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I am considering plane tickets as an anniversary gift for my husband for a specific date/destination. Before I buy I'd like to be sure it won't be a problem at his office. Has anyone asked for vacation on behalf of his/her spouse before? Have any managers out there gotten this request? I have been a manager for several years but have never gotten this request. If you're inclined to answer, here are some things you may find relevant:

  • My husband has been at this company several years and is well-liked by his boss. I have only met his boss a couple of times but he seems friendly. My husband hasn't indicated to me that he's in any way difficult to work for.
  • He likes travel, adventure and surprises, so if I can find a way to have this conversation with his boss it would be a big win for me.
  • He usually has plenty of vacation days. I haven't kept track of the time he's taken for illness, etc. but I don't think available days will be an issue.
  • His boss would only need to keep the secret until our anniversary (in a few weeks), not until the trip (in a few months).

Is there any chance that making this request could damage my husband's professional image? I don't think it's the same as a husband getting his wife to call in sick for him, for example, but you never know what people may think.

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    Just a thought: Wouldn't it be better to give your husband a hint before booking, even if it reduces the surprise? Even if you can confirm he is free to take vacation, he might not want to travel at that time for any number of reasons, such as some agreement with colleagues about a project, planning on attending a conference, plans with friends, a desire to have a few quiet weeks... – sleske Aug 31 '16 at 11:04
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    Also, I don't think the boss has the authority to actually schedule vacation time for an employee without asking them - it's the employee's vacation entitlement, after all. At most the boss could tell you whether your husband could get a vacation if he requested it, according to his days left and current workload. – sleske Aug 31 '16 at 11:07
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    This level of 'surprise gift' is likely to cause more distress than joy in the recipient. PLease consider the "surprise" being when you tell your spouse you want to take this vacation trip. – Carl Witthoft Aug 31 '16 at 14:18
  • @sleske: That depends a bit on how vacation is organized in the job - in some companies, you apply to take certain days off in order to get a permit for that leave, but the days off are only subtracted from your annual leave when you actually stay away on those days. In such a system, the boss could schedule the vacation without ultimately taking away the decision from the employee. – O. R. Mapper Sep 2 '16 at 6:30
  • @O.R.Mapper: Actually, it works like this in all companies I know, so you're probably right that the boss could do it. Still, if the boss officially schedules vacation for an employee, it would probably be difficult to keep it secret - most companies have some type of vacation calendar where it would show up. So possible, but probably not practical... – sleske Sep 2 '16 at 7:55

10 Answers 10

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Requesting time off on behalf of spouse for a surprise vacation

Don't do it. I'll let Alison Green from Ask A Manager explain why this puts your spouse's manager in an uncomfortable position:

From the manager’s perspective, I don’t know if he’s saving up his vacation time for something else, or whether the two of you are having problems and he’d rather not go on this trip (and might prefer to use work as an excuse), or whether he’s going to submit a vacation request for November that would leave him no time for this trip he doesn’t know about in December. If he only gets one week a year, you’d be using all of his vacation on this, which he might not want or which might conflict with other plans he has (and there’s a decent chance he’ll have already used it since this will be the very last week of the year).

It also can cause workload issues, if he’s planning to do something crucial during that week and doesn’t know he’ll need to get it done earlier or otherwise make advance arrangements to cover his work. (In some jobs, the manager could do that for him, and in other jobs it would be much harder.)

I'm a big fan of the alternative she gives: ask your spouse to take that week off but leave the reason or destination a surprise.

Apart from putting your spouse's manager in a tough position, the bigger problem with doing this is that it crosses a huge professional boundary. The only time when family or friends can contact your employer is when you are incapable of doing so yourself. That means a debilitating disease or injury. In all other situations, adults are expected to manage their professional relationships themselves and that includes requesting time off or planning leave.

Alison Green also has another article on this subject where a manager reacted very critically when it was just a single day off. That reaction was a bit too much but it illustrates that even asking the question can reflect poorly on your spouse. Surprising people at work is similarly problematic, for much the same reason. If your spouse is new to the job or if you've never met his manager then those are also complicating factors.

So to summarise, here are all the reasons why you shouldn't plan a holiday for a significant other (SO) and why a good manager won't let you (not all reasons apply in your case):

  • your SO should manage his own time
  • it's impossible to effectively plan around a surprise holiday
  • your SO may not want to
  • your SO may have other plans for his vacation days
  • you may be a stalker or the relationship may have soured to the point where your SO wouldn't want to take a trip
  • your SO may not have the PTO required for the trip and you have zero standing to discuss that with his manager

This answer is meant to cover the general situation of someone requesting time off for a significant other. As mentioned not all of the reasons mentioned here apply to the OP. But I believe that regardless of the details of the situation at least one of these reasons will apply, which is why it's almost always a bad idea to do this. Very small companies that encourage a family atmosphere or by extension family-run businesses are a notable exception but someone in that case wouldn't even think to consider if this could be an issue.

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    As a manager: If I didn't actually know you or have any knowledge of who the spouse is, I'd shut my mouth to you, say "talk to your husband" and that's it. If I had some rapport with you and were aware of who you are and that you're my co-workers spouse, I'd give you some idea on whether or not that time could be taken off, but make it clear that requests for time off come from the source only, talk to your spouse. – tekiegreg Aug 31 '16 at 22:24
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    "you shouldn't plan a holiday for a significant other" really? – njzk2 Sep 2 '16 at 3:02
  • "I don’t know if he’s saving up his vacation time for something else" - that assumes that getting a permit for taking vacation days at specific dates is equivalent to irrevocably taking them. As I've pointed out in another comment, having that permit does not always automatically mean the days are subtracted from the annual allowance right away, and even if they are, it should always be possible to cancel a scheduled vacation and thereby get those days back. – O. R. Mapper Sep 2 '16 at 6:35
  • @O.R.Mapper That point has more to do with the employee saving up days for something he'd rather be doing than taking a surprise holiday with his SO. – Lilienthal Sep 2 '16 at 6:58
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    @njzk2 Yes, that is rather the entire point of my answer. Are you taking issue with the phrasing? I think it's clear that I'm referring to the specific context of planning such a holiday with the SO's manager. – Lilienthal Sep 2 '16 at 7:01
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Answering my own question as encouraged by the site usage guides, and after considering all thoughtful advice:

I'm telling my husband we need to take a trip out west to visit in-laws so that he can reserve the days off. He's good with my family so it won't be an issue. He also doesn't mind being lied to when intentions are pure, as in this situation. He will be pleased at the deception.

This situation works for me because trust exists and may not work for everyone. I also agree that since his boss does not know me very well he may feel uncomfortable being involved in the deception, regardless of its spirit. After the surprise is shared, I'm curious to ask my husband what he thought I should have done. Perhaps one day when I know his boss better I will know if this is the kind of thing I can ask in the future.

UPDATE (some of you requested final outcome):

My husband is very excited about the surprise and the upcoming trip (he even congratulated me on the successful deception), but agreed that it would have made his boss uncomfortable to get a time-off request from a spouse. When I asked if it would have been okay just to email his boss a "heads up" on surprise vacation dates, he thought that would be okay. That's a good thing because I don't think I'll be able to use the in-law gag again without raising suspicion.

  • Seems like a great outcome. – R.. Aug 30 '16 at 22:47
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    If you're going to go with the white lie solution don't forget to let the in-laws in on it, lest your husband calls them and learns there is no trip planned! Additionally, if there are any other people who could make plans based on that and actually go to visit the in-laws hoping for a big family meetup only to learn later they were not in the know. – Maurycy Aug 31 '16 at 8:41
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    @Maurycy: Or even worse, imagine the husband trying to arrange his own surprise thing with other relatives at the in-laws', only to realize at the last minute he's not going there... – Mehrdad Sep 1 '16 at 4:58
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    @Anon If you remember, could you please update your answer again after-the-fact and let us all know how it went? It would be great to know what your husband thought of the plan and how he reacts. – Dan Sep 1 '16 at 19:51
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    Just tell him you've booked a vacation. It's a surprise. Here's when it is. That way you're not lying to your husband AND he has the anticipation of a surprise. – Doug R. Sep 2 '16 at 14:07
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Do it! It never hurts to ask!

The manager/supervisor is not forcing the employee to take the time off, merely facilitating the absence of an employee. If things go south, there is no reason the employee has to use the PTO, returning to work instead.

I've done this for my wife and it was wonderfully received by her boss and co-workers. I made sure to emphasize sensitivity to what was going on at work and asked for suggestions of a better time, if the requested time was not good for the office. I even added a fruit basket as part of the surprise that she presented to the co-workers for their part in the conspiracy.

These surprises can be great for relationships and for workplace morale.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Sep 1 '16 at 9:02
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    Unlike many of the 'negative' answers here, I agree mostly with this. I've seen this happen in a company I worked in and it worked well - it all comes down to a) how the company is, b) relationship to the company and c) your relationship to each other. If the three are positive - ask. – Allan S. Hansen Sep 1 '16 at 9:49
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    One of my co-workers actually had this happen to her - husband called the boss and arranged the time off for a surprise trip. Boss agreed, reshuffled some work and had the worker clear her schedule for a 'special project'. Now, it might be worth noting that where I am, it's legal for your boss to mandate when you take your vacation, so that might change the logistical/legal/ethical angles of it. (Anyway, worker was thrilled, they had a lovely weekend away from the kids, and everything thought it was adorable. YMMV) – Allen Gould Sep 1 '16 at 15:19
  • @AllenGould Where are you? I could never accept a situation where "it's legal for your boss to mandate when you take your vacation" (except, maybe around Christmas, and that only a few days). A boss did that to me when I was working in France and I quit. – camden_kid Sep 2 '16 at 9:49
  • @AllenGould This happened to me as well. My wife asked my boss for 2 days off and my parents were crossing the atlantic to pay us a visit to surprise me for my birthday. I never suspected a thing until they rang at the door. Made for a lovely surprise ! When I went back the next monday, my boss had filled the timesheet for me. I could have gone back to work and refuse the day off without any issue of course, but that would have ruined everybody's good intentions (and my surprise). – ereOn Sep 2 '16 at 18:44
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There are some very nice and well structured answers, but I have one very important thing to point out in bold:

In any professional workplace the amount of surprise should be eliminated to maximum possible extent, which is in a direct conflict with your plan.

Whenever I have been subject to any employee (moral, ethical, etc.) code, the sentence 'Employee shouldn't bring about surprises directly or indirectly, intentionally or not', followed by a requirement to discuss changes or events as soon as possible to prevent any damage to planing, logistics, production etc.

Personally, I work for a very human company, have plenty of vacation time, low level of stress constantly, and very understanding managers all the way to the top, and would still feel awkward should such a suprise be arranged for me.

  • You are talking about workplace surprises, which I agree should be minimized. The OP is asking about a personal surprise, which she wants to clear with her significant other's boss. If anything, this should reduce the level of surprise at the workplace by giving the boss fair warning. – David K Aug 31 '16 at 12:29
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    It's fair warning when the employee does it themselves - when someone else requests time off on another's behalf, it won't be until the moment the actual person who is taking off confirms they'll take it that it stops being a "will probably be gone then" situation. They could very well refuse to accept it. (Because the initial requester turns out not to be who they claim they are or whatever) – Erik Aug 31 '16 at 12:48
  • @DavidK Well, the holiday is personal, and the rest is workplace related. Fair warning is one thing (and even that would come to me as a surprise when not received from the employee himself), but as I read the question, the OP asks specifically about requesting vacation, which is way further than a warning. – Pavel Aug 31 '16 at 13:22
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You can't ask the manager to put an employee on vacation arbitrarily.

I would assume in most jurisdictions, the demand needs to come from the employee, or be submitted to a discussion that involves not just the direct manager (like a mandatory shutdown of the company for Christmas week, for example).

Also, you could be putting your husband and his manager in a difficult position, and you don't want to put your husband's manager in an uncomfortable situation of holding some responsibility in your plan.

What you can do, however, is make sure in advance that, when you disclose the surprise, your husband's vacation request will be granted.

You can talk with the manager to see if they can make sure they don't have something planned, and won't have, for the few weeks until the anniversary. Basically, something like: "Hey, I am planning a surprise vacation on such date, can you tell me if there is anything that would prevent my husband from requesting 2 weeks off at that time?"

You'd still be taking a risk, because there would not be a formal engagement that the dates will be free for your husband to request vacations, but the risk will be much smaller.

And you would not be putting the manager in any weird situation should anything happen.

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I think you should base this on your husband's prior history with any difficulties asking for time off and the amount of advanced notice. Buy tickets that can be changed.

Many supervisors will allow their employees to use their judgement when taking time off, so they'll take current project status and accepting new ones into consideration. You would be putting your spouse in a bad position if he made promises to clients that he can't keep. Obviously if there are busy periods like end of quarter or holiday seasons, you're going to have to work around those.

I'm lucky, I work for the kind of boss who would think this is a great idea and would cooperate. If you responded to an email while on vacation, he would thank you and tell you to get back to the beach. I've expressed to my wife how I feel about my boss, so she wouldn't need to ask anyone what they think.

You may want to consider the surprise more about where you're going than when. The fact you're making the arrangements would be even better than the surprise.

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    "I work for the kind of boss who would think this is a great idea and would cooperate." What if you have an abusive relationship in your past or you're planning to break up with your SO? There's more to this beyond just getting the time off approved. – Lilienthal Aug 30 '16 at 17:49
  • Thanks Jeff - I think you're probably right (+1) and believe this is the same environment where my husband works but until I know that for sure I'm going to play it safe per the Alison Green advice. Maybe on the next surprise trip I will be more comfortable with his approaching his boss. For now I'll trick my SO under the guise of a visit to the in-laws. – Anon Aug 30 '16 at 19:00
  • @Lilienthal: what if you do and what if you are? Then the manager just lets the employee cancel the requested leave. It's months between when the employee learns about the surprise trip, and the actual trip, so unless the company's leave booking is stupid-rigid (must give several months notice, no changes permitted) then the manager doesn't have any difficult decisions to make on that score. If the system is stupid-rigid, sure, that's a good reason not to agree to agree to leave "in principle" with the spouse. Some roles do require stupid-rigid leave: if you're an Ambassador or something. – Steve Jessop Aug 30 '16 at 19:37
  • @Lilienthal - The OP gave no indication there's an abusive relationship going on or any other problems. The question is focused on asking for the time off. The manager could leave in the mean time. Someone is just trying to schedule time off that the company already agreed to give them. It's not like asking for 50% equity. – user8365 Aug 30 '16 at 19:46
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    ... the one thing the manager is doing, and which is awkward, is removing the employee's ability to lie and claim that the manager refused the leave. I accept that might be an ethical issue, since under normal circumstances the employee would have that option available, whereas communicating directly with the wife removes that. Similarly some offices by policy won't confirm or deny that an employee is in the office when their wife calls for them, as a matter of privacy. Any manager it's an ethical problem for should of course refuse the request. – Steve Jessop Aug 30 '16 at 20:22
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Wow, sounds like you've already poured way too much time into this so-called dilemma. No need to put yourself through such great stress and internal conflict on this. Just spend a few bucks more and buy refundable/flexible tickets. Problem solved.

Edit: OK, I realize there may be a significant difference in cost for refundable tickets. But to jump-frog over your spouse and deal with his boss directly is to me totally un-sat. Please stay within the proper channels of professional etiquette.

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    With just a slight twist: Since the trip is not until a few months out: buy refundable tickets now, so you have "tickets in hand" for the big reveal; then have them refunded, and buy the cheaper non-refundable ones. – Floris Sep 1 '16 at 16:06
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I am not a lawyer, merely an "individual contributor" in corporate America. What I have is the required classes in what not to do within the chain of command. Lillienthal already nailed most of what I would say, and I concur with your solution. However, I want to expand on Lillienthal's last bullet point; from my view, this is the "killer heuristic" of the situation:

you have zero standing to discuss that with his manager.

Within the work relationship, the manager's legal responsibilities are to the company and to your husband. You are part of this only so far as your husband has filed appropriate paperwork with the company. In most cases, this is nothing more than insurance coverage and next-of-kin information.

Your husband's work assignments may well be company confidential information. His vacation availability is personal information within the company; your husband can share that with you, but his manager cannot. Yes, it's permissible for you to inform his manager of your wishes, but the manager's only response should be to acknowledge receiving that communication. The manager cannot address your request; vacation plans must be made with the employee, not with a third party.

Granted, in a healthy situation, the manager would appreciate the heads-up of a pending vacation, with the formal request coming later from your husband. However, making any sort of business plan based on your request would put the manager in a difficult position.

In short, find another way to do this. Until the manager is a trusted personal friend who has shown a willingness and ability to handle the dual relationship, let all of these things go through your husband.

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"Shy bairns get nowt"

I have been in this situation myself. Here is my experience:

My spouse had a pending 30th birthday. A surprise holiday was my first and only thought of a gift. To achieve this, I had to have a couple of people involved so it would remain a complete surprise to her. Namely the in-laws and her boss.

This helps to have some sort of relationship with your partners boss. I had met him a couple of times before and got on quite well with him, but nothing more. It was always in a work/casual environment.

My spouse works for a small NGO (not for profit, non governmental organisation) in the UK that does a lot of events. I consulted the public events planner for her organisation about 4 months in advance and found a week where I knew she would not have any events booked, coincidentally the week of her birthday as well. However, the day to day office job was different. I knew she plans daily meetings a few weeks in advance but usually with her boss, the director, involved. I knew I had to have involve him in the plan to some extent so it did not ruin any day to day office work etc.

I contacted him on his work email and outlined my plan: the week she would need time off work, not to book any meetings in for her that week etc. He was more than happy to help me and put her down as holiday that week so I then booked the holiday. I said to her boss that I would tell her a few days before departing that she was to go on holiday but keep the destination a surprise so she had a couple of days to prepare for packing etc just so he did not put his foot in it and ruin the surprise.

A few days before departure she was planning evening drinks with her work colleagues and boss so I thought that would be a perfect place to tell her she was going on holiday. That was where I sprung the surprise. Everyone was delighted and so intrigued as to what the destination was.

The surprise was very successful but not without the help of her boss. The destination remained a surprise up until about 30 minutes before takeoff after check in, security and pre flight drinks where I had prepared some cryptic clues and a guidebook of the destination wrapped as her first present.

One of the best holidays we have ever been on. I would urge anyone to try and do the same at least once.

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Along the same lines as davidb above, and not considering the business implications:

I, too, surprised my wife with such a suprise-holiday. She was working as the personal assistant of the director of a hospital. He and all the colleagues knew and agreed to her leave. The morning we were to take off I gave her 5 puzzles (just 30 or so pieces each) that I had got made before, each showing a leg of our trip (which was 3 weeks New York -> LA -> island-hopping on Hawaii -> SF -> Boston and back home). She had 3 hours to pack and leave home - and to figure out where we were going by solving the puzzles.

It was a great trip to which, although now 25 years ago, we still think back every now and then with a smile.

Yes, it did pose a risk. Yes, it did cause some headaches to the boss and the colleagues, but it was worth it. It could have gone wrong, but the risk was acceptable.

The drawback was, that she didn't have the chance to prepare herself - and often enough the vacation starts with the planning weeks and months before - and with the excitement of the time to takeoff getting shorter and shorter over the months.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing that you can't repeat. DO IT - if you have the boss and the colleagues that help with it.

PS: It took me about half a year to prepare and arrange that vacation. Such a surprise thing is usually way more complex than booking a trip the usual way :-)

protected by Chris E Sep 21 '16 at 16:24

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