Forced vacation, not what I wanted, forced vacation, unhappy to get away
December 6, 2010 11:35 AM   Subscribe

My company is forcing me to take four vacation days before the end of the year. This worries me. How worried should I be?

Some background: California. I am salaried, and the highest-paid non-manager in my department. We recently lost a major client, and the new clients that I trained to handle have not yet materialized.

Everyone in the department except the manager is being required to take vacation days if they are not already.

My buddy at another company was required to take vacation days, and a few months later his company closed his department and laid him off. I like working for my firm and don't want to make this an HR or legal issue for a number of reasons.

How worried should I be regarding my job security? Anecdotes, prior experience, and an upper management perspective welcome. Request any clarifications at
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Have you exceeded the number of days that HR allow to roll over? Would they otherwise close the office over Christmas?

Our company just revised its holiday rollover rules. A senior member of staff has consequently been on vacation since late October ...
posted by scruss at 11:38 AM on December 6, 2010

If they are paid vacation days, I would not worry. If they are unpaid, I would be concerned about the need for cost savings.
posted by AugustWest at 11:38 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your vacation days are an accrued liability on the books. If you take them, that figure gets lower. Many places I've worked have forced people to take vacation days.
posted by Zophi at 11:40 AM on December 6, 2010 [15 favorites]

It is probably a use-it-or-lose-it situation that scruss describes. Since my employer's fiscal year starts July 1, ever June I have to take some vacation days or lose them.

Don't worry. Enjoy your time off.
posted by Danf at 11:41 AM on December 6, 2010

I hate to confirm your suspicions, but just as a data point, my former employer (Boston-based) had me take a few vacation days too, and that was a few months before a round of layoffs where I lost my job. Similar situation to yours, lots of down time... Good luck!
posted by Dragonness at 11:41 AM on December 6, 2010

At my company, our policy has always been to use up all vacation days by Dec 31st. Two reasons: first, it helps avoid burnout if people are taking breaks, and second, it keeps people from accruing inconvenient amounts of vacation. It's not at all uncommon.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:42 AM on December 6, 2010

Where I work, if we go over a certain number of days, we have to take them before the end of they year. I am assuming you have this vacation coming to you and they are paid. So this is not uncommon.

On the other hand, layoffs may be coming and they may not want to have to pay you for your accrued vacation. I suggest you worry a bit, be proactive and prove your worth to the company.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 11:49 AM on December 6, 2010

I have a lot of employees who we've had to ask to do this. It's just a matter of clearing the books (and making sure people use their time off, which keeps them sane). Don't worry unless anything else is unusual. It's fairly normal.
posted by Miko at 11:51 AM on December 6, 2010

Your vacation days are an accrued liability on the books. If you take them, that figure gets lower. Many places I've worked have forced people to take vacation days.

They have requested the same thing where I work, for precisely this reason. And they're not allowed to lay anyone off, according to our collective agreement.

It really is an accounting trick. But there's no reason you can't go ask them why they're requesting this of you. "Sir, why are you mandating vacation time? Is it just accounting, or should I be worried that I'm not going to have a job in January?" sounds like a reasonable question to me, especially given the economic climate.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:53 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's hard to answer because we don't know if these were part of your regular vacation days that you were "banking" for next year, or if the company said "you need to take four additional unpaid vacation days by the end of the year".
If it's the second scenario, I'd be worried. If it's the first, then not so much, unless this was only happening in my particular department. Then I'd be slightly more worried.
posted by smalls at 11:54 AM on December 6, 2010

This could go on a list of bad signs but doesn't mean much on its own.

Spend half of your vacation days making a "being awesome and needed at work" action plan and perfecting your resume. You'll feel better by the end of it, and can enjoy the rest of your time off.
posted by SMPA at 11:55 AM on December 6, 2010

Zophi: Your vacation days are an accrued liability on the books. If you take them, that figure gets lower. Many places I've worked have forced people to take vacation days.

This, absolutely. The last large company I worked at changed its vacation policy right after I started to eliminate rollovers, and people who had banked a ton of time working there for several years went ballistic.

Anonymous: My buddy at another company was required to take vacation days, and a few months later his company closed his department and laid him off. I like working for my firm and don't want to make this an HR or legal issue for a number of reasons.

Underhanded, true, but probably a separate issue. They "wanted" him to take his vacation days to avoid having to pay them out upon termination (you're due accrued vacation days in salary).
posted by mkultra at 12:00 PM on December 6, 2010

Well if the vacation time is used they don't have to pay you for it when you get the axe.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:10 PM on December 6, 2010

This could be a harbinger of trouble, but not necessarily. If your company has a ceiling for how much vacation time one may accrue, and everyone is getting close to that, that's one thing. If they're setting themselves up for a round of layoffs by forcing people to take their vacation time now, that's another.

At my previous employer, we had unlimited vacation time accrual. I could build up 6 months worth and they wouldn't care. My last holiday season there (December 2008), they announced that everyone would be forced to use vacation time for the week between xmas and new year's, and that this would be a rare exception to the normal policy of not allowing negative vacation hours in reserve. Normally, the office would remain open during the holiday week for people that wanted to come in and work, but they were completely shutting down that year. In that case, it was most definitely a cost-cutting measure, as I and a couple other people were laid off (two years ago today, actually) before xmas.

So basically, it sounds like your department doesn't have enough work to justify allowing people to come in over the holiday, which was the situation at my old job. So, they're working on taking care of some anticipated expenses ahead of when the layoffs start coming. It's possible that this is not the case, but if forcing people to take vacation over the holiday is a strong break from previous policy, I think there is reason to worry, if not about yourself, at least about others in your department.
posted by LionIndex at 12:14 PM on December 6, 2010

Additional note: three people including myself got laid off when I did, but after the holidays almost the whole firm was gutted. Slowly, three people or so at a time from January to June, but they did cut way back.
posted by LionIndex at 12:18 PM on December 6, 2010

My current employer, Attachmate, made drastic changes to our vacation and sick-leave system last year, to improve on-the-books profit vs debt ratios of some sort, eliminating carry-over and post-termination pay-outs. Part of the reason they made the change was so that we could avoid layoffs during these lean times, and indeed, while we've continued to keep a tight belt, we didn't lay off anyone, and ended up buying a much larger company; it is quite likely that our improved books helped us secure affordable financing for the deal.

The change could be part of a plan to reduce costs so things can keep going until the economy improves. They could be a prelude to a round of lay-offs, but unless they are somehow vanishing the time-owed before you can take it, there's no cost benefit to getting you to use it early. Pay for it when you use it vs pay for it lump sum when you get laid off, it's still cash out of their pocket.
posted by nomisxid at 12:18 PM on December 6, 2010

Do you track time to your client billing? It could be that they can't bill you to anything, so instead of having you fiddling your thumbs at the office, they're just forcing you take a vacation. As far as your firm is concerned, you're not billable so you might as well use up your vacation days, the difference is the same to them.

Only be worried if those forced vacation days turn into time off without pay.
posted by geoff. at 12:32 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think it necessarily cause for alarm, as many others have said. My company has been transitioning from allowing rollover to not allowing it, so over the last two years everyone had to burn their accrued vacation. One explanation given for this change is that it reduces salary costs, since apparently vacation is accounted for differently than salary. As such, it's actually a way to prevent layoffs. Of course, if the company is tanking anyhow, it might not be enough to save it, which could be why your buddy got laid off.
posted by cabingirl at 12:39 PM on December 6, 2010

Being asked to take vacation isn't that much of a warning signal in itself.

Losing a major client, and lack of new clients, is a cause for concern though.

At this point the company could simply be hoping that business will pick up in the coming months, and wanting people to take vacations during a quiet period when they'd be twiddling their thumbs in the office anyway. But they could also be anywhere on the spectrum from pretty confident business will improve next year to already having decided that staff cuts will be needed, and where they will be.

How worried should I be?

Worrying isn't going to help, but it could be useful to ask yourself how you can make yourself most valuable to the company, how to make sure your value is understood, and what your plan B would be if you did need to look for another job.
posted by philipy at 12:40 PM on December 6, 2010

I'd agree that this sounds a lot like a cost-cutting measure. A couple of years ago the company I work for went from allowing employees to carry over 8 days of vacation to 5. Everyone had to take additional time off, and our bottom line looked a little better that year.
posted by BZArcher at 12:52 PM on December 6, 2010

It's an accounting thing. I've had this too, don't worry about it.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 1:26 PM on December 6, 2010

California has some pretty strict laws about vacation pay. I've worked for two companies with headquarters based out of state, and in both cases they were unaware of CA law and tried to force employees to take vacation days rather than carry them over. Turns out this is illegal.

IANAL, but perhaps you should contact one. I'm not sure if forcing an employee to take vacation days = enforcing a "use it or lose it" policy, but unlike other states, in CA the use it/lose it thing isn't legal.
posted by chez shoes at 1:30 PM on December 6, 2010

I used to be an actuary (i.e. pay & benefits consultant).

For those people that got fired / laid off after their vacation, it's 99% coincidence. Almost all employers force their employees to "use it or lose it". Ostensibly, it's for your "work/life balance" (propaganda), or to reduce their "liability" (irrelevant if you make the right provisions).

The real reason is to reduce the employer's cost of providing paid vacation, because it's very common for employees (especially workaholic, executive types) to never take a vacation in 20 or 30 years and then be entitled to a six- or seven-figure payout on termination or retirement just for accrued vacation, nevermind golden handshakes, severance etc.. If you think about it, it's much more expensive to pay that vacation out at the end of their career (when their salaries are high) than to pay-as-you-go (i.e. force them to take vacation regularly).
posted by randomstriker at 1:56 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

How worried should I be?

Like others have said, using up vacation days isn't enough on its own to panic.

That being said, you should ALWAYS have a backup plan at whatever job you're at. Things happen out of the blue. If your resume is always up to date, and your references are current it will make it much much easier to hit the ground running. Have a list of people (and recruiters) that you would contact immediately if you were laid off, and a plan for how you're going to spend your time off.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:38 PM on December 6, 2010

Same thing happened at my company. Couple of competing comments:

- Their (enraging) stated reason was that changing market conditions and industry standards made this the right thing to do. This might be absolutely true, but that doesn't mean they had to do it.

- The unstated reason was that the company was very close to needing to take out a bridge loan to cover payroll for a few months until a lucrative new contract (hopefully) took effect. The market for those kinds of loans has been shaky at best, and they needed to make sure the company's debt to value ratio was better. The cost of having to pay out all that money should the company have to liquidate is pretty high.

- It also coincided with business in general being down. They knew that was a temporary thing, but they also couldn't justify keeping all those people sitting around doing nothing. So it was win-win that by making everyone take a shitload of vacation they were able to clear the books of a big obligation, and kept everyone busy covering everyone else's vacations. At the very least, they pushed forward having to lay people off until the next year.

- While prior to this there were a shit-ton of layoffs, once this plan was implemented, no more layoffs. Brought some people back, actually.

- Everyone was pissed because the management didn't have the guts to just lay this all out and hid behind "changing industry standards".

- Completely unrelated to this is that some companies make people take surprise vacations just to make sure nothing funny is going on. Sort of a single-person disaster-recovery drill.

To argue against the fact that they might be doing this just to avoid having to pay out big bucks because they expect to lay people off is the fact that it would cost them less to just lay you off now and payout the vacation than it would to string you along for a few months. Accounting-wise, it tends to look better to take a one-time hit that corrects a problem, rather than have months of payroll that isn't supported by revenue.
posted by gjc at 3:34 PM on December 6, 2010

Last summer my company made me take a week of unpaid leave. But this was in response to both parent companies (we are a Joint Venture) trying to make our company take pay cuts because THEY had to take pay cuts. Our management fought back and negotiated down to the unpaid week. I'd much rather take that than a pay cut.

Since then we've gotten a lot of new business and things are looking very good. So I'd think about any 'political' games management may be playing. I think if your company can get your client base back up, this isn't necessarily the end times. If there's nothing coming in, and nothing on the horizon, this may be time to bail.
posted by Caravantea at 3:59 PM on December 6, 2010

Nthing what others have said wife accrues time, and is then forced to take it by the end of the year bc the company doesn't want to carry the days on their books. Unpaid leave, I can't make an argument for you not to worry.
posted by nevercalm at 4:04 PM on December 6, 2010

You didn't say what kind of industry, which matters.

At my employer, work load usually goes down to near zero over the holiday season/new year. Even salaried employees have to get their time charged to something or it gets charged to the "overhead" account. Huge overhead account = bad.

They decide how many people exactly they want to have and ask for volunteers. When they get too many, they decide somehow who's working and who's not. (hourly employees are chosen by the procedure in the bargaining agreement.)

Everyone else "gets" to take those days off. A few of them are paid holidays, most are not. People who aren't working can take paid vacation if they have it on the books, or they can take leave without pay without the AWOL implication and save their accrued leave. Up to them.

One way or another, there's no work for them. It means nothing about future workforce-size plans. (In fact, we're doing it again this year, amid a scramble to hire over 100 new people over the next year.) It's just the way the workload cycle goes.

My experience with this doesn't necessarily mean anything about your industry practices, though.
posted by ctmf at 4:38 PM on December 6, 2010

Nthing it's a book balancing thing. As everyone else said, they don't want to have to pay out the time if you leave the company, and it makes their debt/credit ratios look better for creditors to not have outstanding "debts" to employees.

I would be worried about the lack of clients, though. Together, it sounds, not dire, but something to keep an eye on.
posted by annie o at 4:51 PM on December 6, 2010

Do you work in finance, by any chance? Forced vacation is actually a well-known method of internal control, especially for employees who work with money or financial figures. From the eHow link:

Implement a mandatory vacation policy, if you have not done so already. The majority of chronic-theft problems in businesses are allowed to continue because no one else ever performs the functions of the thief. When thieving employees are forced to take a vacation and someone else fills in for them, they cannot keep concealing the crime. This policy can prevent theft as well as uncover it if it does happen.

posted by yawper at 6:48 PM on December 6, 2010

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