calling a coworker at 10:30 p.m. while they’re on vacation

A reader writes:

My husband called a co-worker Tuesday night after 10:30 pm and talked until almost midnight about business. This person was also on vacation. This was not an emergency call and I feel, regardless of whether the co-worker kept the communication going, that my husband was out of bounds in making this call. Please advise.

It totally depends on the culture of your husband’s workplace.

At some offices, this would be beyond the pale. At others, this wouldn’t be particularly strange (especially, for example, at a lot of start-ups).

At my last job, many people would do some work from home at odd hours of the night (including me). I had one coworker who I knew often worked late at night, and sometimes he and I would find ourselves exchanging work-related emails at 11 p.m. and finally he’d suggest we jump on the phone to get something resolved faster. (I never suggested it, because as a manager, I didn’t want to make anyone feel pressured to give up their nights that way. But if an employee initiated it, it was fine with me.) But that was just our culture, and it was the two of us in particular — there were other employees who I never heard from after 6 p.m., and that was just fine too.

As for the vacation element, again it depends on culture. Sometimes I go on vacation and make it clear that this is a “don’t bother me unless someone dies” type of vacation. Other times, I want to get away but know that my workload at that point means that the only way I can do it is if I remain available by phone — and in those cases, I’m willing to make the trade-off of getting to fly off somewhere fun in exchange for remaining available for phone calls.

And there are certainly people who enjoy their work so much that they want to stay in touch while they’re away. I’ve been that person myself, and I’ve worked at places like that; they do exist!

So it really depends on the workplace culture, and the preferences of specific people involved.

Now, despite all that, if your husband had no basis for knowing that this coworker would be fine with a 10:30 p.m. work call, then yes, it was inappropriate. And even if that’s not the case, if your husband has any authority over this coworker, he should be sensitive to the fact that the guy might not feel comfortable saying, “Hey, it’s getting late and I’m on vacation. We need to wrap this up.”  Or even, “Hey, this is my vacation. Stop calling me! We’ll talk when I’m back.”

In general, people in positions of authority should bend over backwards to be respectful of people’s off time, to encourage people to take “real” vacations, and to make it clear that working odd hours is truly 100% optional. So your husband’s role in relation to the coworker is relevant.

But some people really do like working at odd hours. Some people do not. The question is where this guy stands.

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. KellyK*

    I really like this answer, AAM. It might have been reasonable, if he knew for a fact that the coworker was okay with it and he wouldn't be bugging other people in the house.

    Personally, I would be absolutely livid if someone called me with a work question at 10:30 PM even if I *weren't* on vacation, because I'd probably be asleep. But that's me, not everybody.

  2. Jamie*

    I think even if the person did answer the phone the other person is still obligated to keep it brief, unless, as AAM stated, they know it's 100% okay.

    And agreed this is 100% dependent the relative positions of the people involved and their preferences.

    Another point is even if someone has a reputation for always being available and happy to deal with work after hours, a boss still has to tread lightly. 99% of the time if I'm awake I am available by phone/email – but even people like me have moments where work mode is off. Whether being involved in an important conversation or quietly enjoying a migraine there's that 1% chance of catching someone at a bad time.

  3. Mary Sue*

    I wonder if the submitter is writing for advice because she has a problem with her husband spending so much time on the phone, instead of with her and/or their family?

  4. Interviewer*

    My boss treats vacation time away from the office as sacrosanct. I was on maternity leave when our building flooded with 30 feet of water. The office was shut down for 2 weeks for repairs. I called to check on them. She promptly shooed away all offers of help or an early return, and told me to rest up, enjoy the baby, and we'd talk when I got back.

    Another time, we had a last minute project come up that needed to be completed that week. It was a Tuesday, and I had already scheduled Thursday & Friday off work. She would not let me change it to help the team. She said Go, enjoy your time off, we can handle it, and the rest will be here when you get back.

    So I would say it depends on the office and the culture and especially the boss, but in my book, 10:30 at night is very late for anyone to call. My parents wouldn't let me take/make calls after 9 when I was a teen, because they said if the phone rang that late, it meant someone was in the hospital, in jail, or dead. If your husband truly didn't realize that may be a problem for his ee or his family (or your family!), maybe you could tell him to touch base with the guy after he gets back from vacation and ask. Because he's the boss, he may not get a straight answer, but body language should tell him what he needs to know.

  5. Anonymous*

    I get phone calls on vacation, at midnight and early in the morning — but I work at a newspaper, so it's a given that if there's a problem, they're going to try to get a hold of me unless I'm at a funeral or something. (I have been called during a wedding, though, so you never know).

    On that note, there have been times where I've let the call go to voicemail to make sure it's REALLY an emergency if I'm on vacation.

  6. Charles S.*

    I had a boss who, not long after I joined, started calling my home in the early evenings – part business, part chit chat. Naturally I didn't express disapproval, but my wife was really bothered by the calls. After work its our time, not theirs, she said.

    After a while I made an off hand remark to him about my wifes' attitude, in my sly way, hoping he would get the message that he was interfering in our personal lives. Fact, he was (and still is) a bachelor – lots of time on his hands.

    He did stop calling, but eventually (I think) as retribution he became quite petty with me at work – forcing me to stay late by giving me assignments late in the afternoon and saying he needed the info the first thing in the morning. I knew he didn't. But…

    Moral of the story, bosses are human and are just as petty as we are. I did get used to his childish behavior; I adapted my work style and hours to accommodate him. He didn't change – he got worse. I left after 3 years because of his egocentricities.

    I fully understand the company culture aspect of work life. My advice to others, before signing on with a new company, ask in depth questions about the "company culture". As I recall in the interview I did, but they weren't up front with me.

    I appreciate the opportunity to share my experience.

  7. Anonymous*

    Remember the days when we'd "let the machine pick up"? Well, we can still do that. We don't have to answer our phones.

    OP's husband is behaving inappropriately by calling but the employee has the option of not answering.

  8. Cassie*

    My coworkers and I usually don't work that late (though I do respond to email), but I would be really hesitant to call anyone that late at night. If I needed to, it would definitely be a short conversation.

    Once last year, on a Friday night, my boss called me at 10:47pm. He knew I was going on vacation (would be out the Monday and Tuesday) but he didn't know where I was going or when my flight was. When he called, I was in bed, trying to fall asleep for my Saturday morning flight (I think it was a 8 or 9 am flight).

    He called to ask me about what invoices we received from a contractor and I told him (from memory) the information. Then he called back a few minutes later asking me to double-check and email him so I had to drag myself out of bed, turn on my computer, connect remotely to my work computer and find the information. I didn't get back to sleep until after midnight.

    I should have just told him "sorry, I'm going to sleep, I'll take care of it when I get back to the office Wednesday" since the information wasn't needed asap – nothing was going to blow up. But he was so insistent (after "apologizing" for waking me up) and I wouldn't have been able to go to sleep and enjoy my vacation knowing that he was waiting for that information.

    The problem with just not answering the phone (I know it's him because of the caller ID on the cellphone) is that what if it's something important? Though I guess there isn't really anything "important" that late at night, over a weekend. And if it were an emergency, he should just call 911 or (you know) his family members!

  9. Kimberlee Stiens*

    I totally agree with AAM's answer here, and with one of the main additions of the commenters: people do have the option of not answering. If it's an emergency, they will leave a voicemail and you can call them back. I had a boss once that was irate when she found out people were screening her calls… but why wouldn't we? In my job, the only reason you get called when you're not there is to come in for a shift. So, yes, if you think your off time is your own, don't answer the call! And if you want info from someone and its not an emergency or anything, email them. If they're up anyway, they'll respond.

  10. Anonymous*

    Well said AAM. I've fielded calls from staff at all hours and there were times I'd like to reach through the phone & wring their necks.

    Although I would never discourage contact in an emergency, almost every call was something that could have waited. It ticked me off so much at one point I began to dock people under management & leadership competencies on their reviews. Seriously. I cherish my down time & my family. Unless the building is on fire and people are bleeding out the eyes, it can wait.

  11. lorrwill*

    I work in an office/industry where this is normal for some people (upper management). For the hourly folks, this would be incredibly rude.

    And yes, I did have a boss who would call all hours, especially on the weekends and not only was I hourly, but a temp! I was very relieved when she quit.

  12. Anonymous*

    This column is timely — I was checking work E-Mail Saturday afternoon and noticed that a version of my software had gone through to the production system, when I'd intended it to only go as far as the staging system, so I could do some testing.

    It's now Sunday, and I've Replied All to the operations announcement about the install, leaving my cell phone number in case there are questions. That's because developers (such as myself) need to think like the Operations department as well. The flip side of that is that if I have to leave work early (as I did Friday for a wedding), it was no biggie.

    I think that's unusual in employers, but it's becoming more usual — and that's a good thing.

  13. KellyK*

    My parents wouldn't let me take/make calls after 9 when I was a teen, because they said if the phone rang that late, it meant someone was in the hospital, in jail, or dead.

    That's a really good point too. I don't think it's as easy as "just don't answer the phone" because it could be an emergency, and the lateness gives the impression it is. If I get a call at 10:30, I'm not thinking of screening it, I'm thinking something along the lines of "Who died?"

  14. Dawn*

    To the person who said that the wife was just suspicious her husband, I highly doubt that's the case.

    I get annoyed when my husband's coworkers call him after hours, on the weekend, etc. I feel that once the workday is over, it's over. The only exceptions should be if there's an emergency. They typically call because they are used to him being the unofficial go-to person. I used to be in the same situation. I finally blew up and told my boss that people need to leave me alone and respect my time while I'm on vacation, unless it's something that is extremely urgent.

    I feel that a boss calling his subordinate while he/she is on vacation shows a lack of respect for his/her time off. Everyone deserves to recharge and leave work behind for awhile. That's why it's so important to cross train and have a backup plan/person.

  15. Anonymous*

    While I agree with everyone who said 'just don't pick up', what about working with coworkers and managers who just don't get that? My boss and a coworker (who has been with my boss for a long time and modeled his behavior after hers) have a nasty habit of calling at ALL HOURS. I've gotten calls at 3 am on a Friday, midnight on a tuesday, 6 am on a wednesday, you name it. And if you don't pick up, they just keep on calling and calling until you do! In fact, I once had to field calls from my boss, who was in a complete tizzy, one weekend day when the part-time employee who I supervise wasn't picking up his phone, despite the fact it was his day off. Turns out he'd gone to the beach, again as it was his day off, and his phone was out of range- but our boss was livid (how dare he not pick up).

    It's never an emergency, but the culture in my office is EVERYTHING is urgent. Seriously- I was lectured once because, after working till 9 p.m. I mentioned to my boss that I was glad we'd finished that project, even if we had to stay so late, because I was hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at my house the next day (a weekend). And she asked me what made me think I could have a party on a weekend- she might need me.

    Same goes for vacation: I was on unpaid leave at home when my grandmother died, and recieved almost hourly emails, texts and calls. When I was unable to answer or reply, as I was in the hospital while she was dying unable to use my cell, I was berated for having my priorities out of wack. However, god help the person who calls my boss on her weekends or vacations: even if we need approvals from her to continue the work, if we interupt her we're going to be screamed at.

    So my question for all of you: if office culture is so important, how does one change it?

    1. KellyB*

      There is no excuse for interrupting an employee’s time AWAY FROM WORK, unless it is an ’emergency’.

      My work is NOT my life, and it never will be.

  16. Anonymous*

    At my husband's job, this is not atypical. 10:30pm is pushing it since his job begins very early in the morning, but it is not at all outside the norm. that his boss would call to chat in the evening hours, even if we were on vacation!

  17. Judy*

    I feel it's totally out of the question to call someone at 10:30 p.m. unless it's a dire emergency.

    What work issue is so important to call someone at 10:30 p.m. while they're on vacation anyway?

  18. Picky1*

    The only times when it is appropriate to call someone who is on vacation are: 1) the office burned down, 2) someone died, 3) the FBI is investigating the organization on something related to the person on vacation, 4) the person on vacation is losing their job, and 5) the entire organization is going to go under without information from the person on vacation. That’s it. If it’s anything else, leave the person alone!

  19. Anonymous*

    I work in IT supporting SMEs with 50-200 staff. In general I make sure their business systems, phones, mail systems, databases etc work,

    Now I take holidays off to spend with my child and rest a little.

    I do have to answer the phone and check email because a big problem eg phones not working for a whole company would demand attention,

    I send mail out telling people to only contact me if there is a major problem effecting all workers at tge company and that I am on holiday.

    What happens? Every self important gnome in the place phones me daily about their printer jam or equivalent.

    I also work at night iften to get work done that cannot be completed during business hours eg database upgrades. And instead of letting me get my work done idiots -sometimes drunk -call me at all hours.

    I used to work with a lot of doctors and tge same happens to them always being hassled everything always being urgent to the ignorant dipon the phone.

    So here’s the deal. People whi have to be on call don’t mind veibg contacted when there us a genuine energency but we HATE
    and I do mean HATE idiots who think that they are VIP and yet are toi dumb to get by, people who sebd mails startibg with ‘I know you are on holiday and morons who create drama at 10:30 at night.

    If you disrespect someone in this way they will of course hate you but also in return have no respect for you, your work or your work hours or holidays.

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