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Money

What to Know About Taking Your Vacation Days—Which You Should Absolutely Do

How do you ask (or tell?) your boss? How long can you be away? Do you really have to come back? Here's a guide to the etiquette mysteries of PTO.
May 12, 2021, 11:15am
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

With people bursting to take post-vaccination vacations this summer, you might be wondering about the protocol for taking time off from your job. This kind of etiquette often isn’t written down anywhere and instead you’re just expected to somehow intuit it—which can leave people new to the work world struggling to navigate it. So here’s a guide to some common questions about how time off from work works.

How far in advance should I ask for time off?

This varies by workplace: There are some workplaces that are happy to get as much advance notice as possible, and others that don’t like approving anything more than six months out. There are also managers who are fine with a last-minute day off and others who frown not having much notice. Since there’s so much variation, this is a good question to ask your manager! You can also ask co-workers about what they do.

How much time off can I take at once?

This varies by office, but most will let people take off up to two weeks off at once. Some allow more, and some will allow more in special circumstances, like if you have to travel internationally to visit family. Some limit people to one week at a time, which is a bad practice since longer vacations help people unwind and prevent burnout. That doesn’t mean you have to take off that much time at once, though; lots of people take a vacation day here and there throughout the year.

Keep in mind that when you’re scheduling a vacation toward the longer end of that spectrum, your manager will generally expect you to avoid crunch times—for example, it wouldn’t look good to request a two-week vacation right before a major event you’re responsible for planning. That said, there are also workplaces where it’s always a crunch time, and the result shouldn’t be that you never take any vacation time. Just be thoughtful about when the impact might be worse.

Should I ask permission or just announce the dates I’m taking off?

This can vary too, although when you’re early in your career it usually makes sense to phrase it as a question—as in, “I’m hoping to take off July 8–9. Would that work on your end?”

As you become more senior, you’ll often be managing your own schedule more. As that happens, it can be fine to start saying, “I’m planning to take off July 8–9. I’ll ask Jill to manage X while I’m gone.”

What about peak times when everyone wants to be out?

In some jobs this won’t matter, but in others, managers need to ensure they have sufficient staffing to cover ongoing responsibilities (to ensure clients can reach someone or servers don’t crash with no one around to fix them or so forth). In jobs where coverage is an issue, you’ll want to find out what kind of system your employer uses to approve time-off requests for popular periods like the winter holidays or summer months. Some companies use a first-come, first-served system (where you’ll want to get your requests in early) and others use a rotation (where you might get your first choice of dates this year but have to compromise next year) or a sharing system (like where people who get Thanksgiving off have to work Christmas and vice versa).

There’s also an office politics element of this to be aware of: If you reserve all the most desirable dates early in the year before others have a chance to, it’s likely to engender resentment among your colleagues, even if the system technically allows it. That’s true for anyone but it’s especially likely to be true if you’re new or very junior. That doesn’t mean you need to hang back entirely, but be thoughtful about leaving space for others too.

How soon after starting a new job can I take time off?

Usually you should avoid taking vacation time while you’re still very new. When you’re still being trained and learning the job—and while they’re still getting to know you and your work ethic— most employers want you reliably present. (There are exceptions to this, though, like if you have a family emergency or if you got the employer’s OK for the time off before accepting the job.) 

Once you’ve been there a few months, you should be more able to think about time off. Even then, though, most people avoid long vacations (one week or more) during their first six months or so.  

I don’t have much time off accrued yet—can I take it unpaid instead?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Some employers are perfectly willing to let people take unpaid time off when they don’t have enough vacation time accrued yet, and others only allow it in emergencies. For those that are reluctant to, usually the concern is that they’ve allocated their staffing on the assumption that you’ll be there X number of days a year (all the days minus your vacation allotment, basically) and changing that equation changes their ability to ensure your work is covered or puts an additional burden on the coworkers who step in for you. So I wouldn’t ask to do it for something minor—like a spontaneous Friday off to chill in the park—but it can be worth asking if something comes up that’s more important to you.

Does any of this change if I’m an intern?

It might! If you’re doing a relatively short internship, like just for the summer, most employers won’t want you taking off significant amounts of time during it. If you’re interning for 10 weeks, taking off one of those weeks would mean being gone for 10 percent of the internship! Usually with internships that last just a few months, it’s fine to take off an occasional day here and there—meaning one or two total—but you’re mostly expected to show up reliably the whole time unless you arrange something else ahead of time. (Unpaid internships can have a little more wiggle room, but not much. Generally you should treat them the same way you would a paid internship in order to make a good impression and come away with strong relationships and references.) 

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.