Auto-Reply: Out of Office

Gentle readers–if any of you are still out there–

Hello, and apologies that the only thing I’ve had to offer you in over a month is a Dutch tea towel.

(Digression: how can we get this phrase to catch on?  “You’re as cute as a Dutch tea towel!” perhaps, or maybe, in another direction, “she stayed with me for a month and didn’t bring so much as a Dutch tea towel as a hostess gift.”)

It’s been a busy, exciting summer, with lots of time on the road for business and pleasure, and not so many days at home, or in the office.  In that vein, now that I’m back at work it seems appropriate to revive the blog with an ongoing issue in Dear Abby (and possibly in your very own cubicle): co-workers who don’t [appear to] work.

It started with a letter from a bitter supervisor published back on June 1:

DEAR ABBY: I’m the supervisor of a small office. One of my biggest challenges is scheduling time off for the female employees. In my day, you didn’t take a day off unless you were very sick or your child was sick. Now they seem to want time off for everything from school events, sporting events, getting their nails done, their faces waxed or tanning appointments. I am amazed at the decline in work ethic.

As I read about the unemployment in our country, I would think people would be grateful to have a well-paying job with benefits — but the recession hasn’t slowed any of our female employees down one bit. What has happened to the old-fashioned work ethic that founded this country? (Maybe it went south along with the jobs?) And by the way, Abby, I am a female. — TAKES MY JOB SERIOUSLY

Yikes.  It sounds like this woman needs…..well, a day off.  Maybe a whole batch of them.

As Abby pointed out in her reply, if these women (really?  just the women?  Do men take no time off?  Or doesn’t she supervise any?) are simply making use of the paid time off included in their compensation package, then they’re within their rights to spend that time however they want.  Their salaries take into account their not working a certain number of days each year.  They should be expected to take this time, and so, for that matter, should the supervisor.

For the sake of the rest of the post, I make this assumption–that the requested time off she’s complaining about is paid vacation/personal time. If that’s actually not the case, it’s the supervisor who needs to grab the reins and regain control of the situation–meeting with employees, reviewing policies, instituting some sort of consequences, or just saying no.  But if employees want their own vacation days, and their boss resents it–well, now we’ve got something to talk about.  And so we shall.

Reader responses to this letter ran today, and varied widely.  Bits’n’pieces below:

I understand the frustration of “Takes My Job Seriously” (June 1), the supervisor who complained about her female employees requesting time off for kids’ school and sports events or beauty appointments. Over the last few years I have noticed a decline in work ethic across the board.

Phone calls go unreturned, workers stand around idle and errors are made on important forms. People seem to do the minimum necessary to make it to the end of the day, and supervisors aren’t much different — they allow this behavior. Years ago, people worked hard for their money. Now they hardly work.

[Grrrr….taking earned time off is not even a little bit the same as slacking off while on the clock]

“TMJS” fails to take into consideration the evolution of the work force. Not only are there more women working now, but we usually work far beyond the regular 9-to-5 grind. As a single mom, I need flexibility in my schedule to get everything done that’s demanded of me at work and at home. I take my laptop home every night and work after my son goes to sleep.  “TMJS” may feel superior because I’m not in the office as much as she is, but I’ll bet I work more hours per week. Technology now allows us the flexibility of choice.

[This is a really important point for folks peering over the cubicle wall and rolling their eyes at their colleagues’ empty chairs.  But it’s not something that should go unspoken between supervisors and employees.  If folks are leaving the office without officially taking time off because they intend to make up the hours remotely–well, a supervisor should sure be aware of and OK with the arrangement]

I supervise several younger women. Studies have shown that while these employees want to do a good job, they find it equally important to have “work/life” balance. I actually think they are smarter than we are. We tend to overwork and feel guilty if we take a day for ourselves. If they take the time they have earned and use it for what they enjoy — good for them.

[hear, hear!]

“TMJS” must have entered the work force when companies still took care of loyal, longtime employees by providing good benefits and job security. It paid to go the extra mile for your employer because you knew your company would return the favor when needed.

In recent years this has changed. Workers today realize that sacrificing their personal life for their professional one does not necessarily reap any benefits.

[another interesting point.  I’d venture–though with absolutely no evidence–that most young professionals entering the workforce today have no intention of staying at their first job more than five years.  It’s simply not a given that the job will even be available that long, for one thing. But there also may be no guarantee of regular advancement, promotion, or raises.  Moving forward in their career will most likely mean changing jobs.  Of course, this sword cuts both ways: why should employers offer long term benefits like, say, retirement matching, to employees that they only expect to have around for a couple of years?]

Although I’m a little annoyed with “TMJS” myself right now, I wonder if there may be practical ways she can improve the situation in her office, so that employees can take the time off they’re entitled to, and she doesn’t feel left in the lurch.  Her real problem seems to be, as she says, with scheduling people’s time off.  She’s frustrated by this, and turns her resentment back onto them and their personal choices.

As the supervisor,  she could set some policies–perhaps time off must be requested a month in advance, or no more than two employees may take vacation in the same week.  Maybe working remotely isn’t allowed, or must be logged/accounted for in a precise way.  Maybe vacation can only be taken in increments of days or half days, reducing the likelihood of odd hours-that-creep-to-three-hours personal errands.  She’s lucky to be in a position to institute or propose some changes–perhaps creative ones–to place reasonable limitations on her employees’ flitting about.

Her supervisees are entitled to their vacation time.  They’re entitled to use that time how they wish, and this shouldn’t impact their boss’s opinion of them.  But they’re not necessarily entitled to take it without notice, whenever they feel like it. Finding the right balance here might save everyone’s sanity.  And I hope, while she’s at it, this woman takes a vacation.

How about you–do you feel guilty when you take a day off of work?  Does your boss make it hard for you to do so?  How do you account for personal errands during the workday?

Do you find yourself working from home in the evenings or on vacation and why?  Is is fear, passion, boundary issues, or some combination of all three?

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2 responses to “Auto-Reply: Out of Office

  1. Very, very interesting. I feel like this struggle between work/time off plays out more than it is talked about. The most disturbing part of the original letter to me is that this boss is equating going to a child’s school/sporting event to tanning… ! Not the same. My personal philosophy is, if you can schedule it outside work hours, you should: tanning, haircuts, random errands, etc. If it’s something you can’t change (your son’s Little League game, a dentist appointment), then you have no choice. And of course I believe in using whatever earned vacation time you have 🙂

    My problem is more with random errands that get run during the work day that don’t count as “actual” vacation time… A person I used to work with walked across the street to get her film developed during the work day (she was part-time! It was Walgreens! Just go when you get off work!). It took 30 minutes and was kind of ridiculous.

  2. That alone wwas an egregious oversight on thheir own part, since bkceeabadgdg

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