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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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Krugman, High Unemployment and the Bad Boss

In a recent New York Times Op Ed, Paul Krugman explains why a high rate of unemployment can make it rough for many employed workers, too. If there aren’t any other good jobs available, quitting your current job to look for better work just isn’t an option. Simply put, you may be stuck in a job you hate.

You may want to quit your job because you don’t like the work, or the pay is too low, or the hours are too long, or the commute is intolerable. But, in all likelihood, the number one reason you hate your job is because you have a bad boss.

And that’s where the other unintended spillover effect of high unemployment comes into play. Your boss can be abusive to you and get away with it. Even if he was a bad boss when alternative jobs were plentiful, he can be a worse boss now that they’re scarce.

Bad bosses are bad in subtle ways

Sure, if your boss is abusive in an obvious, illegal way, you might quit even if no job is waiting. But most bad bosses are bad in subtle ways. A bad boss can give you conflicting instructions. He can ignore you. He can embarrass you. He can take credit for your work. He can rate your performance unfairly. He can undermine you. The ways of a bad boss are endless.

It’s not just that the bad boss knows that you’re stuck, or that if you leave, you’ll be easily replaceable. When the unemployment rate is high but your company is doing well, it has little motivation to rein in your bad boss, to monitor him, to discipline him, or to replace him. A high unemployment rate confers even more power to your bad boss.

Why not complain to Human Resources?

So if your boss is bad, can’t you complain to Human Resources? The plain fact is that most HR professionals are squarely on the side of the boss. Even if your HR representative agrees that your boss is bad, he will gain the ire of senior management if he upsets the balance of power. In fact, the higher the unemployment rate, the more that your company’s HR reps will align with management. After all, they’re employees, just like you. And they’re stuck, too.

If you have a bad boss, what can you do?

If you’re an employee with a bad boss, and quitting is not an option, what can you do? The short answer is: you must protect yourself.

First, you must understand your legal rights. Some actions of your boss are just bad management, which is not illegal in itself. But other actions may be illegal. You need to know the difference so that you can frame your case correctly.

Second, you need to observe how your boss treats your co-workers. You need to look for patterns of abusive behavior toward many employees. Going one step further, you need to look for company policies that promote or tolerate your bad boss’ misconduct. That way, your problems cannot be blamed on you.

Finally, once you’ve gathered the evidence that points the finger at your bad boss, and not at you, it’s time to persuade someone at the top to correct the situation. You can convince someone higher up if you have facts, not just feelings or opinions. Facts are powerful. Multiple concrete examples of abusive conduct directed at many subordinates are powerful.

Whether the unemployment rate is high or low, your company doesn’t want to risk damage to its reputation, and it doesn’t want legal problems. Your company will act against a bad boss if it perceives a major risk in failing to act.

Copyright © 2013 Johanna Harris

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.

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.