Common sense on holiday

Dec. 21, 2004
Managers who frown on employee vacations ought to try one. I saw a news report the other day that still has me shaking my head. A major nonprofit medical institution, known around the world for its medical expertise, has just announced one of the most ...

Managers who frown on employee vacations ought to try one. I saw a news report the other day that still has me shaking my head. A major nonprofit medical institution, known around the world for its medical expertise, has just announced one of the most ill-conceived management innovations Ive ever heard of. This institution has asked its employees to support a fundraising campaign by donating not just cash, but some of their paid time off, too.

Now I realize theres nothing new about health-care institutions and other nonprofits asking employees to donate to their own worthy cause (and, in some small way, continued employment). And theres also nothing novel about shortsighted organizations -- profit and nonprofit alike -- urging employees to limit their use of paid time off, even when benefit policies explicitly state that employees have a legal right to such time. (In fairness, the institution has stated that any such donations are strictly voluntary.) What boggles the mind is the clear but misguided message inherent in such a request: Regardless of anything your benefit policy or common sense might say, the best thing you can do for your employer is to remain chained to your desk or lab sink.

For lack of a more polite expression . . . horse hockey!

Theres a misconception among many executives that paid time off -- whether vacation, personal, or compensatory -- is of benefit to employees only, so that they can pursue all those annoying things (hobbies, doctor appointments, parenting) that get in the way of a good days work. And yet smart managers know that paid time off is at least as important to the organization as it is to the employee, for three reasons:

Creativity and productivity: It seems nearly every business guru expounds on the fact that to succeed, corporations must innovate continuously, must benchmark outside their own industries, must encourage breakthrough thinking. And yet each of these is nearly impossible for employees who never spend a day outside their work life and never experience anything new. As Witold Rybczynski recounted in his book on work and leisure, Waiting for the Weekend (1991, Viking), when British industry tried to do away with time off in 1914 as part of the war effort, the results were disastrous. In fact, the institution of longer hours, overtime, and Sunday work led not only to decreased productivity, but to decreased overall output as well. Writes Rybczynski: "A short time later, when the Sunday holiday was reluctantly reinstated and the 12-hour day was reduced to 10 hours, not only did hourly output increase, to everyones surprise, but so did gross weekly production."

Employee retention: Its fashionable these days to pay lip service to the adage that employees are an organizations most valuable asset. Its much harder to act on it -- by doing the kinds of things that make employees feel valued. The toughest ways involve actually empowering people, giving them authority and resources to do their jobs in their own way, and compensating them accordingly. The easy -- and cheap -- ways involve trusting employees enough to let them manage their own schedules, including the use of ample paid time off. Why do so many executives take the difficult route before theyve tried the easy way first?

Organizational health: Succession planning is much in vogue these days, with good reason: No corporation can afford an irreplaceable employee. Likewise, it makes sense to see, at least a few weeks a year, how the company runs (or doesnt) without a few key players. Savvy executives will use these weeks to evaluate organizational effectiveness, and to offer temporary assignments to promising management candidates.

Dimmer occupants of the executive floor will continue to find reasons why they and their employees shouldnt take so much time off -- were understaffed, were too busy, we can donate the vacation time to our nonprofit foundation -- and never realize how much more productivity, not to mention life, theyre missing.

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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