Career Advice Aug 02 2011

When Not to Take a Vacation

By kelly eggers

Given the job jitters and economic uncertainty caused by debt crises in the U.S. and Europe, it may be time to ask the question: Is it safe to take that long-scheduled August vacation?

According to a July survey conducted by website and Harris Interactive, 52% of working adults aged 18 to 34 said no, they would change or cancel their plans if the economy remains volatile. Further, 18% of adult workers reported that they must be available while they're away if an emergency arises, and 13% are expected to work while they're out of town.

"A lot of people feel stress before they go away because they're not sure of how things will be handled in their absence," says Samantha Zupan, a spokesperson for Sausalito, Calif.-based

This kind of thinking worries experts. "As much as they don't think they do, people need that break from work," says Karen Sumberg, senior vice president at the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy. "People can't keep up with the intensive environment that exists in this kind of economy."

So what are the rules about taking a vacation in these difficult times? Here's what you should do:

...If You're a New Hire

In most cases, experts say that if you've accrued the vacation time since you started the job, it's okay to take a trip, assuming you've given proper notice.

"If you're entitled to vacation, and you've been with the company for at least six months, you should take it," says Roy Cohen, a New York City career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide.

Be aware, however, that if you don't have as much tenure as some of your fellow colleagues, how much time you take off will be watched closely. Taking a week or two off once a year is different than taking a week or two off when you've only been with the company for three or four months.

If you have a vacation planned before you start your new job, tell your manager when you're negotiating your start date or immediately upon joining the firm, says Cohen. "It may be unrealistic," he says, "because some companies have vacation policies that say you can't take vacation until you've been there for six months."

...If Something Really Important Is Happening in Your Absence

If taking a trip means you'll miss the closing of a big deal or a resume-building experience, you should think twice before skipping town during those few critical days.

"If your company is in the midst of preparing a large RFP [request for proposal] and you're a point-person for it, or if it's something that doesn't happen on a regular basis and you have the flexibility to delay your travel, you might think about rescheduling," says Elaine Varelas, a managing partner who specializes in career consulting and workforce management issues with Boston-based Keystone Partners. Generally, however, you should have enough notice before milestones in the office so you can plan around them initially.

Taking time off during busy season can be career suicide. Accountants know that spring is off-limits, but people in HR would be keen to avoid asking for time during open enrollment, for example. HR executives should consider canceling a vacation "if there are new hires coming in and you're an intricate part of the new hire process," says Frank Dadah, general manager of financial contracts with Boston-based staffing firm Winter, Wyman.

...If You're a Temp

If you're a temporary employee and hoping that a three-month stint at a firm could lead to full-time employment, it's probably best to eschew vacations altogether.

"I'm a big fan of temporary employees saying no to vacations for job obligations," says Dadah. "It shows a potential full-time employer that you're committed to the project you're on."

...If Your Boss Asks You to Cancel

If your boss tells you not to take a planned vacation, remember that in the eyes of the law, time off is a privilege, not a right. In New York, for example, it's not illegal for an employer to require their employee to cancel a vacation, says Salvatore Gangemi, a Manhattan-based employment attorney, provided there's no discriminatory motive in doing so.

If you do decide to cancel, you should have an honest discussion with your boss about reimbursing any non-refundable vacation-related costs, says Zupan of Glassdoor -- though Gangemi says employers aren't required by law to do so -- or asking if those lost dollars can translate into additional days off.

...If You Think You'll be Forgotten

If your boss has an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality when staff take off for extended vacations, it's not a bad idea to make it clear that you'll be available, even when you're off-site. The key here is setting ground rules to keep from working too hard when you should be unwinding.

"Checking out completely is an old-school mentality," says Dadah. As long as you're not single-handedly attempting to manage a crisis from a lounge chair, being available to the office is a good idea, and for many supervisors should be sufficient.

Dadah suggests setting a schedule for being in touch with work; Clearly communicate before you leave that you will be available at 10 each morning to respond to e-mails and clear up any issues, but otherwise, your phone and computer will be off and locked away.

...If There are Layoffs Looming

Keep your scheduled vacation even if there are rumors of layoffs circling around your firm, say experts.

"By the time it gets to the rumor mill, it's already decided who is being laid off," says Dadah.

"It's not a crapshoot," adds Cohen. "There's a methodology and a formal process involved, and the decisions on who's being cut are made well in advance," he says. Canceling a trip won't keep you from losing your job if your name is on the layoff list.

That said, there are some instances where you might consider forgoing your holiday. For example, some firms have a practice of giving larger severance packages to people who didn't use up all of their allotted vacation days, says Cohen, so if you think you're vulnerable to upcoming cuts and you need the money, skip the time off.

...If You Have Too Many Responsibilities

Beyond getting as much done as you can before you leave -- and fully delivering on any pre-vacation deadlines your boss has set for you -- you need to set up a backup plan for your absence.

"Make absolutely sure you have everything covered and planned for while you're out," says Varelas. "People should know that you have handled all of the prep for when you're out, that things are covered, questions are answered, and if you're needed, that you can be reached."

Your vacation shouldn't be a hardship for your colleagues: Leave your desk organized, provide them with any files or contact numbers they'll need, and try to anticipate issues they could run into before you ship out. "It goes a long way to give people a positive feeling about you when you aren't there," Varelas says.

Write to Kelly Eggers

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