Last week I got a surprise email from my boss. It was a very unpersonalized forward from his boss, which was an unpersonalized email from our corporate headquarters. Both of them forwarded the email with a simple “FYI” in the body of their email. Ironically, the corporate email said it was not meant to be forwarded, and should be communicated “sensitively.” So much for that…
I wish I could just post a snapshot of it here, but that would violate confidentiality agreements. Here’s the gist:
Business is traditionally slow during the Christmas holiday, and money is tight. So all non-critical personnel are required to take unpaid leave or vacation from 12/23 – 1/3. They will be paid during the official corporate holidays (12/24, 12/25, 1/1) but not the other days, unless they choose to use up accrued vacation days.
My response: “Sweet! Now I can take some unpaid days off, then stack on some vacation days and I could easily take a full month off!”
Apparently I was the only one with such a positive response.
The office’s reaction was equally as unvaried as it was comical. People were pissed. Those with vacation days were upset that they’d need to use these days, when they would prefer to save them for the new year. Those without vacation days were in a panic with how they would pay for Christmas presents, and quickly interrogating management about whether they could go into “vacation debt” by using days they had not yet earned, meaning that it would be halfway through 2014 before they were back in the black.
Incidentally, my most successful present to the kids was Monopoly Jr, a game that sells for $27 online, but I got off Craigslist for $5 in near-mint condition.
Anyways, back to the email. It’s amazing how having savings and perspective can keep someone rational and useful. While everyone else was irrational and borderline incoherent with their anger and frustration over the short-notice situation (and, admittedly, it was extremely short notice and poorly rolled out to our organization), I was able to keep calm. We had a staff meeting shortly after the email came out, and there were 30 frustrated engineers weeping and gnashing their teeth about the situation. Management had no answers, and this brought on more wailing. It was as if terrorists were on the floor below us, and our leaders had no answer for them.
Finally, I stepped in. (And, by they way, I’ve shied away from any sort of leadership at this job for nealry 3 years now so I didn’t do this lightly). I silented my peers, took a deep breath, and calmly explained the list of questions we all had: Can we split vacation days and unpaid days? Can we use “future” vacation days? If our project is at a critical point in the schedule, can we get an exception to work and, if not, how will this be communicated to our paying customers? In general, how do we communicate this shutdown to our customers, who might view this as a problem for future reliability (and therefore effect future business awards)… And so on.
After the meeting, my boss’s boss came up to me and thanked me for calming everyone down and rationally listing the questions of my peers. A few of my peers, the ones who had calmed down anyways, stopped by and thanked me for being the only one that made any sense. They asked if I could send out the list of questions in email to make sure it was all documented and followed up on, which I did.
I never claim to be smarter or a better leader than the guys in my office. I’m probably wiser than some, and certainly less so than others. But that didn’t matter in the face of this change and chaos – all that mattered was that I didn’t need the money and had no concerns about the implications of what this furlough meant (where as others were/are worried that this is a preview of future layoffs). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the rewards of financial independence don’t begin when you can officially quit your job, they start as soon as you have the financial solvency and can “afford” to act rationally and logically in all situations.
It Doesn’t End There
But the story doesn’t end there. I waited about 2 weeks to figure out my holiday schedule, and entered our HR tool to fill out my vacation days. We have a new rule that we can’t carry more than 100 hours of vacation over to the new year, and I had 124 hours accrued. So Of the 7 furlough days, I decided to take 4 vacation days and 3 unpaid days to get me back down to 100 hours. I filled this into the tool and submitted it.
A few hours later, my request was rejected by HR. Apparently because I’m an exempt (salaried) employee, FLSA ruled require that I must be paid for the entire week, or none of the week. So I then requested that I roll over more vacation days above 100 hours and just take unpaid days during the furlough. That was also rejected. Perplexed, I went to see my site manager.
I explained my situation, and told him I’d rather not force vacation days when I had nothing fun planned due to the short notice. I’d be happy to take unpaid days, but it seemed that wasn’t an option for me. He told me flatly that I should just take my vacation days, and I explained that I would take the minimum I needed too, but it seemed the only way I could meet the silly HR requirements was to use 7 days of vacation and I didn’t want to do that since I’d rather save what I could for next year when the weather warmed up and I could do something fun with my family.
He couldn’t really deny my logic. Under short notice, I was told I had to take time off. Fine, but to say I have to use my “vacation” days is not fine, since that’s supposed to be used with our own discretion how and when we want to. To force unpaid days is reasonable, to force vacation days is not (to me, anyways). Finally, he relented. He called HR, but they wouldn’t be flexible with us.
When he hung up, he sighed. I asked him, “Surely I’m not the only one in this situation, so what’s everyone else doing?” He replied, “Actually, you’re the only one trying to take unpaid days.”
30 people, almost all with a 6-figure salary, and I was the only one wanting to take unpaid days so I could have more vacation days later? I guess it shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it still blew me away.
Anyways, I have a good relationship with his manager, and he was happy to help. He told me to take all the days as vacation, but since I didn’t actually want to take them, he would give me a few “comp” days under the table to make up the 3 days I was wanting to take as unpaid. Confused, I questioned whether that would mean I’d be paid for the days I wanted to take unpaid, but I’d still reserve the paid vacation days I wanted to keep. He confirmed my assumptions, and smiled. I guess you can have your cake and eat it too.
The funny thing to me is that I wasn’t trying to game the system. I was just fighting for what I thought was right, and something that seemed resonable for me. It was a conversation I wouldn’t have had the courage to bring up had I not already achieved a comfortable financial position due to the fear of any negative repurcussions. Instead, because I came into the discussion in a strong position, I was rewarded once again.
As I said above, financial independence (or even substantial savings) reward you long before you have the nest egg to quit.
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