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I work for a company that gives 25 vacation days a year. Unused days are not paid and if not used they become wasted and you cannot use them the next year. When you leave the company, you are not paid the unused vacation days.

I used roughly 15 of the 25 I have but a few people (both above, below and at the same level as me) frown and made comments that "I'm always on vacation". Those people never took a vacation day that I know of.

There is, on paper, a clearly defined chain of command and my manager never complained or made comments, and always approved them. However in practice the chain of command is very blurry and everyone is encouraged to be an unofficial "manager" -- usually the people who do the most work and have the most experience in a project call the shot regardless of rank and going head to head to the people above you if you think they are doing a mistake is common and appreciated. So, it's kind of a "free for all". This was to explain that it's completely normal in this company culture for people who are not my manager or even below me to make comments about my vacation days.

I can either not use them and effectively work for free, or take them and deal with my colleagues complaining that "I'm always on vacation". 

I'm not sure if this kind of attitude is normal or not, and am wondering what I should do. Perhaps this is normal behavior in the United States to have vacation days and not use them (I'm not originally from the US). Should I let company culture influence how I use my PTO?

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"Those people never took a vacation day that I know of." = you work with idiots. ;) –  DA. Jan 14 '13 at 17:57
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You do not really have a problem here. You take vacation days, your manager approves them and does not complain. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 14 '13 at 18:06
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@Elfy Your ability to take vacation as granted to you by the terms of your employment and the rules in your employee manual are between you, your direct manager and HR. Any others trying to dictate to you or scare you into not using them is unacceptable and is none of their business. You will run into people throughout your career that will try to pretend like they are your boss in areas where they have no official authority. Ignore or stand up to these people because they are trying to bully you. –  maple_shaft Jan 14 '13 at 18:18
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Out of curiosity, have you used your 15 days on a lot of short (i.e. just a day or two) breaks? Or has it been a few week-long breaks? If the former, do you think your colleagues might whine less if you had a smaller number of longer breaks? –  Carson63000 Jan 14 '13 at 19:46
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Just smile and say something like. "you should try it, it's actually pretty nice!" –  Petter Jan 14 '13 at 20:19

14 Answers 14

Your main problem is a cultural one: you have vacation days (and your manager approves your requests to use them), but there is pressure from the people you work with not to take them. I am assuming this is a long-term trend, not just close to a critical deadline etc. If this cultural meme is particular to your team, one option is to look for an internal transfer. If it's widespread in your company (changing teams won't help), you have a few choices and which one(s) you take depends on how assertive you're feeling:

  1. Use your vacation, unapologetically. It's part of your compensation; giving it up is akin to taking a ~9-10% pay cut. Put in dollars like that you wouldn't do that, right? Of course give your team-mates and management as much notice as you can -- send email when you make your plans, mark your calendar, send a reminder (if going for more than a day or two), etc.

  2. Give in to the cultural norm: don't take more vacation than your peers, accept that effective pay cut, fit in. This is in the same general category as consistently working overtime; sometimes that's what you need to do to get a company off the ground, to bring a product to market, or to get ahead personally, but it is not a good situation to be in long-term. (I've linked to one article on this theme; you can find bunches more.)

  3. In combination with 1 or 2, try to change the cultural norm. Talk with your team-mates not about a particular vacation but about the concept. This is a long-term effort; it won't be resolved in one or two conversations. Plant seeds of doubt and see what happens. Maybe everybody feels like you do but nobody wants to speak up; you'll never know if you don't talk to people.

  4. If you don't feel you can either fix or ignore the problem, it may be time to look for a position with a better cultural fit.

Personally I would do 1 + 3.

The question also asks if this is normal in the US. Whether you can roll over unused vacation from one year to the next varies; if you can, there is usually a limit. It is normal to pay departing employees for unused vacation (and this is why there are limits to carry-over; that's a debt on the books). A lot of people don't take all the vacation they've earned (there have been many news reports about this), but in my experience it isn't normal to consistently pressure people not to take the time off that they're entitled to, except short-term and in the very-early-startup phase of a company. (My experience is in the software industry, but I've never heard friends and family members in other fields report that kind of pressure. That's only anecdotal, of course.)

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1 and 3 combined –  amphibient Jan 14 '13 at 17:54
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BTW, there's a fourth option of course; look for employment at another company with a better attitude towards vacation days. –  KeithS Jan 14 '13 at 19:02
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It's not just about a pay cut. if you don't take your vacation you are adding to your own stress levels, shortchanging your family (who presumably would like to spend more time with you) and adding to the climate of pressure on other people to not take their vacation either. If you are in a knowledge-based industry it's almost certain that not taking your vacation is reducing your effectiveness the other days you work. –  DJClayworth Jan 14 '13 at 21:01
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One sidenote: 25 days is unusual in the US, even for seasoned employees. Thus, it is probably used as a benefit to lure prospective employees, and I'm guessing at a trade-off in other benefits (including salary). IMO, that underlines that it is part of your compensation. –  Wonko the Sane Jan 14 '13 at 21:52
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If someone comments that you seem to be always taking vacation, just say "I'm only taking my allowance, and my manager has approved it". If you are feeling slightly rebellious try "I'm finishing my work so fast I can afford to take time off". –  DJClayworth Jan 15 '13 at 14:33

What should I do? Not use them and effectively work for free?

Use them. You receive them as compensation - you wouldn't turn around and give your company $2,000 a year of salary for no reason would you?

This is what you effectively do when you burn vacation (calculate your total compensation per day, and figure out what you are paying the company for by losing vacation).

Is this normal behavior in the United States, to have vacation days and not use them (I'm not originally from the US)?

It is normal for people in the USA to lose vacation days in this fashion.

A survey by Harris Interactive found that by the end of 2012, Americans will leave an average of 9.2 days of vacation unused, up from 6.2 days last year. It also found profits per employee are at a 10-year high, mostly because workers are cramming in more hours.

Source

There are also a lot of people who take vacation days and still work (I've worked with someone who was forced to take two weeks vacation he otherwise would have lost by his manager, but, who was still consistently responding to work email, etc).

There is a spectrum on how much work is done on vacation (viewing emails on a smartphone vs working on a laptop) but the point is many people do some amount of work while on vacation even when taking the vacations.

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@KeithS sadly the spectrum goes even farther. I have a coworker who several years ago managed to put in 40+ hours of work during his first week of an out of state vacation (down from what I suspect was a norm at the time of 60+). –  Dan Neely Jan 14 '13 at 21:18

You should take all your vacation time and not let a single minute go to waste. You are entitled to it by the stipulation of your work contract. Just like you can't change your rate of pay on a whim every paycheck, neither can your company expect you not to take your mutually agreed upon vacation time. If your colleagues have a problem with that, they should petition with the management to either reduce the vacation budget and then have you renegotiate your rate of pay considering the reduction OR they should petition that you get paid for the unused vacation hours or be able to roll them forward. Besides, I thought that, by the U.S. labor laws, accrued vacation is no different than money and MUST be paid if unused but cannot go uncompensated. You should check what the law is in your jurisdiction.

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and your answer is not good for any of the revisions IMO. Funny thing is if you had not whined about it in comments I wouldnt have seen it to down vote. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 16 '13 at 18:40
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or essentially, the answer to the currently highlighted question would be NO -- the corporate culture should be in sync with the employment contract -- it doesn't make sense if they give him 25 days vaca to lure him in just to immediately discourage him from taking any. he should go by what is black on white in clear english rather some esoteric rules of "corporate culture" –  amphibient Jan 16 '13 at 19:27
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that comment is better than your answer. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 16 '13 at 19:32
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"Besides, I thought that, by the U.S. labor laws, accrued vacation is no different than money and MUST be paid if unused" This is false. Paying is at the discretion of the company. If there's no formal policy you can try in court to make them pay. IANAL, but I believe only California considers vacation days are part of your wages; all other states they are a benefit at the discretion of the company and can pay or not by whatever policy they setup. –  Andy Jan 23 '13 at 1:58

There are also some corporate cultures where vacation is taken in large chunks or all at once. If you're a culture like that and you're taking onesie-twosie days to extend weekends, it'll probably catch attention because you'll appear to be on vacation "more than" someone who disappears for a month once a year.

As others have pointed out, they're part of your compensation. Not taking them is tantamount to paying the company to let you work on the not-taken days, especially since they don't roll over.

There are non-monetary costs to not taking time off also. The "sharpen your saw" thing - you need to not work to keep up your personal skills and refresh your mental batteries. If you're in a relationship, that also needs time invested to keep it fresh.

You work to support your life, not the other way around. If your nominal manager is OK with it, and you're producing the results you need to, carry on.

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Downvoter care to comment? –  DaveE Jan 14 '13 at 22:53
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really? "is this normal behavior in the U.S.?"-in some companies it is. "what should I do?"-take the time off. Ah well, "everything's made up and the points don't matter" –  DaveE Jan 15 '13 at 0:45
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+1 for pointing out the "onsie-twosie" issue –  deworde Jan 16 '13 at 12:35

It's hard to say from what you have written if the problem in the corporate culture, a few judgemental employees or bad habits on your part.

If no one else is using leave at all, it is likely a corporate culture thing and the best thing you can do is get out. A company that thinks it is a bad idea to take vacation is a company that thinks you are as interchangeable as the desks and doesn't recogize how unproductive tired people are. They are offering an unusually high amount of vacation (many people in the US only 1-2 weeks vacation for at least three-five years with the company), so they realize it helps recruit, but if they don't let you use it and they don't pay you for unused leave, then they are are just playing with you. I suspect this is not true at your company becuase your boss apparently didn't have a problem approving the leave.

If there are few people who complain but you have seen others taking leave, then the problem is either how you go about using your leave or the other people's attitude.

You can't fix their attitudes, but you can look at making sure that your vacation is not causing them to have problems and you can make sure your boss is prepared for any complaints that come his way.

You should also talk to your boss about the complaints you are getting to make sure he isn't getting a bad impression of you from these people. Since you have an unusually high amount of leave, it is possible that you negotiated this or they decided to do this for new employees only to get better recruits. In that case, the others may not have as much leave as you do and that could be what is causing the resentment. Talk to your boss about it and see if he can give you any insight as to why these people have a problem with you using the vacation. And by talking to him, you may be protecting yourself from their pettiness because he will realize what is at the root of any complaints they may have about you.

But as to what you personally can do to lessen the chance of others having a problem with you taking your vacation:

First plan your vacation days in advance (saving a few for personal emergencies if need be). I generally plan my vacation time at the beginning of the year and for any chunks of more than two days that I plan to take, I put in the request as soon as I know the dates I want. This allows people who are planning resource availability the notice they need to make sure that deadlines are not affected by this. If they know in February that you are taking a week in September, they can plan around it. If they find out a week ahead of time, they can't. Next, make sure you tell people not in your direct approval chain about the leave well ahead of time. Put it on a calendar that they can see.

Make sure to prepare for the leave by getting with the people you work with and making sure everything you need to get done before you go is done (and checked into source control if you are a developer). If you have something that you know can't wait until you get back, make sure to get with the project managers and have someone else assigned to work on it while you are gone. I never take a whole week off without a meeting 1-2 work days before the vacation to go over with my boss or project manager (or usually both) in detail where each project I am working on stands and who will be the contact point if something comes up while I am gone. Information sharing is the key to being able to take a real vacation without others complaining.

If you need to take a vacation without a lot of advance notice, make sure it isn't right around a major deadline unless it is a genuine emergency (and make sure that the complainers know it was an emergency). I'll never forget how angry we were at one employee who was supposed to be writing requirements and she wasn't finished when she went on a one-week last-minute vacation a week before a deadline. Really hard to write code when the requirements are last minute anyway, impossible to write it and meet the deadline when no one can even tell you what the requirement is. Of course the devs got blamed for missing the deadline which made us all the angrier at her. So don't put your colleagues in this position.

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@JoelFan: if you work in IT, if you work as a stocker at walmart, even if you have offers from multiple sites, you aren't going to get the extra week off. You probably aren't going to get the first week off. –  jmoreno Jan 15 '13 at 22:16
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@jmoreno : I have never been refused the extra week when I have asked, which is everytime since after my first job. –  Dunk Jan 15 '13 at 22:57
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And it is simply not negotiable at all in any government organization and often not in other large organizations. –  HLGEM Jan 15 '13 at 23:19
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@Dunk: Various sites quote 25% with no vacation time at all. I couldn't find anything to back that up, but I have had personal experience of it. In the US, vacations, even holidays, are not required. I know someone that lost a job for taking unpaid vacation in a position without any vacation time. This site is The Workplace, and not limited to either tech or office jobs. –  jmoreno Jan 16 '13 at 5:14
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@Chad: I am not asserting that companies do not negotiate for vacation, I am asserting that for quite a lot of positions in quite a lot of companies negotiation for time off begins and ends with "if you miss work and it's not covered by FMLA you're fired". This is obviously not all, or even most companies. But it exists, and I wanted to point it out in response to JoelFan's blithe assertion that "this is only because people don't ask for more". There are jobs where you can ask, but you won't get it. –  jmoreno Jan 16 '13 at 22:48

Firstly, don't feel bad about taking benefits that are part of your agreement with your employer. Why should you?

Apart from anything else, vacation days are necessary to maintain your health. In other contexts, it would be absolutely clear that you have a personal responsibility to safeguard your own health and safety in the workplace, and that of your colleagues.

Some of your colleagues may buy in to a macho culture in which you "show commitment" by working your vacation days. Let me ask you this - do you see a lot of burn-outs? In fact, it's not helping you, and it's not helping your employer to risk your health in this way. The expense of training up a replacement at short notice if you do burn out will far outweigh any short-term gains they may get from this practice.

Realistically, there may be emergencies where people make short-term sacrifices for the long-term good, but even then, anyone sacrificing their holiday plans should at least be able to look forward to a well-earned reward when the emergency is over.

The people who seem to be disapproving of you taking your vacation days are certainly not looking after your health and safety, and from the sound of it, they are not mandated by your management anyway.

How to address the problem is a bit more difficult. You could consider talking to your manager: at least then you'd know what the official line was. You could also consider talking to the problem colleagues. Could you tell them that their opinions are not helpful and that it's unacceptable for them to voice such opinions in a work environment? Maybe not - that's a judgement you'll have to make.

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"don't feel bad about taking benefits that are part of your agreement with your employer." Exactly. Someone would think one crazy if they refused medical benefits, so why refuse your vacation benefits? –  David Navarre Jan 16 '13 at 16:32

Take your vacation days. The company offers them to employees as an opportunity to get away from the stress and pressure the work at the office imposes. From a mental and physical health perspective, you need to take breaks from the demands of the office sometimes in order to work better. The constant day-in/day-out will take a negative toll on your mind and your body. Those people who complain and who don't take their vacation are probably not working at their peak for a number of reasons:

  1. They have difficulty planning their daily schedules so they can take vacation
  2. They don't want to be perceived as not doing their job
  3. They don't want to be inconvenienced by having their schedule disrupted because another team member is out on vacation, so they will either have to wait until they return or do the job themselves

If your immediate supervisor doesn't have a problem with you taking vacation time, then I wouldn't worry about it. If there truly was a problem, his/her superior would bring it to his/her attention and your supervisor's attitude about taking vacation time would subsequently change in order for him/her not to be perceived in a negative light. Until that happens, take your vacation and don't feel guilty about it. If other co-workers have a problem with it, it's their problem, not yours. As they say, "Haters gonna hate..."

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What should I do? Not use them and effectively work for free?

No, you should continue to request your vacation as you have been, get it approved, and keep other people in the loop as to your plans.

Is this normal behavior in the United States, to have vacation days and not use them (I'm not originally from the US)?

It depends - there is the idea of the "startup culture", in which the company embraces an "all hands on deck" mentality to get everything done with a minimum amount of employees and generally frowns upon people taking much personal time.

Based on your description of your company, however, you're likely past the "startup" phase (if you've got a "bureaucratic" finance department, and not just a single CFO-type employee), so vacation time is likely given out as a standard benefit to all employees, and you're well within your rights to take as much of it as you see fit. (Especially considering you don't get paid for what you don't take, and you don't sound like you can "roll over" unused days to the next year, I would have no qualms against using up as much time as I was allotted.)

Assuming you're not the only person in your company or department with vacation time, then continue to act as you have been, and use your vacation time to keep you well-rested and in good spirits, which will make you more productive.

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The vacations are the part of your contract and the part of your payment effectively. Refusing to take vacations would be something like refusing to take a salary or a part of it.

I can't say if it's legal that your company doesn't pay for unused vacations and don't allow to use it in the next year. In Europe (at least in the most countries) it would be illegal and it would cause the criminal liability of the manager. In US the situation may be else. However, no one can stop you from taking something that you have the rights for stated in your contract!

I don't understand how can you waste something you have right to, and how your co-workers could blame you for using it! This is a pathological behavior for me, maybe even something like mobbing.

No! Don't let others influence the decision to use or not use your PTO! Try to respond cold: "How would you define the word always"? 25 days are effectively 5 weeks, so only 10% of the year, it is not even "often". If they won't stop, simply ignore them. Never let anyone say what should you do with your free time and your money. How would you react if someone call you 'little Scrooge' when you'll spare 10% of your salary? It's simply stupid saying such things, isn't it?

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I'd probably consider finding a few folks to ask about this to get some ideas. While your manager is approving your requests, I'd likely want to get a few other opinions of whether this is hurting you or not though you do have to be careful who you ask about this. I'd likely consider at least one person from HR and one person from your department as worth having this conversation in terms of the company culture. Are the 5 weeks of vacation, presuming a 5 day work week that is, intended as something that some people will use all of them and others just don't want to be away from the job?

The people making the comment about "You are always on vacation" are likely having something to be done near your vacation day and thus they aren't happy to see it be delayed. The other thought is that this is intended as teasing. Why didn't I get this done sooner? "Elfy was on vacation! Elfy wrecked my plans!" kind of thinking could be taken in more than a few ways as some see this as a way to build closeness in a relationship and others could see this as harassment.

The critical issue is the question of how well are you delivering results for the company. Are your tasks being completed on time? Are they being done to a good quality? This is likely a factor as some people may work all the time as that is how they want to try to get ahead in the system. These would be known as "workaholics" that you have to wonder how well do you want to compete with these people.

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If they didn't want you to take vacation they wouldn't give you vacation. The best way to deal with passive aggression which is exactly what comments like these are, is to confront it head on. I'd try something like this:

"You keep saying that. Is that about the vacation time I was promised upon being hired for this position and that my manager approves without comment or is there some unstated issue about my work performance here that you feel like we need to discuss?"

Confront them. Passive-aggressive types are cowards. They will back right the hell off. If they don't back off, then the company is overrun with the miserable louts and the best advice I can give is do your best to get fired after taking all of your vacation in one nice block.

Also if any of the ones who don't want their vacation time has five weeks of it and they need to know a lot about JavaScript, please keep me in the loop if their employment status there should change. I guarantee I'm smarter, probably better-looking and definitely way more pleasant to work with than they are.

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From reading your question I do not think it is a company culture problem so much as you have a few people you work with that spend too much time monitoring your business and not enough time doing their own. I personally find the best way to deal with them is to try and ignore their comments or turn it back on them with something like "Isn't it great." Leaving is not the solution because chances are you will find a "Dwight Shroop" that thinks they are in charge no matter where you go. Do your job and and if you think there is a problem then ask your manager.

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So, there's no universal, but in many high-powered US tech offices, there is at least a norm in many places I've worked, that talking about vacation as something that people nobly give up in favor of working. What's harder to determine, in my experience, is to what extent the talk lines up with the reality. In almost any case in a culture that there can be a discrepancy between speech and the outcries of those who have no problem speaking up, and the unvoiced opinion of others - who may be the majority.

It's certainly worth a quick check-in with your manager - when I've done similar, I've often found out interesting details about the manager's opinions about those where nobly sacrificing vacation time for the company. Common management theory (even in the US) is that not taking vacation time is NOT a good thing - it leads to burnout, mistakes, frustration with work/life balance, and in some cases can even be a security issue (if you're curious on that one - ask at IT Stack Exchange about mandatory vacation time for security reasons and you should get an earful!)

This is certainly a case, though, were complaints could be coming from something other than the mere frequency of vacation days. How you take them, and your timing can be a big factor. Here's some vectors to consider:

  • How far in advance do you give notice to non-managers? Do the vocal anti-vacation people hear from you early enough to plan accordingly?
  • How do you let others know? Different jobs and different coworkers can require a variety of notification - let them know in meetings, by one-on-one heads up, by a calendar entry - there's probably a norm in your office, but realize it may also be broken, and so you're getting critique even though you're doing "what everyone does".
  • Do you have a viable alternate? If you are critical - do you have an alternate and how good is he at doing the job? Often complaints arise when the alternate is simply not viable - everyone knows that the work will be done so badly that you might as well wait... while as a "non-manager" training your alternate may not be part of your spoken job, in a suitably chaotic office, you might as well take it on and spare yourself the complaints.
  • Blocks vs. small slices - in theory, it shouldn't matter whether you take 2 weeks of vacation in one big chunk, or over 10 weeks every Friday. I can tell you from personal experience that it totally makes a difference. It takes more interpersonal work to break the "norm" and a very common norm in US offices is the 2 week block. I'm not saying you have to be a follower here, but realize that if you're doing something weird, it's the irregularity that could be causing the confusion and complaints.
  • Timing vs. projects - be aware that in almost any office, there's some unspoken "don't miss this" days - close to major deadlines, times for major planning, or times when the work is otherwise onerous - they may not be clearly spoken as "all hands on deck" moments, but they may be.

My recommendation would be to get feedback at the moment of complaint. Particularly when it's early in the year, and you know you haven't taken much (if any) time this year - when you first hear a compliant, start asking why, really. Given that this is the first vacation day of the year - ask if there's an issue with any of the above points, and start to sketch out a concept for how you can take the time you want without causing difficulty to those who depend on you.

In just about every office I've worked in, there's a few folks who don't take much vacation time. And because in US culture, overworking is never seen as a bad thing, these folks usually feel entitled to take issue when others make different choices, particularly if those choices cause a problem for day to day business. Before giving in, make sure that you can't find a way that works for everyone - you get your deserved time, and yet cause minimal disruption.

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Everything is relative. Perception is reality.

If you take more vacation days than everyone else, some people will make negative judgements. What's important, is that you let people know you're pulling your weight and taking vacation responsibily:

  1. Give notice
  2. Let people know that you are making an effort to complete tasks before you leave.
  3. Manage expectation and let people know you will take on a task when you return. This way, they don't automatically assign this to another coworker even though it could wait.
  4. Be available and help cover for others so they can take a vacation. Some people just don't ask for help.

If this company is going to promote this culture of offering a lot of vacation time to get new hires in the door only to have everyone frown upon using them, you should look for another job. You may find that only using a portion of the allowed days, is actually better than many positions. I haven't had 25 days of vacation since I was a teacher and that was really just a lay-off when you factor salary.

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The question is can they take their vacation not do they need a new job! –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 14 '13 at 18:50
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Well of course he can; vacation is a stipulated benefit and a part of the OP's overall compensation, to which he is entitled. However, if the culture of the organization is that vacation days are a benefit in name only, and it reflects poorly when they're used, then the OP could well find himself fired based on negative peer reviews. If that's the culture, I would most certainly advise looking for a new job before that could happen. –  KeithS Jan 14 '13 at 19:08
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@JeffO - There have been no consequenses though. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 14 '13 at 19:30
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@KeithS - That has not happened though. You are speculating on a hypothetical situation that is not part of the question. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 14 '13 at 19:32
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@Chad - I'd feel more comfortable if my supervisor suggested I ignore these comments. You never know when one of these fools are going to get promoted. –  JeffO Jan 14 '13 at 22:29

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