation. Think through each situation rationally and have key points in mind – you will want to bring these human elements into the discussion to reinforce your position.

Remember your boss needs to meet the business needs, but they are people too and will recognize how disruptive work changes can be. Last-minute changes can be especially damaging to employee motivation and morale, as well as employee retention. Don’t deliver an ultimatum unless you are willing to follow through on your threat.

Meet With Your Boss to Understand the Business Need

Now that you are prepared, it is time to have a discussion with your boss. Start the conversation by politely asking questions and then listen to your boss’s explanation. Seek to understand the reasons and purpose behind the change (the who, what, where, when, why, and how) before you comment or respond.

  • Is the change expected to be short-term or long-lasting?
  • What are the responsibilities that need to be covered? Do you need me specifically for a reason or anyone with the right skillset?
  • Which items are must-haves and which ones are nice-to-haves?

Remember, you and your boss are on the same side – you want to find a solution that works for the business and that works for you. Always strive to have difficult conversations face-to-face to avoid misunderstandings and so that you can quickly address questions or unclear items.

Be helpful and constructive. Don’t vent or complain. After you learn what the objective is you should calmly and professionally state one or two of the challenges you are facing “Ok, I understand what is driving the change. I’m having difficulty finding childcare on short notice. Let me work on it and I’ll get back to you”.

Remember that your boss may be in a similar situation as you, they may not have any say in the decision and may simply be delivering the message for someone higher up in the organization. Listen to what your boss says and look for areas where they may have flexibility.

Suggest a Solution That Works for You and the Company

Now that you are armed with the facts your schedule change and understand what your employer needs to accomplish, revisit your personal situation and find your best option(s). It is always best to prepare for three scenarios:

  • Best-case scenario: what works the best for you while still delivering most of what your employer asked
  • Compromise scenario: your first contingency option that is a compromise between your boss’s request and your best-case scenario
  • No-flexibility scenario: what are you going to do if your boss will not budge on any of the issues

Here are some useful approaches to use as you consider possible solutions:

  • Accommodate the change. Even when you know early on that you aren’t going to fight the change, you still don’t want to reward the bad behavior from your boss by just accepting their request. Make them work a little so they feel the inconvenience and are less likely to take advantage of your flexibility to solve their poor planning.
  • Suggest alternative solutions. In a production setting, you might suggest longer shifts during the week in order to hit production milestones and avoid weekend work. Also, consider swapping with a coworker to cover the problem shift or alternative hours that don’t cause a conflict.
  • Solve a different problem. This option is not always available, but if you know your boss has another issue they are dealing with you may be able to work a trade. For example, “I’m willing to work the upcoming holiday instead of this weekend shift you put on my schedule”.
  • Deliver on part of their request, request flexibility on difficult parts. Everyone has a life outside of work, so it is reasonable to ask for compromise on previous commitments. For example, request that you be allowed to keep existing medical appointments that now conflict with your new schedule.
  • Reject their request. You have the option to turn down the schedule change but be prepared for your employment to be terminated. Its never a good idea to use this as a bluff tactic, especially if your position has a healthy job market with available candidates to replace you.

If the request is a one-off shift change you will need to arrange the details but don’t think you have to deliver a 100% solution for complex schedule issues.

When you work constructively with your boss they will see your capability and it can be a big boost to your career in the long run.

Document the Decision in Writing

Once you settle on a solution with your boss, always put the details in writing. This can be accomplished in many different ways, the most direct is to simply have your boss publish the revised schedule or update the automated system. The purpose here is not to create a paper trail for CYA (cover your a$$) reasons, but rather to avoid conflict due to misunderstanding or misremembering.

When you have a verbal conversation with important decisions, an easy way to capture the details is with an email after the meeting. Simply write a brief message to recap “Hey Boss, thank you for meeting with me today. Here are the key points we decided: [summary]. I appreciate your assistance and flexibility. Thanks, ExpertEmployee”.

You don’t need to specifically request a confirmation response from your boss. Functioning teams don’t communicate that way – it is implied and understood that your boss should reply with any clarifications or corrections. Directly asking for a response makes the exchange seem adversarial and should only be used when the situation has degraded to the point of combativeness.

Remember that you are collaborating with your boss to solve a common problem – you both want to find a workable solution. Communicate with your boss as soon as you learn of a schedule change that presents a problem. Talk to them in person or on the phone so they can hear your friendly, helpful tone and discuss the issue, then document your decisions with a follow-up email.

Dan Sawyer

Founding editor and head writer of Dan is a job interview and career expert, with more than 20 years of experience in senior roles at high tech leaders Space Exploration Technologies and Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

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