Important Notice:
This site has moved to, please update your bookmarks. If you were looking for a specific post, you can use the site search option, archives, or categories at the new domain to find it. Thank you!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

how to take vacation when there's always work to be done

A reader writes:

Summer's almost here, and I'm meant to be taking a week off for holiday. The trip is booked, it's been approved months ago by my boss, I've scheduled my requested time with an eye to our work cycle and done my best to get everything done and covered before I'm gone. However, two days before departure, my manager says perhaps I can't go, as we are not as far along as she'd hoped (it's impossible to do a month's load of work in three weeks, and while I attempted to get all of it done and create the minimal amount of stress and bother for those left behind, there is still work to be done of mine in that week I'm away that will have to be covered by someone else). She says I can either not go, or be available during my leave at all times for work, or I can pay, out of my own pocket, for a freelancer to come in to backfill me.

There may be no way to save this vacation, however I wonder: how does one responsibly actually take some time off? I haven't had a holiday in nearly two years for this exact reason, that every time I try, there always seems to be more work or responsibilities that only I can attend to that can't be put on hold even for a weekend. How does a responsible employee in a management position get away for a break?

Well, the real way is that one works for an employer who recognizes the importance of time off.

Did you make any agreement with your manager about how much you'd have done before you left, and she just discovered that you didn't meet that agreement? Because that would be the only thing that would justify her now telling you that you can't go.

But I'm betting that that's not the case, because her suggestion that you hire a freelancer at your own expense is a little absurd.

The nature of many jobs is that there's never a time where all the work is done and where you can take a vacation without some accommodations being made, no matter how well you plan for it in advance. But because good managers recognize that it's in the employer's best interest to have well-rested and recharged employees, they find ways to help employees take time off anyway. It's in their best interest not only because employees who get breaks from work generally do a better and more focused job in the long run, but also because good people will eventually leave if they're working in a culture that doesn't support their quality of life. And good management is about getting good results in the long run, not just the short-term.

I recommend addressing this head-on with your boss: "I haven't been able to have a vacation in two years because it's so hard to get away, and obviously that's not sustainable in the long-term. Can we talk about how to arrange things so that I can plan for some time off with confidence?" Sometimes some bosses are so caught up in the day-to-day rush of work that they need prodding to step back and look at long-term needs like this. By helping frame the issue for them, you can sometimes come to a good solution that everyone is happy with. But if you get the sense that you're never going to be able to be confident you can keep vacation plans, or if it's given only begrudgingly, or will be so rare that your mental health will slowly degrade until one day you'll just need to run screaming from the building -- well, this is not a great employer. So make your decisions accordingly.


Anonymous said...

If you can't get all your work done then perhaps you are being given TOO MUCH work.

Anyways, the suggestion of hiring a freelancer out of your own pocket is a real big slap in the face! Glad it wasn't me being told that, I would have been fired from the outburst that would have ensued.

Anonymous said...

AAM - But what does the OP do in this case? A couple of days away from flying off to paradise (or whatever destination) and the OP is suddenly told by the boss to not go. Does she keep her reservations and ignore the boss or does she lose money on her reservations and stay home?

By the way - pay out of pocket for a freelancer? That boss would drive me up the wall.

Unknown said...

Sounds like it is time to ask for a raise! ;-)

An interseting thought exercise that I think all companies (and responsible employees) should do fairly often is the "bus test". The bus test simply says "What would happen to the company if employee X was hit by a bus on their way home from work today?" If the answer isn't something along the lines of "there would be a disruption, but the company would be fine in a couple weeks" then you either work for a small company or you have a problem with your policies, processes, procedures, and/or staff.

IT departments can be particularly vulnerable to failing the bus test....

Anonymous said...

Wake up. Your employer is insecure, controlling and needy. There will NEVER be a good time. Always an emergency, a don't leave me justification or threats if you dare take off. If this were a relationship you'd probably handle it differently, but the fatal attraction similarities are still there.

There's only 1 way to go & that's by leaving. Start with the week, GO on vacation and promise to call in once a day for 15 minutes. Time it. If the employer wants more ask them to join you then go out of range. No reason they can't fly in (at their expense) to consult if you're that valuable to the company. Plus they can write off their trip at tax time.

Go or not, it's your call. jmho losing this job may mean gaining some of your life back long term.

Anonymous said...

I would make a copy of the approval you received for the time off and put it in a secure place, not at work.

Then I would ask the boss by what means they want this temp paid. I.e., will the boss decide which temp is hired, and how much they are paid, and then simply deduct that much from your paycheck? Or are you to pay the temp directly? Or to reimburse the company when you return? How will the taxes be calculated? If you are paying for the worker, then logically the time won't be deducted from your vacation accrual, right? In other words--make the boss spell out the logistics of this scenario for you. I think its quite likely that the boss will realize how absurd this idea is. And will see that you are not jumping to cancel your vacation just because he/she said so.

Anonymous said...


Your holiday time is part of your renumeration. It is not a gift. You have actually earned it. It is owed to you, just like salary/wages and other benefits.

The company pays the cost of your vacation just as they pay every other cost of doing business.

To employers who think this is acceptable:

When (not if, it will be when if you keep this up) one of your employees collapses on your premises from stroke or heart attack, the rest of your employees will look at you and wonder if this job is worth dying for.

It will be a lot more disruptive to hire and train numerous people at once than to cover people on planned vacations.

Lois Gory

Anonymous said...

I'd throw a complete hissy fit about this. Unless I've failed to prepare ahead of time as promised, there would be no reason to cancel my vacation. And the idea that I would pay a freelancer to do my work while I'm gone is ridiculous — for pete's sake, is that legal? What about taxes?

This seems like an issue worth going over the boss' head about. Yeah, she'll hate you now, but golly, it's not like you're getting decent treatment anyway. It'll just make her look incompetent because she can't run an office that allows people to take a week off once every two years.

Another possibility (and possibly less nuclear) is to chat with a coworker who would be willing to cover for you, with the understanding that you'd help the coworker.

I know this boss has the power to completely screw you over, but that doesn't mean you have to make it pleasant for her.

Anonymous said...

The answer is simple: clone yourself and leave the clone to do the work...

You can also arm yourself with some studies / stats that help you show the value of taking a vacation. as someone mentioned above, a heart attack is going to be a bigger productivity loss than a vacation. I found some helpful vacation tips on

Anonymous said...

At my former employer, any time someone was out, we had backups within the department who filled in for various parts of the job. Didn't matter if it was for a day or for a maternity leave - someone always picked up the slack from within the department. Here, at my current job, the mentality for short absences is that it will wait. There's rarely anything so drastic that the company will crumble without you.

Anonymous said...

If it were me, I would just go on the vacation. Can an employer withhold vacation pay? I mean, after approving the vacation? Because I would go on the vacation and refuse to pay for someone to fill in. So the only thing the employer could do (other than fire me, I guess) is to dock my pay.

I rarely go on vacations or take days off, but I am really lucky that my bosses are not sticklers about stuff like that. Unlike my colleagues (who ask their bosses if they can take vacation during such-and-such week, and do sometimes run into resistance) - I just say "I'm going to be out on ___" and my bosses say "ok".

I went on a one-week vacation a little while back and when I told one of my bosses, he said "oh, ok... you'll still check email right?" I replied "I'm going out of the country" and he said "oh, never mind." I did check email one day (the 2nd day) but did not connect to the internet for the rest of the vacation.

I know the economy is bad and as an employee, you don't want to be "difficult". But seriously, most things that are "urgent" aren't. You're not a surgeon in the middle of surgery who decides to take an couple of days off while the patient is still on the table. Yes, there are deadlines, but how many of those are absolute deadlines? And how many could someone else take care of without too much disruption to their own work? As I told my sis (who was stressing out about missing work for vacation - as she's providing temp coverage for two other coworkers) - someone else will do the work. If you are worried about your own work, that's one thing. But worrying that you won't be able to cover the phones for 2 hours because neither of the receptionists are there is NOT your problem!

raskal said...

"or I can pay, out of my own pocket, for a freelancer to come in to backfill me"

No. You are not the employer in this situation - you cannot enter into an employer/employee contractual relationship in that sense.

If the employER wants to hire someone to fill in for 5 days, let them. It's their dime, their work, their responsibility to manage and direct, their location, insurance, payroll & concern.

In other words, your boss needs to manage projects, time & staff effectively. They better get busy because you have some time off coming up.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts on time off for employees boils down to worst case scenario...what would happen if the employee were hit by a bus and in the hospital for a week or more? How would the business function? That's how they need to function while your employees are rejuvenating on vacation!

dustycrown said...

Go, go, go. Do not let your employer stop you from taking a vacation that you planned (and had approved) well in advance. If you want to check in once or twice, great, but you're not obligated to do that, either.

This question hits on two of my pet peeves:

1--Employers who include vacation time as part of your compensation time but expect that you won't use it. Wrong. It's YOUR time, you earned it. It belongs to you just like your paycheck belongs to you. You wouldn't leave a paycheck uncashed--why would you leave vacation days unused?

2--Employers who believe that because technology makes it easy to reach you anytime, anywhere that you're available to work anytime, anywhere. People go along with this, because it's just a phone call or an email here or there at first, and soon your whole family life is crammed in between after-hours phone calls. I've learned to turn off my cell when I get home, and I would do the same if I were on vacation.

Sounds like you could use a break from this needy, overbearing boss. Get away, and enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Even the President of the United States can be replaced in 15 minutes. NOBODY is that important that he can't take a vacation. Your boss is insane.

Anonymous said...

I thought docking of pay (either by canceling the vacation, or having to pay a temp) was illegal. To the best of my knowledge, it is here in Washington State.

Furthermore, what does this employer say if someone has to take some FMLA time off? Does he object to female employees becoming pregnant?

Anonymous said...

If your work has been done, the situation has been discussed with your boss and she still refuses,(no need to beg, after all, we are ALL adults, I am assuming) I would document EVERYTHING, if possible have her sign a statement that she is telling you to cancel your vacation (she should put her money where her mouth is, or rather her signature, in this case), and then go above her to Human Resources, the "Big" Boss, or whoever else is higher up on the chain of command. Then, I would report her to the labor and ethical board.

Anonymous said...

That's incredible. Given all the steps you've taken, I can only see one reasonable response - I'm going on this trip, I'm going to be out of touch the entire time, and we can talk about if I should keep working here when I get back.

You can parse it as nicely as you like, and politely explain all the reasons you deserve that vacation, and you can reason with your boss (better to lose you for a week than forever), but you need to take a stand.

People think that emergency funds (3-6 months of living expenses) are for unexpected expenses and layoffs. To me, the highest purpose of such a fund is to allow one to disappear from a job like that before having another one lined up.

Anonymous said...

The OP needs to set boundaries. Her manager will suck the life out of her if she's doesn't learn that she didn't sign her entire life over to her employer when she took this job.

I don't take excessive sick days, nor do I take frequent vacations (a few long weekends a year and maybe a longer vacation every couple years) and I have always been conscientious about covering my workload when I do. I work ahead, arrange for co-workers to cover things I can foresee coming up while I'm gone and develop relationships with key co-workers to cover each other's hind parts when the unforeseen emergency comes up during each others' times away from the office. (HA! Like there's really such a thing as a marketing emergency. "Quick! Someone pick up the red phone. We're having a MARKETING EMERGENCY!!!!!" See how completely ridiculous that sounds? Unless you're in the ER, the word STAT has no place in the average workplace. Seriously.)

I'm on the team of another poster who said he/she TELLS his/her manager when he/she is going on vacation. I'm not a child. I'm a competent, responsible, reasonably well-paid professional adult. My manager is not my parent. I don't need "permission" to take advantage of a benefit that is OWED me as part of my compensation package. Otherwise, why offer it? I may need to negotiate if the manager knows of things coming up about which I'm unaware. But I do not give any manager, no matter how much I respect him or her, that kind of power over me. I'm respectful about that, but I am firm. I will happily supply my manager with a plan to cover my workload and do all I can leading up to my vacation to ensure that my co-workers are not unreasonably taxed to cover my work as well as their own. But that's IT. If an employer who's had months to prepare for my absence demands that I cancel at the last minute, the ONLY way I'd concede to the demand is if a.) my employer reimbursed me for either the entire vacation cost or the fees I'd be charged to rebook and b.) my employer agreed to an absolutely NON-NEGOTIABLE vacation date with XX days or pay me a bonus of $XXXX for having forfeited my time off. I'd get both of those points in writing, too. Either that or I'd take the vacation and let the chips fall where they may. Life's too short for this type of B.S.

P.S. I think AAM is well-meaning in suggesting that you frame the issue to your manager in ways she may have not considered. However, any manager who is crazy enough to suggest that YOU pay for your own freelancer in order to take the vacation that you have EARNED and is part of your BENEFITS package is in serious need of some strong prescription drugs (anti-hallucinogenics perhaps?) before that conversation would have the desire effect.

A said...

I am dying to know...did the OP take the vacation?! what did she do? I need to know the outcome of this absolutly ridiculous situation!

Anonymous said...

I made it to my year at this company. I recouped thousands of dollars thru dilligent collections, reformatted the daily procedures to streamline processes, babysat the Practice manager, lied to cover his missed appointments, dealt with the alcoholic coworker abusing me verbally and in myriad ways which were a joke to the owner, manager and himself, dealt with a spy who told the boss I was constantly online, which I was cause that was my job, but no one there could do the job so they didn't know that and thought I was screwing off on the internet, took constant personal comments about my eating habits, bathroom schedule, and personal life, as in I am gay, it is a fact, get over it, and covered for this disorganized mess hundreds of times in the year I was there. My coworker would leave for vacations, three day weekends, and two week vacations while I worked there, and no one would dare touch her desk, or question her regarding any incomplete work while she was away. I even covered for her willingly and competently.
I took two of my PTO days, scheduled and approved in advance, a friday and a monday, so I would not be out of the office more than a couple of days. Now, anytime I was out for a sick day or a half day, my boss would go thru everything in my work, find something he claimed I had done wrong, even tho he had no idea how to do my job, and have the other coworker write off the bill as unable to be collected because of my mistake.
It simply wasn't true. It simply wasn't true, and they made up some rule that wasn't a rule at all, and used it to make me look as if I had cost the company money. Even tho I had recouped thousands in back a/r from before I had worked there, I was forbidden to try to recoup this supposed "lost " money that was my fault, it was wiped completely out of the system.
This was because, I think now, he didn't want to give me any of the promised bonuses I had never received, and it was my year and he didn't want to give me a raise. However, I had asked for neither, he was just trying to make me look incompetent so I wouldn't expect to be rewarded.
This fateful tuesday morning, when, after screaming and turning purple in the face in front of an office full of patients and staff, this 6'4 bodybuilder jacking himself up on steriods, tried this crap one last time. This time I didn't cry, after he stoppped yelling, and turned to start bad mouthing me to my coworker like I wasn't even standing there, I calmly showed him I couldn't have possibly have been at fault for what I was being blamed for, because there was no dictation in the patient's chart for the last three months, so I couldn't have known that there was an authorization for any new equipment expected from me. Then he screamed at me to just leave, go home, and pointed me out the door. So I left and went home, filed for unemployment for the first time in my life. Turns out, he contested it, saying he never fired me. He honestly expected me to call and find out when I was to return to work. He didn't consider me fired at all. The hearing officer simply informed him that as far as she could tell, I was right in assuming I had been terminated, albeit improperly. Here's my point. If they don't want you to leave and take PTO hide, lock up, or shred anything that they could use against you while you are away if you want to keep your job, because they sound like the kind of people that will find "something' undone or done wrong. Even if they have to make it up and frame you.I have still never found a job, and swear I am truamatized by what I went thru, because the way the business is operated is so fantasical, no one believes me that this stuff went on. Honestly, this rant is seriously the tip of the iceberg with that place, and even after working for the best boss ever for 10 years till he retired and I went to that freakin alternate universe, I will never work for an owner operated company again.

Anonymous said...

OP here!

So I haven't replied before because. . . i went on holiday! I read everything you guys had to say (thanks so much btw- I'm a new manager, just turned 25, and can be a little lost sometimes. I have zip management experience or even really aspirations to such, and was 'promoted' with no raise in pay just increased responsibilities when my own manager left a year ago).

I had that conversation with my boss, who does have a tendency to get personal because of my age and the fact when I was promoted I was honest about what I knew how to do and what I didn't. to her, I'm incompetant and can't do my job, even though I've been doing it for a year (I think if she admitted I in fact WAS the manager, and could do this job, she'd have to pay me what the last manager was making, or even what lower-down coworkers who I am in charge of are making).

I spoke with her and said that we weren't completely done with the project (we're a publishing company, we put out a publication once a month for which I do 99 per cent of the work), however I was going to do a handover with a coworker I manage with a detailed list of all my tasks broken down (literally, every email, phone call, check, and balance I do in the final days of production were on that list), I went through all details of my job with our creative director who is actually on the same level as me (altho he is paid more than me, and I end up managing he and his staff more often then not, as I don't really have a job description- it was never changed when I was 'promoted'- so basically anything hard, awkward, uncomfortable, or just that he doesn't want to deal with falls under my job when he feels like it), and I went through the play by play of our routine, which we've been doing for months, with our designer, the guy who will actually be doing work that week. I also spoke with the marketing department to make sure everything was on track with them (again, the employees over there are senior to me, and make more than I do, but I am often in charge of them, and moreover if a mistake happens, it's my ass to my boss, not theirs, even if it's a project I had nothing to do with), and to leave THEM a list of things to do as well (yes I know, telling them to do their job is bad: however it's the list of things I usually do for them so I thought it was prudent). And then I arranged for a friend of mine who I trust to take a look at the final project before it goes to publication, free of charge, in my stead.

and my boss huffed. She wasn't pleased with the coworker, who is my immediate jr, the only other person in my department, and someone who knows intimately what I do and how I do it as he sits four feet from me in the office we share every day, because she doesn't trust him (he turned his phone off on a weekend day off once and wasn't available when she called him and she's thought he was lazy and incompetent since. I've had to talk her down from firing him for ridiculous reasons multiple times). But, by this point I was meant to be leaving that evening, and there wasn't much she could do. The burnout rate is pretty high in my industry, it's a very stressful job with constant pressure, and I've been stretched thin for a while.

I haven't spoken with her yet- just got back last night! But I feel the benefits of that holiday: I'm relaxed, i'm focused, I'm feeling creative and not burnt out, which is good! So no matter where the chips fall when she turns up today (generally around 3 pm), it was worth it! I'll update if I get fired :P