In the US, workers have a hard enough time taking the vacation time they’re entitled to. And when they do go away, they rarely disconnect from work completely.
In 2013, a whopping 42% of working Americans reported they didn’t take a single vacation day.
According to the Project: Time Off study conducted by consumer research company GfK Public Affairs, the average US worker took just 16 days of paid time off in 2014, down from the more than 20 days workers took off between 1976 and 2000.
For some, the worry that they’ll be penalized for missing important work weighs heavy, and as a viral reddit post illustrates, these worries aren’t completely unfounded.
In late 2015, a redditor complained that he was unable to reach a staff member on vacation and wanted to know where he stands. The manager writes:
One of my key members of staff is currently on paid annual holiday leave. We’ve just won a big project and I need his help to get it started before the 4th of January when it goes live. Unfortunately, I can’t contact him because I have phoned his house and left an answerphone message, his mobile goes straight to voicemail and I’ve left him a voicemail message. I’ve also emailed every known email address I have of his with read receipt requests but nothing so far. Unfortunately he’s not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and it occurs to me there might be something wrong although his team workers think he’s ignoring me. None of them say they know where he is.
What I want to know is where does the company stand if somebody on paid annual holiday leave ignores legitimate communications from his employer and refuses to call back head office? If he was here in the office, refusing a reasonable direct request from senior management is a disciplinary matter, but because he’s out of the office, is there anything I can do, or is this a disciplinary matter that has to wait until the 4th of January when it will be too late for him to be involved in the big project we’ve just won and could lose if he’s not going to help the company with it?
The reddit post has since generated a fair amount of discussion, and we asked some career experts to weigh in. Here’s what they had to say:
Does the employer have a case against the employee?
“It would be surprising if this manager had a legal case against an employee who was taking a paid holiday vacation, but this is a classic case where having a solid company policy pays off,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.” “At the very least, it points to the value of communicating mutual expectations between a manager and a team.”
Taylor says a good employee handbook will clarify if an employee is required to be on call during vacations, and if nothing has been discussed prior to the paid vacation, then the issue is more of a management and cultural challenge than a legal one.
Without a written or unwritten policy, the onus falls on the employer for being unclear, Taylor says.
When would it be reasonably expected of an employee to be available on vacation for emergencies?
Taylor says this mostly depends on the verbal contract between the manager and employee.
They may have an understanding that the employee will check email a couple times during vacation for any emergencies, but not have time to undertake a large project. Alternatively, an employee’s vacation may have been scheduled at a pivotal time during the year for the company, and a manager gives them ample warning that they may get an interruption, Taylor says.
“Generally speaking, the higher up your role at the company, the more expected it is that you’ll be reachable during absences for emergencies,” Taylor says. “Still, it reflects badly on the senior manager who cuts short an employee’s holiday time for a last-minute project or for over-promising to a client.”
If things can’t function without a particular employee, does that mean there’s a problem with the team?
“If an organization cannot function without a particular team member, then its likely time to reevaluate processes and business operations, especially at times like the holidays or summer when a number of people may be out of the office on vacation,“ says Sherry Dixon, senior vice president with Adecco Staffing USA.
While there may be team members who contribute a great deal to the organization, managers should have contingency plans in the event of an emergency or employee time-off, Dixon says.
What can be done to avoid a similar scenario?
Managers should discuss with employees the plan in advance to avoid conflict and misunderstanding during a period of absence, Taylor says. The rule of thumb is setting mutual expectations that are satisfactory to both manager and employee.
As a professional courtesy, Dixon suggests employees let their teams know the best way to contact them while they’re out of the office if needed, and, if they’re not expecting to have access to the phone or internet, make sure the team knows that, too.
“Managers can sometimes miss the forest through the trees,” Taylor says. “You can place unreasonable expectations on an employee for so long before something breaks and it’s too late to fix it.”
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