how to get employees to take time off

Last week, a letter-writer asked how to take time off when there’s always work to do. This week, a manager asks a different version of that question:

I have recently begun supervising a small team on a university administrative staff where employees are allowed to carry over a portion of their unused vacation time and can cash it out if they leave/are laid off from the job.  Many of the long-term employees on my staff simply never take time off (a problem throughout the university, apparently, as the CFO claims the institution carries a vacation liability in the tens of millions of dollars).

I can understand saving up some time in case you needed additional cash after a lay off or before starting a new job. I do this myself to some degree. What I can’t understand is carrying over 340 to 380 hours of time and literally going two or three years without a vacation (especially when there are well-established “slow” times where it is much easier on the office for people to be gone).  The people that do this normally say that they “can’t” or they have “too much to do” when I urge them to take a break. This is demonstrably false.

Normally, I would not care how other employees use (or don’t use) their vacation time. However, as the end of each fiscal year approaches, these employees usually have quite a bit of time that they must use or lose forever. As such, it leaves the rest of us in a bit of a bind while they all take their use-or-lose time off at the last minute. I am under quite a bit of pressure from senior management to not upset these long-term employees by denying their vacation requests.

I have never encountered this type of culture in any workplace. Normally, people cherish their vacation time.  Plus, I’d really like to work with folks that are not constantly burned out. What can I do?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 101 comments… read them below }

  1. Cat*

    I don’t think I understand the question – it sounds like the employees are taking vacation, just at the wrong time for the OP. Which seems like a very different question than encouraging people to take vacation so they’re not burned out.

    1. SL #2*

      It sounds more like these long-term employees are rolling over their vacation time for years, until they’ve reached the maximum accrual limit and then they try to use it all at once, all at the same time during the holidays (because they will lose the time after the new year). The idea is that you don’t want people to hit their maximum accrual limit and for them to actually use their vacation time every year.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      They’re going years without vacations (“Many of the long-term employees on my staff simply never take time off … literally going two or three years without a vacation”) and only take their use-or-lose time when they absolutely have to, at the last minute right before they lose it.

      1. Bwmn*

        As I was reading this – the rollover situation doesn’t seem so much to be a case of “every year we can only roll over X amount of our hours”, but rather once you reach 400 hours of PTO no more can rollover. Or something like that which is contributing to someone going 2-3 years without a vacation and then having to take off all of December?

        If that’s the case, I think it would also be helpful to approach vacation around the issues of going 2-3 years without a vacation and a number of employees taking off a lot of time in December separately. As AAM was saying, maybe that’s a decision that is decided upon as preferable by individual employees – but then there’s also the issue of trying to encourage holidays through out the year.

        The other thing that I was wondering is if perhaps at your university, staff get more set days off than their spouses/partners/friends do at other US places of employment. If I think about a number of Jewish organizations in the US – in addition to PTO, some also provide a week around Sukkot and the week of Passover off as well as some other Jewish and US federal holidays. In such a situation, I could easily see a case of someone using almost no PTO while still having considerable time away from the office. Maybe at the OP’s university it’s not quite that obvious – but if the university is closed from Christmas to New Years and perhaps at some other interval – it may be that there’s just more built in time off.

        1. Ad Astra*

          A lot of universities do have more built-in time off than your average office, so it does seem possible that these employees don’t feel the same need for a vacation that some of us feel.

          1. Bwmn*

            I think that the need for vacation can be impacted by comparisons in our own life. If University Worker Y has a spouse working at Generic US Business where they need to use PTO to have off Black Friday, Christmas Eve, etc. – then even though Worker Y isn’t taking PTO, it may feel like like that since their spouse is. And this feeling can be doubled if Worker Y has those days off (or something like Veterans/Columbus Day) and their spouse has to work.

          2. Anxa*

            Yep, the number one reason I’m looking to leave my job isn’t so much that it’s part-time (and there are no full-time positions available), but that there are far too many vacations (perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t hourly).

        2. Editor*

          Yes, I would not be surprised if the employees get more time off than many workers in the community who aren’t at an academic institution. The colleges I’m familiar with have had generous leave policies. I would be surprised if all the people taking leave are doing it in December, though. The university I worked at had a fiscal year that ended June 30, which seems to be quite common.

          There are three things that I think need to be done:
          1. Have an institution-wide policy that stipulates that vacation in the last two months of the fiscal year needs to be scheduled at least four months before the end of the fiscal year, except for unusual circumstances.

          2. Have an institution-wide policy that notifies employees and their managers at the six-month point of the fiscal year about employees who will have leave to use-or-lose.

          3. Have an institution-wide policy requiring every employee to take some minimal amount of vacation every year — I’d say a week if people get three weeks (15 days) per year, even if it is on a one-day-at-a-time basis.

          Managers often can’t do something like this on their own. The policies of the institution have incurred this huge liability because they didn’t update vacation policies when accounting standards changed to track these as future costs instead of “free” perks. And in some ways, banks have the right idea. Employees have to take at least a solid week off so they can be audited — if an employee is so critical they can never leave, something’s wrong, and making them leave for a week can encourage cross-training.

          The other thing a manager has to watch out for is the problem of seniority and procrastination. I’ve worked a couple of places where there were use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies, along with weak management. What happened in some departments is that newer employees who had gotten approved vacations during the last month or so of work would be asked to cut back so senior employees could take last-minute vacations. Or, in one department, things actually ground to a halt for a week because only the admin was on deck a week or so before the end of the fiscal year — so the third week of September, that department was a sea of empty desks and then everybody reappeared for the last week of the fiscal year. Corporate was not amused.

          Places where everybody wants to leave at one time would do better with a policy that ages out vacation on that person’s hiring anniversary. I’ve seen a couple of companies with this setup, and while it’s more complicated for managers and employees, it works better at distributing the demand for vacation.

      2. fposte*

        But I’m with Cat–that *is* taking a vacation, or at least trying to.

        Now it could be the OP is talking about different populations, some of whom lose tons of days because they don’t take a vacation (hi, that’s me) and some of whom are taking vacations, but only at the end of the fiscal year (or trying to take vacations and not doing it because competition means they can’t get it approved). But the buildup at the end of the fiscal year means those people are willing to take vacations.

        And if this is a regular thing, there’s room for managerial intervention. It’s not a surprise that those days get lost, and there is still additional vacation available to them if they use those days earlier in the year, so it’s not like they’ll get stuck unable to go see Aunt Betsy at short notice if they take a vacation in April instead of June.

        1. fposte*

          Okay, rethinking it, I’m thinking there are two phases of the problem. Granted, I’m reading my university policies into what the OP’s saying, but I think it’s valid. We receive 24 vacation days per year; unused days roll over, but we can only carry a max of 48 days, so after two years of not using any vacation, you’ll start forfeiting a significant number of days. So the first two years her people are all “No, I’m saving my vacation!” and then they’re rushing to use 24 days at the end of the third fiscal year.

          Now, it’s an easier managerial intervention to make with 24 days than with, say, 5 days, because that’s nearly five weeks off. You can still have 48 days banked and the forfeitable 24 used up at the end of three years by planning vacation throughout the three years. It sounds like the OP’s workplace has at least that many vacation days per year, given the hours she’s talking, so I think she should sit down with people and point out the vacation math.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            This is how our PTO policy is set up. I get 5 weeks, but some people get 6 weeks. We can roll over 2.5x our annual PTO, so there’s opportunity to have a lot of saved PTO before you start losing it. (I personally have 8 weeks).

            Regardless, my company did have a problem with people abusing this by “working from home” and not taking PTO for things like dentist appointments. Management sent out a memo basically forcing people to use PTO in these situations. Similar to the OP, I think they’re scratching their heads why people have 10 weeks PTO sitting on the books and won’t take a half-day to stay home with a sick kid.

            1. sam*

              I had a client once who had a policy like this, where people could basically bank ridiculous amounts of PTO. They finally changed it so that you couldn’t bank more than X number of days, but they gave everyone a grace period to use up their existing bank.

              Which, of course, resulted in our main contact at the company basically being forced to take three months of vacation in the middle of trying to get several deals done. That was fun.

              Second story – My old firm had a system where you accrued days over time, and were capped after 20 days so that you couldn’t accrue any more, but you didn’t “lose” them at some arbitrary calendar point. This caused intermittent problems when people would bank the max and then not have time to take a real vacation, but because it wasn’t tied to the calendar (other than, essentially, your hire date), people would max out at different times of the year. After the firm merged, they tried to switched it to a more calendar based system where you could only roll over 5 days from one year to the next. Everyone threw a giant fit – first, because we all had these banks of days that we were sitting on, but also (and probably more importantly) – we were a LAW FIRM – the old system worked great precisely because none of us were arbitrarily pressured to take time off at the holidays if we actually didn’t want to – year end was one of our busiest times, so it was entirely counterproductive to have a system that basically forced people to compete for time off at the same time. As someone who doesn’t celebrate christmas (and who has a local family to boot), I had perfected a system of working straight through the holidays (and getting massive brownie points for doing so from colleagues who *had* to take off to deal with kids home from school and whatnot), and then taking two weeks off in January around MLK day, when it was actually dead in the office and it cost half as much to travel. The worst part was that they still had it set up as “accrued” through the year, so that you basically had no vacation days accrued/banked for the first month or two. which was batshit – basically, no one could take time off in Jan/Feb, without getting some sort of special dispensation (which I did, of course, because see above about January being dead!).

              My company now has something closer to the latter, but we basically get all 20 days in our bank on January 1, and we can roll over an additional 5 from the prior year. We can also roll over additional days with “manager permission”. And while we’re technically still open during the holidays, it’s a ghost town around here because everyone takes off, so it’s generally not a problem to get approval (I was actually told once to make sure to schedule time because otherwise I’d be sitting in the office with nothing to do, as no one else would be here).

  2. Nicole*

    It sounds like there’s a portion of vacation that can be rolled over and a portion that must be used by the end of the year and many people are waiting until the last minute to take that time. If that’s true, can you institute a rule that at least x number of days must be scheduled before September 1st (or some other date that makes sense)? That would help evenly distribute the time off.

    1. Jerzy*

      That makes sense, provided there’s a caveat allowing managers to make exceptions, e.g. someone’s kid is getting married in November and they want to take off the week leading up to the event to help them prepare.

      1. INTP*

        Agree with this, as long as the management above OP’s head supports this. (Since they’re currently pressuring the OP to grant all long-term employees’ vacation requests, I’m wondering if they might continue to do so for the employees who “forget” to schedule their pre-holidays vacations).

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      I don’t know, I would hate that if I had plans for taking off in the fall, and a lot of my child-free friends like to plan their vacations for the fall, because families with school-age children are conveniently all at home, and they have the place to themselves!

      I think simply making it first-come, first-served and denying leave based on minimum staffing would get people to use it before they lose it. But sending reminders to staff in September, October, November about the leave deadline certainly would help, I would think.

      1. Nicole*

        Perhaps I should have been more clear. I’m not suggesting no one can take vacation after September 1st, I’m suggesting they have to submit their requests for those last months of the year before September 1st so management has an idea of who will be off when. I like taking time off in the fall as well. I usually take time off around my wedding anniversary in late October.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Oh yeah, that’s definitely a good idea. It probably didn’t occur to me that that’s what you meant because I often schedule my winter holiday days off by then anyway. :)

    3. Koko*

      You know, I wouldn’t make it a requirement but it might actually be helpful if in August (or whenever), manager calculates what each direct report’s PTO balance will be on December 31 and says, “You will have X number of hours over the allowable rollover limit at the end of the year. To assist in department planning, I would appreciate knowing your vacation dates as early as possible.” So it’s just a gentle reminder that this use-or-lose thing is going to happen, you will be affected by it, and advance notice is always great. That will probably prompt a lot of people to start thinking about vacation earlier without being a rigid “you must schedule in advance unless you have a doctor’s note” type of deal :)

      I know that if I was left to my own devices I would start thinking about my holiday dates 2-3 weeks in advance, because my family are fairly close so I don’t have to buy air travel. But our department admin sends out a department-wide email around late April and early September every year reminding us to send her our summer/holiday vacation dates as soon as possible. There’s no deadline, but every time I get that email it reminds me that work needs more advance notice than I do and gets me to hammer things down quicker.

  3. Nikki*

    Our supervisors have started requiring us to set out tentative schedule–that we have to submit to our supervisors–for using most of our vacation time at the beginning of the year. This seems to help people use more vacation, since they put it on their calendar early and can then try to plan around that time rather than having to try to squeeze in vacation once their calendar is more full. It also helps everyone see where coverage is light so people can make adjustments.

    1. Just Another Techie*

      We have a public team vacation calendar where we’re encouraged to record planned time off as soon as we know we’ll be out. It definitely helps with choosing dates, like, if I know I want to go on vacation sometime this summer but not when, I can look at when everyone else is going to be away and stagger my time off. It also helps with planning my work, because even though I’m not a team lead or anything, I do collaborate with colleagues quite a bit and we are mostly self-organizing rather than directed from management.

    2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      I had an employee I had to do this with.

      I’ve shared the story on here before, but basically after finding out in November that she had five weeks of vacation stored up and could only roll over one week, she went out the entire month of December (which was peak time for us).

  4. Mando Diao*

    I have mixed feelings about op’s approach to this, as I had my financial aid majorly screwed up when certain administrative staffers took time off right through my university’s own payment deadline. It’s rough when you’re talking education; the students have to come first, and the employees in this instance may have a sense that there aren’t many windows for taking a lot of time off that wouldn’t result in kids getting their schedules screwed up or being dropped if a certain signature doesn’t come through. It’s common enough as it is. In my case, I’m still paying back the loans that should have been covered by financial aid if the staffers had been present.

    1. Mando Diao*

      And before people start blaming the school for this, keep in mind that the long term employees seem fine with the current culture. OP is the newbie who maybe doesn’t fit.

      1. nofelix*

        “I am under quite a bit of pressure from senior management to not upset these long-term employees by denying their vacation requests.”

        This makes things difficult though. There is some pressure from above to manage leave differently.

    2. MT*

      its not just students, its all industries where the employer needs to make sure the customer is taken care of

    3. INTP*

      It seems like the OP getting all of this under control could help prevent situations like that, though. Currently she’s being pressured to grant the long-term employees’ vacation requests regardless of how inconvenient the timing is, and as a result they’re getting to all take vacation at the same time. If she can get the employees to use vacation before they near the “use it or lose it” date, she can be choosier about which dates she allows people to take off and ensure good coverage at all times.

    4. Jennifer*

      I can second that there’s very few windows where it’s easy to take time off if you do student services. I have about a whopping 3 weeks out of 52 where it doesn’t cause massive difficulties to have me out of the office, and at least one of those weeks is during a time where I really don’t want to go on vacation in the first place, and I can’t always take time during the same block of vacation time for more than 2 years in a row without someone objecting. It’s easier to do the occasional day off or few hours off than take a whole week, and catching up after being out for 2 weeks is a nightmare.

      1. Research staffer*

        Seconded. This has been my issue, too. It’s way easier to take off a Friday here or there than to schedule a week-long vacation. And it’s really common for my boss and the higher ups in our organization to basically have working vacations, which … no thank you. Our university has limits on the number of hours you can accrue, but I’m constantly bumping up against that limit.

  5. neverjaunty*

    When the OP says “This is demonstrably false”, she’s seeing this as an adversarial issue: the employees are lying or completely clueless about the demands of their own jobs, and they’re intentionally taking a ton of vacation without consideration of how that impacts others. That… isn’t a very productive base from which to address the issue.

    Why not assume that if the employees are saying they can’t take vacation for two or three years at a time, they’re telling the truth, at least as they perceive it, and listen to them? Maybe they’re mistaken, and relying on bad habits from previous awful managers where they’ve been punished for taking vacation time. Maybe they’re right, and OP isn’t seeing that from her perch. And if they really are employees who like to take no vacation for 2-3 years and then a month off at a time – which some people do – find ways to solve how that causes problems.

    Which is to say, I agree with AAM’s approach. But I think managers in the OP’s position need to get away from the idea that employees who say “I can’t get away from work” are clueless at best or liars at worst.

    1. Karowen*

      I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s entirely possible that she has people saying “oh no, I have to be here!” and then begging for projects two weeks later. Or maybe they took a week off during busy season the previous year and were no worse for the wear, so OP knows that they can survive without the employee for a week.

      1. neverjaunty*

        In both those situations, you have employees who genuinely believe there will be a problem if they take vacation (especially in your first example; they don’t necessarily know what workflow will be like in a few weeks). So, again, treating them as if they’re lying or idiots for giving a “demonstrably false” reason for not wanting to take vacations is not a helpful or productive stance to resolve the issue.

          1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

            I know I am a bit biased… but my experience with a lot of long-term University employees is that they act as though the work will fall apart if they are not there and refuse to take vacations/breaks.

            I got frustrated by the unwillingness to improve processes and implement change.

            1. nofelix*

              There’s job security in spreading the idea that you’re indispensable and avoiding opportunities for cross-training. When there’s not much opportunity for advancement, I think employees start to strategize entrenching themselves in their current position.

        1. Honeybee*

          But the OP never said they were lying or idiots. OP simply said that the employees’ claims are demonstrably false.

    2. INTP*

      This is a good point. Even taking the OP at face value and assuming that the employees are lying, responding in a non-adversarial way could improve their cooperation. Like when they say that they have no time for a vacation, ask “What could be done to help make it possible for you to take the time off?” and implement viable suggestions. If the employees are being truthful, it gives an opportunity to solve the real problem, and if the employees are lying, requiring them to spell out why they can’t take vacations might cause them to back down.

      1. Kyrielle*

        Yes, this – and if they’re being honest but unreasonable, having to think out what’s needed might make them realize that hey, really, this is doable. Or they might ask for help that was always available and they just didn’t realize it.

    3. Lia*

      I agree. I work in higher ed, where after 7 years you wind up accumulating 20 days of vacation a year, yet you can only maintain a balance of 40 days at the end of the calendar year. It’s very, very common here for people to fall into the use it or lose it pattern, because while you’ll hear “you need to take vacation”, there’s quite often resistance to it from management, who will stall on approval if the person is not easily replaceable. Also, there are some offices that never have a slow time (IT and finances are the two major ones).

      We don’t do a retirement payout per se, but it goes against continuing health insurance premiums, and so many retirees try hard to retire with the max days. Those who leave university employment get a payout, though.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, we definitely have that habit here. *I* definitely have that habit here. And I think that some managerial help on vacation math and making available time could make a big difference on getting people to take off at other times of the year.

  6. Angela*

    I’m wondering if the employees had time off denied at the end of the year in the past, so now they deliberately keep themselves in a “use it or lose it” situation to guarantee time off at that time of year. I know that sometimes vacations will get approved here that wouldn’t otherwise by approved because the time is going to be lost if not approved.

  7. AdAgencyChick*

    I am a huge proponent of taking time off. In fact, I’ve been known to tell my direct reports, “if you finish the year with a PTO balance, you have lost the game.”

    That said, I HATE when my direct reports come to me in November and say, “I’ve only used 3 days and I have 17 left! Can I take December off?”

    I do try to remind people at least a couple of times a year, but…you’re grown ups. Why do I have to manage your calendar more than that?

    1. Kyrielle*

      Yep. I *am* taking a full week off in December, but a) that’s not a painfully-busy time here, and b) I planned it well in advance.

    2. neverjaunty*

      Isn’t that kind of a mixed message?

      And if you have a lot of direct reports who are ending up in December with a ton of unused PTO, there’s probably a very good reason why.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Poor planning is the reason. I cannot remember EVER having denied one of my direct reports a vacation request.

        1. neverjaunty*

          I get that you’re venting, but if you have multiple people coming to you at the end of the year only having taken a couple of days off, might be worth looking into, because then it’s not just the one guy with poor time management, like Fergus plowing through his calendar until he suddenly notices it’s December. There might be something else going on beyond “will AdAgencyChick approve the time off, y/n?”. (For example, I’ve worked at places that were happy to approve time off if you asked, but that just meant you had to double-time it before you left, otherwise you’d return to a work tsunami – so why bother?)

          1. Beezus*

            Yup. When I was at OldJob working 60 hours a week, taking vacation essentially required working the same number of hours late/while vacating to keep up. I’d take a day or two a couple of times a year to do absolutely essential personal things, but otherwise it wasn’t worth it. A full week of vacation required me to work an 80 hour week before and after and log about 20 hours of calls/emails/logging in and doing XYZ real quick. It wasn’t worth it. My entire team was booked to the gills and there was no time for cross training or coverage – you covered your own stuff or else.

          2. doreen*

            While I’m not going to say this never happens, it’s not always the case. Most of the positions at my agency are very flexible as far as work hours go. We also get a lot of time off – I get 25 days vacation, 5 personal days , 12 holidays and 8 sick days per year. Overtime eligible employees get comp time for every hour between 37.5 and 40 ( which is potentially another 16 days of time off). Between the flexible schedules that means no one has to take leave time to go to the sixth grade play on Tuesday afternoon ( I can always work a couple of extra hours on Wednesday instead) , or chaperon the fourth grade class trip on Thursday ( most employees can work a weekend day instead) and the separate buckets that mean no one has to take a half day of vacation time for a dentist appointment , it is very easy to build up to the maximum 300 hours even while taking two or three weeks off a year. Sometimes, there are a whole bunch of people who suddenly notice that they are about to lose vacation- and it was exacerbated at my employer by managers who felt bad that people were going to lose vacation and let large numbers of people take the entire month of March off, regardless of the impact it has on operations. Upper management finally had it with hearing “we were short staffed” as an excuse for something being handled poorly and instituted a limit on how many people could be off at any one time.

            It’s not the sort of job where you have to double-time before you leave, because you can’t. You might have to be a bit more efficient in managing your time to submit the reports that will come due while you’re on vacation , but it’s nothing like double-time. It’s not the sort of job where it’s generally hard to get vacations approved- it may be hard to get a particular week if too many others want it off, but that’s really the only reason vacations get denied. People just didn’t take all of their vacation because they didn’t feel they needed to – but once they realized they might actually lose their vacation (because some did) most of them stopped hoarding it

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      I like to hoard my PTO a bit, so I have plenty for when I want to take off days in January or February, or plan a long vacation that takes nearly a year’s worth of PTO: like 2 weeks. :( If I have some left at the end of the year I haven’t lost the game. If I’m getting up to the use it or lose it level, THEN I’ll agree with you.

    4. Menacia*

      Reminders don’t work, only consequences, do you let these folks take the time, or have they lost vacation hours because it was not possible for them to use it up within the year? If you can, let them take the time, but follow it up (in an email) with a “while I have given you the opportunity to use your vacation time instead of lose it, I won’t be able to do the same next year. Please make sure you keep track of your vacation time and use it during the year so this situation does not occur again.”

    5. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      if you finish the year with a PTO balance, you have lost the game

      The only thing that made me learn this is working at a place that does not pay out vacation when you leave.

  8. My 2 Cents*

    I am the office manager for an organization that has very generous time off but also has a “use it or lose it” policy, with the exception of one week of time which can be rolled over. After my first year here where I noticed several people getting to December and realizing they needed to take the month off to burn their vacation time (we are swamped in December so taking more than a few weeks off is tough) I made it my goal to start heading this off. Now, starting in late September at the weekly staff meetings I say to everyone “Keep in mind that the end of the year will be here before we know it and you probably have vacation time to burn. Please plan ahead on how you are going to use it because you don’t want to get to December and realize you have to take the entire month off and not be able to if you still have projects to finish up.” So, it starts with those constants reminders, which definitely helped, and then enforcement because we did have one employee last year who never lets a vacation day go unused get to December and need to burn some and he still had a big project to do. He asked if he stayed to finish it if he could roll over more days than the 5 allowed and we said no, he needed to stick to the rules and also get his work done, we’d been more than generous (he’s not exactly the hardest worker).

  9. SMT*

    My fiance’s work has them request their weeks off (they’re only able to use a week at a time – they can’t divide it into random days) before the holidays of the previous year. He can go and ask to move his weeks, but that way they already have it in place. They don’t roll any time over, and anything unused gets cashed out before the busy season in December.

  10. DMR*

    I don’t know if it’s relevent in this situation, but I have worked in positions where there is very little redundancy, and when I have been gone, there has literally been nobody to answer client questions or take care of initiating ACH payments from borrowers. Even when I was able to train a replacement in advance of my maternity leave, hiccups lead to several major issues arrising in the first two weeks I was gone (and I think everyone at my old office would confirm that I did everything feasible to prepare the team for my leave).

    Organizations make great efforts to run lean, and I’m not sure if my situation is unique since I’ve worked in small programs, but a systematic approach to making sure there’s sufficient redundancy would make it much easier for employees to use the time off they are entitled to.

    1. BuildMeUp*


      My mom’s job is like this. I always feel a little guilty when she takes time off to come visit me, because I know no one is doing her work while she’s gone and she’s going to be working extra hours to catch up when she gets back.

    2. Ad Astra*

      Cross-training is your friend! I’ve worked in a few offices where there just weren’t enough people who knew how to do a certain task. It led to some vacation-related frustration and plenty of angst when people quit or got fired because only remaining person who could do the job was working 7 days a week to fill the gap.

    3. Jennifer*

      My office is short-staffed pretty much all the time, so when anyone’s gone the dominoes start falling.

  11. CAinUK*

    I think I understand where the OP is coming from on this. I worked in an office environment with lots of long-term employees who had gotten a bit too comfortable/complacent. Many didn’t take vacation because they wanted to get an eventual pay-out, and because they (and I quote) “Can just come into the office and surf Facebook during slow times and save up vacation time.”

    Now, there are so, so many problems that need to managed with that type of culture and vacations are the tip of that iceberg. But I think we need to give the OP the benefit of the doubt when they say “this is demonstrably false.”

    But my advice would be: is the vacation time the red herring and are there are deeper problems to address? If so, start there.

    1. Former Retail Manager*

      YES to this! Sounds like CAinUK might be onto something. I too have seen this in environments where people can take it soooo easy during slow times that they can do whatever they want and still get paid. Who wouldn’t want to do that? And thus, the problem….

      1. Michelle*

        Yep. I’ve seen that a lot. People doing online shopping, Facebooking and even their taxes (!) during working hours.

  12. Michelle*

    I work in the administrative offices of a museum and people waiting until the end of the year/last minute to use their vacation time is a problem here, too.

    We have 30 full time employees, 19 of which are directors/managers, salaried and exempt. The other 11 of us are hourly, non-exempt and we have 55 part-time staff who are also hourly and non-exempt, but they do not get paid vacation. Many of the exempt people will take days, and sometimes weeks, off and claim it as “comp” time, even though it’s really not. They go by the honor system and some of those folks have zero honor. In the course of my duties, I have to record and report their PTO time as well as their comp time.

    Holidays roll around and suddenly I am flooded with time-off requests. People saying “I need to use my vacation and personal time so I’m taking the whole month of December off” or they’ll take Thanksgiving-New Year’s off. (We have a couple of staff members who have been with the organization through many changes and their benefits rolled with each change, so they can have up to 2 months of vacation time) With 19 people doing that at the same time the other 11 of us really struggle to keep things rolling when they are all out.

    I suggested they have staff with 4 or more weeks are vacation take a week or so every quarter so we don’t spend December so short-staffed. They took it “under advisement”. Our group of 11 have to sneak in a week here or there when they are not out on comp time because we know what happens when the holidays get here.

    I once tried requesting time off in December over a year in advance and was told I would have to wait and see if they could let me be off. Guess what? It was denied.

  13. Master Bean Counter*

    You really have to prod people into a different mindset. I did this, as a non-manager.
    At old government work place the two years I was there there were major staffing crunches at the end of the year due to a similar policy. I spent the next two years urging people to take time off before the end of the year. By year 5 the problem went away. My efforts were a combination of reminding people through out the year that we didn’t want to be in the year-end vacation stress that was the old normal and a bunch of urging my coworkers to take the time to do the things they wanted to do during the year. Hey camping over the long weekend? Take a couple of extra days to get a better spot at the camp ground. Want to go a family wedding? Take extra days to visit, enjoy and help out.
    By year five people were taking vacations spread out over the year and found out they were less stressed at work because of it. And we all didn’t hate each other because nobody could find anybody in the office in December.

  14. Katie the Fed*

    I make it very clear that I don’t think it’s heroic to lose leave and not take vacations – I think it’s silly. And I lead by example by taking plenty of leave myself. It’s hard to take leave without feeling bad if you work for people who never take a day off.

    1. neverjaunty*

      This is a great point. A manager who takes vacations and encourages employees to do the same is sending a very clear message that it’s okay to take PTO, and that the office will make accommodations to survive without people while they’re gone. A manager who never takes time off but says “you should take PTO” is almost setting up a test for employees to fail if they do so.

    2. sam*

      My boss is a bit of a workaholic and doesn’t take enough PTO (he doesn’t let that “roll downhill” though, so it’s not really a problem for the rest of us). I said to him once – I used to be like that when I was at my law firm (we both have big law law firm backgrounds), I had accrued so much PTO that it had maxed out and I essentially lost days because I couldn’t accrue anymore. I pulled endless all-nighters, I even moved overseas for a period of time at the request of my firm because they needed someone to clean up some messes in an overseas office. You know what it got me at the end of the day? It got me laid off in the *second* round of layoffs when the firm collapsed in the largest law firm bankruptcy in history instead of the first. and two years of unemployment.

      Now I make sure at the very least that I don’t *lose* any PTO.

  15. Glenn*

    I find the calendar-year style of vacation accrual and rollover very weird, because the first place I ever worked had a much more sensible system — vacation time accrues proportionally in each paycheck, and there is a maximum accrual cap of like 240 or 300 hours. So there’s no problem with everybody having to use vacation at the same time each year, OR having to use it all at once — when people get near the cap, they use a few days to stay under it, and when this happens for each employee depends on various factors unrelated to the calendar year.

    This seems like a much superior system to “use it all or lose it on Dec. 31”, and I’m surprised the latter system is so popular.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Now that I’ve experienced a similar system, it does strike me as odd that so many companies still go by calendar year. I assume there’s some kind of financial or accounting reason for that? Anyone know?

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        So that nobody from the northern hemisphere can take a vacation to New Zealand in February? At a FormerJob I’ve had to get special permission to carry over more time so I could take a winter vacation. I now work at a more sensible company that does it as Glenn describes.

    2. AFT123*

      I hate accrual, personally. I take my PTO in longer chunks and accrual prevents me from doing that until I’ve been somewhere for a year and built up my bank. My current employer has an awesome setup where we get all of our PTO on our work anniversary, so there is never a period of time where everyone is scrambling to use up the hours they’ll lose, because it’s different for everyone. It’s great!!

  16. The Cosmic Avenger*

    I don’t understand the hate some people have for simply saving up leave. I understand some of the issues caused by not taking leave for long periods, like morale or understaffing or burnout. But I slowly saved up my leave while still taking at least a week or two off each year, until I had the maximum allowed. Then I took one day, and did so again every time I was very close to the limit. I usually find a day when my daughter has no school or I have errands to run or doctor’s appointments, and I can take that day as leave. Of course, I will take a week or two over the summer, but I can usually max out again before the end of the year and still take a day here and there.

    This was really handy when my father was sick this year, so I’m really glad I kept my leave saved up.

    1. Michelle*

      I don’t think it’s necessarily hate. What happens in my case, is we have 90% of the staff off for an entire month and it is really hard for 11 people to do the jobs of 30 for an entire month. Add in the normal stresses of holidays and it’s hard mentally and physically on us.

    2. Mando Diao*

      I agree. While it’s great if some people love to travel or have time-consuming hobbies, plenty of people with boring, stable 9-5 office jobs may not ever feel the need to get away, especially if they don’t have spouses or kids to consider. As long as it’s not presented as an expectation? What’s wrong with taking the payout over taking time? Personally, routine is good for me. Being forced to take time off when Id rather be working wouldn’t be a benefit.

      1. Natalie*

        If the organization doesn’t have a cap, it can be a problem because that banked vacation is a liability on the balance sheet. My org has been making policy changes for that exact reason, which is not helping morale.

        But really, these days any company should have a cap rather than unlimited accrual.

    3. Nobody*

      Yeah, if the employer’s policy allows banking vacation, why try to prevent employees from doing just that? I’m one of those people who like to keep the vacation bank full, just to be prepared for the proverbial rainy day; it gives me peace of mind to know that if something comes up where I want or need to take a few weeks off, I’ll be covered. I think it’s a bit patronizing for a manager to decide how and when employees should use their vacation time.

      I understand it creates a financial liability for the employer, but if that’s the case, they need to change the policy, not rely on individual managers pressuring employees to draw down their banked vacation time.

    4. doreen*

      The issue for the OP ( and at my job) is not that people hate others for banking leave. The problem is that rather than the policy being ” You can never have more than X hours in the bank” the policy at the OPs employer seems to be ” You can’t have more than X hours in the bank on this date” . No matter what the date is – it could be Jan 1, April 1, July 1 or each person having their own date- there are problems. A constant cap encourages people to take a day or two every time they are near the limit, because they can never go over. A certain date ,however, means people can go way over. For example, I can have 300 hours (eight weeks) on Jan 1. On any other date, there is no limit. If I don’t take any vacation that year, I will have 487.5 hours by Dec 31 and will lose 187.5 of those hours on the next Jan 1. I will have to take off from around Thanksgiving until the end of the year to use it all up. And I will still have 300 hours on January 1, so it can happen again year after year.

  17. Charityb*

    I wonder how the culture is there. Are vacation days frowned on? Do people spend a lot of time bragging about how busy they are, or how late they stay, etc.?

    I think there are some people who really do prefer being at work to being at home for whatever reasons, but if every single person in the department has vacation issues it’s unlikely that they all independently happen to have the same approach to taking vacation.

    1. Editor*

      At the university where I worked, a lot of the more senior people liked to take longer vacations to travel overseas. I reported to a faculty spouse, and she used a lot of vacation one year when her husband was on sabbatical in London.

      There was a lot of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses travel, and most of it was taken in big chunks, not just a week here or there, by people backpacking overseas or staying with overseas academics they knew or some other discount travel setup.

      Also, when I first started working, there was no FMLA or anything. People hoarded vacation because they wanted to have it for maternity leave, serious illnesses, or their children’s or parents’ serious illnesses. When you’ve got a family history of cancer, for instance, it can be reassuring to know that there are months of vacation in the bank.

  18. insert pun here*

    I used to work for an organization where I was (moderately) underpaid but over-vacationed. My leave bank, which I maxed out, was a safety net in case of job loss.

    1. DMR*

      I also bank leave to the degree possible. It was nice to be paid in full during my maternity leave (short term disability only covered 60% of weeks 2 – 6 of a total of 12 weeks off). I don’t drag myself in when I’m sick, nor do I skimp on vacations, but I also don’t see the use of spending time at home to burn up PTO if I can save it for when I need it.

    2. house mouse*


      This is my current situation, at a university as well. I’m making an absolute pittance, and the job is far different – and much worse – than what I was told it would be, but have some vacation banked as a safety net.

      If your employees don’t make all that much, this could be the root of their thinking. Taking such a significant paycut has changed my mindset drastically.

  19. Anxa*

    I’ve never had a job with PTO or with a set amount of days you’re allowed to take off (other than you can’t take 2 days off without a doctors note if you want to come back to work), so I’m a little confused about this.

    Is the problem with the amount of time off that the university owes its employees that’s has been rolling over or with the time that actually cannot be rolled over?

    Or are you getting hit with it twice. Once by the time off that does not roll over that needs to be used up before year’s end, and then again by time that HAS rolled over (only this time more than than a week’s worth) but has to be burned up after a few years?

    If I were in your employee’s shoes, I would probably feel very tempted to hoard vacation time. Not just for a pay out or the ability to take a longer vacation, but to protect my ability to hold my job if I needed to take time off.

    If that’s a possible root of the problem, is there something you could do to help assure employees that a long term illness or caretaking obligation won’t cost them their jobs?
    Also, depending on your university or department, there’s a good chance that your employees are making decent money, but not enough where a week’s pay is insignificant to quality of life. I know that if I were in a position to cash out my vacation time instead of taking a week off, I would do that. There’s no amount of tv or decompressing that could match the relaxation of an extra week’s pay at my current job. I don’t mean to suggest that you should make your workplace more stressful, but consider that motivations of your employees.

  20. MS*

    I’d be more concerned about looking into the reasons why your employees feel like they can’t take off in the other parts of the year, even with you clearly believing they can. Are there any negative repercussions in terms of attitude when people return from vacation? I’ve worked many places where no matter how short your time off is there is a huge backlash of resentment from coworkers for having to do extra work in your absence.

    Also it could be a factor of how the previous manager handled such requests for time off and not utilizing their PTO bank has become a force of habit. I’ve had a previous manager who would actively encourage me to use my PTO as I kept hitting the max and then would refuse to grant any time off requests I’d send him. I’d never forget the January of my last year there sitting down to a meeting with him after my first and second requests for a vacation in the year were denied. I offered him five various weeks in various parts, saying I just needed one of them and getting every single one of them denied. Finally I asked him when could I take off, after flipping through the calendar I was told that a Wednesday in April could be arranged, as if that would even make a dent in the capped 340 hours I had. Even despite that he would harass me throughout the year about me not using PTO, while still denying every single request I put in. Even though I left that job years ago, just not taking many vacations became a force of habit simply because I had been conditioned to believe that every request would be turned down.

    1. Ama*

      Yeah at my last job in academia, my boss really didn’t get that I *wanted* to take more time off, but the way my role was set up I had to cover for everyone else in the department but no one had to cover for me except the student workers. In the “slow times” — summer and semester breaks — we had no student workers, so any time I took off I could expect to come back to a huge backlog (one of my responsibilities at the time was sorting the mail; half the time I’d come back to a pile of unsorted mail in my chair, even though I left detailed directions and we had clearly labeled mailboxes).

      Also, every time I took several days off in a row, I could expect to get a bunch of griping from my coworkers before and after on how they didn’t have time to do my work, and I should get a temp to handle it while I was gone. It started to feel mentally more taxing to take the vacation then just to stay at work.

  21. sumoNone*

    This sounds like what a lot of nurses do in Canada (hold on to a certain percentage of vacation but take the minimum required.)

    I don’t see anything wrong with this BUT if the policy is the problem here then maybe there needs to be a review. Other than that it seems the employees are taking and using their vacation as strategically as possible.

  22. Jessilein*

    Ugh, I work for a university and my boss loses his vacation time every year because he never takes time off (don’t ask me why, we could function perfectly well without him). The part that gets me is that I love my vacation and use it freely, with plenty of office coverage and my boss’s approval–but then every time I’m about to be out of the office, he says things like, “Who approved that?” and “You’re going on vacation AGAIN?” and most recently, “Do you ever stop going on trips?” He always says he’s joking, but I’m so tired of the mixed messages!

    1. Menacia*

      You should reply back to him (in regard to the last question), “Nope, you should try it sometime!”

    2. neverjaunty*

      Have you tried pointing that out to him? “Bob, I know you say you’re joking, but you bring it up every time I take a vacation, so it sounds as though you’re trying to convey in a humorous way that you have a problem with me taking PTO.”

      1. Jessilein*

        Yeah, I’ve asked him repeatedly if he has a problem with me taking my vacation, and he says “No, you’ve earned it, you should take it” (a bit grudgingly, if you ask me). So now when he makes his comments I just say lighthearted things like, “You approved it, you have only yourself to blame!” I think he’s probably mostly kidding, and is simply spectacularly oblivious to the mixed messages he’s sending with his ribbing. Sigh. Not a huge deal, just annoying.

  23. AFT123*

    Note to anyone who has influence on PTO at your employer – Seriously consider using people’s work anniversary as their marker for PTO accumulation and loss. You will never have this issue again where everyone is scrambling all at once, and you wan’t have to deal with prorating PTO for new hires.

  24. Seal*

    A former employee of mine lost vacation time every year because he had maxed out years prior. He flat-out refused to take time off and considered his “perfect attendance” to be a point of pride. Our institution has a leave donation program, but he refused to donate his unused time because he couldn’t specify who it would go to and felt that some people were working the system. Needless to say, he was a problem employee in many other ways and it was a relief when we finally got rid of him.

    I’ve been banking my vacation time because I’m looking for a new job; since they pay out your unused vacation time when you leave, I want that cushion to tide me over until I start my next job. If I wind up maxing out before I find a new job, I’ll make sure to take time off so I don’t lose any of my vacation days. No way am I losing any of my hard-earned vacation time!

  25. olympiasepiriot*

    My mother was one of those martyrs to her job(s) and never ever took vacations. She had some twisted idea that it made her look good.

    She also was deeply disturbed and resented any employer who didn’t recognise what a Saint and Indispensable Person she was.


  26. Nobody*

    Here’s how my department handles vacation requests in order to prevent everyone taking time off at once (where I work, it really is necessary to maintain a certain level of staffing at all times). Management decides the maximum number of people who can take vacation on the same day. At the beginning of each year, we pass around a vacation calendar, and people can sign up according to seniority. The most senior person can reserve a block of vacation, up to a week, and then passes it to the next most senior person, and so on. We go three rounds like this, and after that, it’s first come, first served. We’re allowed to wait until later in the year to schedule a vacation, but if we do, it has to be at a time that doesn’t already have the maximum number of people taking vacation. If you wait until November to request vacation in December, you might be out of luck because the maximum number of people have probably already requested the day or week you want.

    You could also do this by random drawing instead of seniority if you’re worried that the same people will take the most popular weeks every year, but that actually hasn’t proven to be a problem in my department.

  27. MR*

    How to solve this problem? It’s really simple.

    You only allow X number of people to take vacation at the same time. The people who are chosen are either on a seniority basis or on a first-come, first-served basis.

    If you only want no more than two (or three or whatever) people off on vacation at a time, make sure that there is a public ‘vacation calendar’ available, where people can indicate when they are taking their time. Once the alloted number of people request certain time periods, nobody else can take that time as a vacation and they must choose a different time.

    This may bother some people, but it also keeps you in control and not your employees. Good luck!

  28. I Get That Reference*

    In our university, at least, you can ‘cash in’ that time towards your retirement so it’s not unusual for people here to be sitting on stupid amounts of vacation so they can retire a year or two early. It apparently helps move out some of the older employees to free up jobs for incoming ‘class’.

    It’s virtually impossible to be fired here so that’s pretty much the only way to get some of the tenured employees out. You also get seniority bonuses so it’s not unusual for an employee with 20 years of service to be making almost twice what a new hire would make for doing 1/3 of the work (often because they don’t understand the processes). We have an admin here who still books travel by calling every airline to find flights, writing them all down, walking over to the guy she supports, figuring it out, calling back the airline, yadda yadda. I get the same thing done in 5 minutes with Google Flights.

    1. olympiasepiriot*

      Sounds like she was always not too flexible…I know lots of even people over 60 who have no trouble navigating the intertubez. (Don’t blame the oldz! Heh.)

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