manager won’t tell us when she’ll be out on vacation

A reader writes:

Our manager refuses to tell us when she is scheduled to be out of the office. She travels for business and has taken several vacations since I started in September; however, she has never notified us of her absence in advance. Sometimes she’s available via IM and sometimes she’s not, so we don’t know if she’s out for work and available to answer calls and emails or if she’s on vacation.

We don’t really care where she’s going, but she is heavily involved in our daily operations and things have to be handled a little differently if she’s not around.

I feel it’s common courtesy to keep your employees informed of your office schedule. What do you think?

I wrote back to this reader and asked if anyone has asked the manager to keep them in the loop about when she’ll be away. The answer:

Unfortunately, she’s rather confrontational and gets defensive easily so we all just try to avoid her when possible. Not to mention she rarely lets you complete a question/statement before she interrupts because she thinks she knows the answer.

This is bizarre.

But on the other hand, no one has pointed it out to her so she’s not really “refusing” to tell you; she’s probably just being oblivious. And someone should speak up about it, because it’s such an obvious, easy thing to fix.

Here’s your wording: “Jane, when you’re away and we don’t realize it, we sometimes hold projects up for hours/days for your input into things without realizing that you won’t be seeing it until you’re back in a week. And we also end up bothering you when you’re on vacation, because we don’t realize that you’re taking time off. Could you give everyone a heads-up when you’re going to be on vacation or traveling for work so that we can keep things moving and avoid bothering you if you’re off?”

It’s straightforward and direct and explains the impact and your requested solution. You say it in a tone that’s cheerful and constructive, not accusatory. If she gets defensive, (a) she’s insane, and (b) you can pander a bit to her weirdness and reassure her that you’re trying to support her schedule the most efficient way you can.

By the way, the key to getting along with defensive people is to make them feel safe — you love their work, you think they’re great, and oh, hey, here’s this tiny thing that it would be so helpful to do just a little bit differently.

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Janet

    This has actually been a very common problem for me so far in my career. My past two bosses have been like this. No one knows where they are. It is not at all rare for someone to stop by and be like “Hey, is so-and-so coming in today?” and for us to shrug unsure of whether the boss is sick, late, traveling or working from home. Or even possibly somewhere in the building but in a meeting. A previous boss would even sometimes call the secretary and tell her to turn the computer and lights on so it appeared she was there but she was still at home or stuck in traffic.

    Your suggestion of what should work seems quite logical but I can predict that with my current boss and previous boss, saying anything like that would not go over well. Both would very likely provide a verbal smackdown and then the whole team would very likely be punished by having the boss “clock watch” us for a week and punish for being 10 minutes late or taking 5 minutes longer for lunch.

    In both cases I suspected bosses were well aware that they were being confusing and secretive and it was a way of falsifying time sheets – taking extra days off here and there and hoping no one noticed.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yikes, I didn’t even think about the fact that it might be a deliberate attempt to cover up an abuse of time off. Either way, I think they’ve still got to try saying something — if it’s innocent oblivion, it could solve it, and if it’s not, at least they’ll have a better understanding of the situation once they raise it.

      1. Anonymous

        Oh my last supervisor did plenty of that, and the negligent leadership let it go on for years! It was definitely abuse. He’d just disappear for weeks at a time by the end. Not fun.

    2. Blinx

      “It is not at all rare for someone to stop by and be like “Hey, is so-and-so coming in today?” and for us to shrug unsure of whether the boss is sick, late, traveling or working from home.”

      Boy, does this resonate with me! Happened all the time with several bosses. I always thought it reflected poorly on me that I had no clue where they were. For a while we got them to print out their calendar for the day and post it on their doors the night before (or have their admin do it). After a while, I just referred people to ask the admin.

      As for the reasons? Many and varied. The usual lack of communication comes to mind. Also, a passive/aggressive power power play: You report to me, I don’t report (my whereabouts) to you. And blatant misuse of personal time/flex time/working from home privilege. Happens WAY too often, but management would rather look the other way rather than deal with the issue.

      1. Catherine

        Mine as well! The boss I have now makes it look like he is in the office more than reality by leaving his IM status to “online” all the time. He doesn’t turn off his computer when he leaves so when I get in at 7am, I see that he is “online,” although I know absolutely he won’t be in the office until around 9. So we never know when he is actually there or not there.

    3. Anonymous

      I worked in a situation very much like Janet’s. When the issue was brought up, my boss said we were always welcome to call her mobile…As if it is normal to try and track your boss down when she is supposed to be at work – even when meetings are scheduled – but doesn’t show up or let anyone know.

    4. Charles

      ” . . . I suspected bosses were well aware that they were being confusing and secretive . . .”

      This was my first thought too.

      Yep, there are many folks like this; it is just that “bosses” can get away with it more!

    5. Anonymous

      Very familiar to me too. My last boss did this, and he also did it as a way to get away with working less than 40 hours a week, while charging clients for and getting paid for a full 40. I remember one particular incident where he told an employee in the office that he was going to a meeting and then was helping the field folks in the field afterwards, so he would be gone the rest of the day. He went to the meeting and then told the field employee something about being busy and left. I’m sure he just went and goofed off that afternoon.

      Everything that that office accomplished while I was there was done in spite of his “leadership”. He was involved only when absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, because of his flakiness, he was quite the bottleneck. We just had to learn to get things to him when he asked and if asked by the client the status of a report or something, we’d say that it was being reviewed by Boss. Many people figured out what was going on, but nothing was done, which is why I no longer work there.

    6. Mike C.

      I had a boss like that. Luckily because I worked for the state at the time I was able to turn her in with full whistleblower protections that were actually enforced.

      Though folks should understand that at the time I was doing hard physical labor for the job and one less person meant way more work for the rest of us.

  2. Kate

    I’ve seen remote staff do this a lot because they don’t want the vacation to be reported or become official and actually count toward their vacation days. If they leave the company, they then get paid all that unused vacation (obviously up the max set by the company).

  3. Tamara

    This is so weird! Another way I’ve dealt with defensive people is to help them think a change is their idea. Presenting the issue in a question form is often all that’s needed, since they usually want to come up with a solution. Sometimes hint-dropping is necessary, and sometimes they even come up with solutions that I’d never thought of and are actually better! In this case, maybe address the issue of interrupting her vacations first. The next time it happens, something like “I really feel horrible when I end up disturbing you during your vacation! I wish there were a way that we could avoid it. What would be a convenient way to make sure I’m aware of when you shouldn’t be contacted?” Adding in some vague ideas about calendars, schedules, or email notifications could help. The main goal would be to make it about you & your difficulties being productive, rather than her and when she’s gone. Of course, if she’s more crazy than defensive, she might defy this logic as well!

  4. Julie

    At least you can HOPE she’s not doing it intentionally! My last boss (the Executive Director of a very small non-profit) went overseas for three weeks and indirectly told me not to tell the Board that he was out of the country. (“By the way, the Board doesn’t know I’m taking this trip…”) He was still semi-accessible by email but not at all by phone, given that he was 7 hours away ahead of the people calling him and had no international calling plan on his cell, so I had to keep finding interesting ways to tell people that they should email him instead of leaving a message on his voice-mail.

    His rationale was that so long as he could keep doing his job, it didn’t matter where he was. Of course, given the duplicity involved, he must have had SOME sense that people would be pissed off at him. And he really wasn’t doing his job very well while he was away, anyway.

    He lasted about four months before the Board fired him.

  5. Chocolate Teapot

    I once had a boss who was quite hostile (and erring on the agressive sometimes) when asked where he was going to be. Apparently I was being nosy and these things didn’t concern me.

    I pointed out that even if knowing he was at a meeting of the Association of Chocolate Teapot Manufacturers all day didn’t concern me, ensuring that calls coming in for him from clients were handled appropriately did.

  6. Elizabeth West

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves as a receptionist. Since I’m the one handling people’s calls, it behooves them to tell me when they are going to be out of the office. Otherwise, I may transfer customers to their voice mail without realizing it, thus pissing them off. If I’m sitting up front and can’t see whether someone is in their office or cube, and they don’t walk past me on the way in, I may never know they aren’t there. Hello, please email if you’re taking vacation, or buzz me and tell me you’re out for the rest of the day or whatever. I cant even imagine someone doing this with people with whom they are working on projects.

  7. JT

    If the boss being away is hurting work, then that’s a problem. But I’m not convinced people need to know where he/she is all the time if he/she is checking voicemail and email regularly.

    1. Ms Enthusiasm

      JT I disagree…

      As others have mentioned I think it is just common courtesy to inform your team or direct reports when you will be out of the office. It could be as simple as an email saying I’ll be on vacation on Friday and will only repond to urgent requests. I used to have a supervisor who stayed late everyday and therefore everyone was already gone when she left. She would wait until the very end of the day (after everyone was gone) to send an email saying she was going to be out the next day. None of us would see it until we got in the next morning. It was frustrating because she was already inaccessible and I would have a pending matter that I hadn’t gotten a chance to ask her about so I had planned to ask her the next day. Well that didn’t work because now she was out. If I had more advanced notice I could have tried to catch her that same day before she was out. This was before texting and smart phones so there was really no way to see her email before getting to work. Not to mention it was bad if we needed to call off sick unexpectedly and she wasn’t there to receive our phone calls. We would leave her a voicemail assuming she would get it that day but of course she wasn’t there so no one else knew where we were either.

      1. JT

        “was already inaccessible”

        If the person is checking voice and email regularly, they are not inaccessible.

        1. Brandy

          The letter doesn’t checking email and voicemail regularly, it says “Sometimes she’s available via IM and sometimes she’s not, so we don’t know if she’s out for work and available to answer calls and emails or if she’s on vacation.” Also, the comment to which you responded seems to say that they will respond to something urgent but also that voicemails left may not be heard or responded to until the person is back in the office and after the issue is passed. I don’t think either situation indicates that they are checking and responding all the time but rather that it’s sporadic and never something that can be counted on.

          1. JT

            Right.

            As I said, if someone is checking voice and email regularly I don’t see why it is important to know where they are. Just get on with business. If it’s important or urgent, they’ll deal. If it’s not, and you don’t hear back, you deal.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              The problem is if you’re waiting for someone’s input on something before you move forward, not realizing that it’s never going to come (or not going to come for a week, when you need to finalize this tomorrow). If you know it’s not going to happen, you can just keep the project moving.

              1. KellyK

                Right. I think that it’s not so much an issue of where they are as how responsive they are. If you won’t be responding to things in the normal and expected timeframe (whatever that is), you should let people know that.

            2. Anonymous

              It’s not a matter of giving a crap where my manager is during the day. It’s a matter of knowing if they will be available to approve something or the fact that they are out of the office and are or are not available by cell. When a client calls and asks for the manager and you don’t know if they are in the office or out of the office, or if they are out of the office and you have no idea if they will be back in 2 hours, 2 days, or 2 weeks, your company looks disorganized and unprofessional.

              A simple, “I’ll be out of the office during these times and will be available by cell” or whatever will suffice.

        2. Mike C.

          Uh, this really depends on the type of workplace environment you’re in. If you’re in a place where you actually make stuff or have to literally sign off on things, this will not suffice.

      2. Shane

        @Ms Enthusiasm

        While I agree that the short notice can be frustrating I think that if you have something that you have foresight enough to know that you will need to mention it to her the next day you should have let her know to expect you as well. This will improve your project in two ways:
        1) She will be more prepared to answer questions or more quickly respond to whatever “pending matter” you have and you are less likely to get “I will have to look into that and get back to you” as a response.
        2) She may be able to solve or at least provide some simple guidence on the matter through email before she leaves that night.

        Had you mentioned to her that you would appreciate earlier notice about a day away from the office? I don’t think that she was right in providing such short notice however communication is a two-way street and if you have an issue that is preventing you from completing work you need to bring it up immediately. People are not telepathic and even the most considerate of managers are bound to step on a few toes without intending to.

    2. Esra

      Not everybody needs to know, but at least one person should. Whether it’s the receptionist, team lead, assistant, whoever, if something crops up, people should be able to find out whether or not someone is working or on vacation.

    3. Emily

      I don’t care or need to know *where* my boss is–but I do care and need to know if she’s going to be in the office, working remotely and accessible, not working but sporadically checking email/voicemail, or not accessible. I don’t need to hear, “I’m giving a presentation on chocolate teapots in the morning at Local University and then I have a colonoscopy and then I’m going to meet my mother in law for lunch and then I’ll come into the office.” But I do think it’s reasonable for the boss to say, “I won’t be in the office until sometime after lunch tomorrow. I probably won’t be checking my email much or be able to answer my phone the whole time, but if you leave a voicemail I should be able to call back reasonably quickly,” (so I’m not waiting for a response to email, her preferred method of communication, for something urgent) or “I’ll be working from home this morning and available by email,” (so I don’t interrupt her with a phone call for something that was not too urgent for email) or “I’ll be an hour late this morning,” (so I know to just wait for her arrival) etc. I agree nobody needs to know where anyone is as long as they’re within the company policy for time off/remote work. For instance, when I need time off for a medical appointment or vacation, I simply request the time off–I’ve accrued the days, they’re mine to take, and I generally don’t think it’s anybody else’s business whether I’m using them for a vacation or a medical appointment or a stay-in-my-pajamas-all-day-staycation*. But people who work directly with the person do need to know how to reach them if they aren’t in the office.

      (*Possible exception–if my leave request falls at an inconvenient but not impossible time for the company to do without me, it may be reasonable for the boss to ask the purpose of the leave. They might be willing to do without me if my kid has a doctor’s appointment, but not if I was hoping to get the day after a concert off so I could sleep in.)

  8. Jenn

    I’m a pretty defensive person; not confrontational, just super sensitive to criticism about my work. I just realized that what Alison wrote is *exactly* the best way to deal with me.

    And yeah, I’m getting therapy for it. ;-)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I actually have a whole column coming up on how to deal with defensive people! I could do one on how to not be defensive as well, which is something I think I’ve cracked the code to (although sometimes I slip up, like everyone). The basic keys are:

      1. Have a strong ego (so that criticism won’t shake you at your core, which I do think it can do otherwise).
      2. Assume that there are things you’re not perfect at, and know that that’s okay because it’s true of everyone, and also because you’d be really unlikeable if you were perfect.
      3. That said, have a genuine desire to learn about what those things are so that you can work at getting better at them, even though you’ll never be perfect, which again is perfectly normal and okay.
      4. Have a genuine curiosity to learn about how others perceive you, even if it’s not how you’d like them to perceive you. Appreciate the different perspective for whatever insight it brings you, even if it’s a little hard.
      5. The strong ego again — feel fundamentally safe enough that it’s okay when something goes a bit wrong.

      Magic formula!

      1. Shane

        I love this.

        It is all about being self-aware. Personally I don’t think that there is a non-defencive person alive right now. We just all draw the line at different places. I know that I (like everyone else) can become very stubborn when someone crosses that line.

        Something I have tried to do is to ask for clarification about things that I am hearing rather than refute them immediately. This helps (for me anyways) because it curbs my thinking away from the idea that I need to dig in and show this person why they are so very very wrong about everything because I am instead working to understand the whole issue.

        Worst case if it turns out that I still think I need to justify myself then at least I might be able to communicate my position better and the other party might be more willing to accept my response after I have listened and seemed more interested in their reasonong (even if their reasoning of “because fox news said so” makes me want to slap them).

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        It’s also helpful to know what to say when someone gives you some criticism that you realize is true. Sometimes I think people struggle for the wording. Some good responses: “I see what you’re saying.” “That makes sense.” “I didn’t realize that — thank you.”

        These work very well in relationships too!

        1. Shane

          Now I could be wrong but I always prefer the Luke Skywalker Approach to new information:

          “No! That isn’t true! That’s IMPOSSIBLE!…
          NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

      3. Rana

        Wonderful advice!

        I’m usually good when the criticism is directed at my work (this document isn’t in the right format, this report needs to include this thing that’s not in it, etc.); you don’t survive long in the environments I’ve worked in if you don’t learn how to depersonalize criticism of your writing, research, etc., some of which can be quite blunt and even harsh.

        Where I find it daunting is when the criticism is directed at me instead of my work (you need to act more cheerful, you need to talk less in meetings, don’t ever wear those shoes to work again, etc.). Work problems I can fix, and expect to fix. Changing my personality to fit better into the job… oof. That sort of critique hurts, and it’s impossible to not take personally, because, well, it is personal.

        1. Meghan

          Sort of in this vein, I quit a job once (for varying reasons) where the manager told me that I needed to change my handwriting because it was “too European.” She criticized me for it repeatedly, but no one else had any complaints.

  9. Josh S

    “By the way, the key to getting along with defensive people is to make them feel safe — you love their work, you think they’re great, and oh, hey, here’s this tiny thing that it would be so helpful to do just a little bit differently.”

    I’ve figured this out intuitively, but I’ve never been able to explain it well to others. You just gave me the words for that. Thanks!

  10. Brandy

    I agree with many of the commenters. This seems like a situation in which people are making up their own rules and quite possibly doing it to get vacation time on their own terms. It seems since they are not announcing vacations, there’s an excellent chance they’re not using vacation time either. Yes, people under a manager may not need to know what they are doing every minute of the day but it’s courteous to subordinates to let them know when they will be out of the office and how to properly contact them when that happens, whether they are out on business or for personal time.

  11. Erica B

    This reminds me of my boss, in that he spends more time “out” than “in” and we have no idea what he’s up to. He’ll pop in for 15 mins and then disappear. Doesn’t say bye, or anything. We don’t necessarily need him, or care that he isn’t there, but not knowing his status is a pain. He is almost always available via phone/text/email, but it would be nice to actually talk to him if we have a question, or if people are looking for him to say to them, “oh he has stepped out for a few minutes”, “he’s working at home”, “he’s left for the day”, “he’s on a call” (he’s a volunteer fire fighter” or something other than “oh he popped in 3 hours ago for a few and then disappeared. Did you check if his truck is in the lot, he might still be on campus. We don’t know where he is, but you could try calling/email/texting him”. (this response is for our immediate core of people, any unknown/important person, would get a much better and professional answer)

  12. OP

    I’m so relieved that others experience this too. I was at my last employer for 12 years and always had very open communication with all my bosses. This has been a big change for me…I don’t like secrets.

    I’ve emailed her asking for options on opening up the lines of communication because she’s constantly in meetings or on calls and I can’t seem to get an audience. Ironic, isn’t it? I’ll keep you posted.

  13. Suzanne

    It’s strange, but my experience has been that the smaller the staff, the worse the communication. I’ve had several jobs with 10-15 permanent staff and at each of them, it was like pulling teeth to find out who was in and who wasn’t on any given day. I personally don’t care if they are playing hookie or whatever, but don’t managers realize that it makes the whole organization look bad when somebody calls or stops in and nobody in the building has any clue who is there and who isn’t?

  14. Erica B

    speaking of my boss who likes to be out more than in, he hasn’t showed up today, and of course I need his signature on something *sigh*. Am I hopeful he will show up tomorrow? Yes. Do I think it will happen? maybe…

  15. Suz

    I think someone in management at my company must have read this post today. This afternoon I received emails from my manager and 2 other people saying they would be out of the office tomorrow. None of them ever tell anyone when they’ll be out. Thank you Alison!

  16. Rob

    I’m joining late to the conversation, but I don’t see how this manager is a good manager. How could someone in any position of authority just check out and not let anyone know that not only would they be gone, but how long they would be gone?

    When a situation arises that needs to be addressed by management, who deals with it when management has just disappeared? It just makes no sense and something must be done immediately to address this situation. Upper level management must be made aware of this and correct this situation right now.

  17. OP UPDATE

    UPDATE TO MY INQUIRY FOR BETTER COMMUNICATION:
    Rather than respond to my email, the manager made an announcement in our weekly staff meeting that I “never knew where the hell she was” so they were having another employee “put something together for us” on our department page.

    I was merely hoping for an email the day or 2 before but this will be better than nothing. I guess we will be checking it periodically for updates since we don’t get notifications of new postings and it’s a new site that we rarely use. At least she didn’t blow me off.

    Baby steps…

    1. mishsmom

      so she made it your fault for not knowing “where the hell she was”… she’s just batting 1000 isn’t she? yikes! my boss – same thing. only she says she told us where she’d be and there’s no arguing that even though the entire office staff didn’t know where she was it must have been that none of us listened.

    2. Anonymous

      At my work we have a calendar in a central location (near the mailboxes) where people are to record days off. It’s low tech and works for us most of the time.

      1. OP

        We have a central calendar too but apparently it only applies to us lowly workers.

        They actually created an online calendar for the entire department so we would all be more informed and she still refuses to update it. She was out again yesterday and nobody knew.

  18. Yuu

    We have a shared calendar for our department in Outlook where people post if they will be out of the office. Maybe if the whole office posts there it might be beneficial for all team members.

    1. Jamie

      This. It took a while to get people on board with this, but it’s really useful now that most people are using it.

      This way we all know when someone is out of the office, with customers, whathaveyou – and the receptionist can see at a glance who is in meetings so she doesn’t have to track people down as much.

      I don’t know why this isn’t more universal.

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