The Vacation Time Illusion

No Vacation Time

Enormous Latitude

I know of no law that requires employers to give their employees paid vacation time. Still, most financially solvent companies do choose to grant paid vacation time to their workers, and in fact, it is now considered a regular part of employee benefit packages. Paid vacation time attracts competent workers. It can be a powerful management tool to boost morale and increase efficiency in operations.

The fact that employers routinely offer paid vacation time does not mean that it is a standardized, fixed benefit. Employers have enormous latitude in granting paid vacation to their employees. They can combine vacation and sick time into a single pool of paid leave. Or they can grant paid vacations only to full-time employees. Employers can decide how much time off they will allow. They can impose all sorts of conditions on the use of vacation time, such as how much notice an employee has to give. They can stagger employees’ vacations to ensure that someone is always on the job. In many states, an employer has no obligation to pay a departing employee for his accrued but unused vacation time.

The Big Disconnect

When you accept a job offer, your offer letter will likely specify how much paid vacation time you’ll receive. Your company’s human resources manual will spell out the rules governing vacation time. But that’s just for the record. In reality, there may be a big disconnect between what you thought you were getting and what happens in practice. In many instances, in fact, you may find that your on-the-record vacation time is an illusion, and that for all practical purposes you have no vacation time at all.

Why the Illusion?

Each year, hundreds of thousands of earned vacation days are not used. Some employees forgo vacation because they don’t have the funds to go anywhere. They figure they might as well go to work. Others are afraid that if they depart, even for a few days, their managers will realize that the company can get along just fine without them. Others internalize the idea that an employee who is “too busy” to go on vacation must be the hardest, most responsible worker. Still others know that even if they’re out of the office, their electronic devices tether them to their job.

But don’t imagine for a minute that unused vacation constitutes a voluntary gift of value from the employee to the employer. The fact is that your employer can create working conditions that give you no choice but to forfeit a benefit you thought you had. Your employer can give you so many pending assignments that there is simply no good time to suspend your work activities and get out for a week or two. Your supervisor can create an environment in which there is “so much work to do” and so little backup that your taking a vacation will make you look like the worst of the bad guys.

Does that mean employers are collectively engaged in an invidious plan to promise paid vacations and then deny them? A better explanation is that a great many companies are poorly managed. Unable to order their priorities, their managers simply bombard their employees with an excess of useless projects. Unable to make rational use of their available manpower, their managers create work schedules that keep everyone on the job while half end up sitting around doing nothing. Unable to sort out responsibilities, their managers bicker over which employee gets assigned to what project.

Three Ways Out

There are many ways to ensure that employees take the paid vacations that they are entitled to. Here are three.

The easiest method would be to mandate, as part of the company’s personnel practices, that every employee must be away from the office and disconnected from the job for two or three weeks each year. These mandatory vacations would be integrated into the work schedules for each department. This is not an unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky option. Some regulatory agencies require mandatory time off for certain registered financial agents.

Second, managers could build vacation time into every project timeline, while departments could schedule vacations in advance, just as they do for other activities in their annual work plans. These enhanced work plans will promote the rational use of manpower. They will avoid those spot shortages where employees, under the false impression that they were taking a vacation, find that they have to stick around and make up for management’s planning mistakes.

Third, companies can designate the taking of vacation as a performance goal, to be included in the evaluation not only of the employee, but also his manager. They can exact a real penalty if the goal is ignored. This is by no means a novel idea. Employers build all sorts of behavioral goals into their performance management plans.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.


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2 responses to “The Vacation Time Illusion”

  1. missdisplaced says :

    It used to be very common for companies to simply CLOSE for vacation. Typically, this was done between Christmas and New Year because it was slow anyway, but I remember my dad’s company also closing the week of July 4th.

    Of course, I don’t know if people would like to have that time dictated to them, but at least they get it off!

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