Can an employer force me to use my annual leave?

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week, an employer forced to use their annual leave, an extreme micro-manager and nepotism in the workplace.

Can your boss send you packing? Probably.

Can your boss send you packing? Probably.Credit:Dionne Gain

Can my employer force me to exhaust all but seven days of my annual leave each year? They do so in the name of work-life balance but I would like to accumulate my annual leave. What are my options?

Your question raises a few great issues. In terms of the specifics of what your employer can or can’t do, that is really determined by your employment contract or EBA. If you’re in a union, speak to them to find out what your agreement says. If not, you will need to review your employment contract. Whatever your arrangement, an employer can only direct you to take annual leave if it’s reasonable.

Annual leave is designed to help you get some rest during the year so I can understand why your employer might want you to do that. Accruing leave for no reason (other than to hold on to it, just in case) will mean you are not getting regular downtime, which can impact your wellbeing. When thinking about what is reasonable for your employer to ask of you, they need to consider your needs and those of the business, plus any customs of the business (like being closed over the Christmas period) and how much excess leave you have accumulated. Forcing you to take leave should always be a last resort because employers should be seeking to maintain a good relationship with their staff. If you want to accrue leave for a specific reason – for example, a special two-month holiday in a couple of years – I would speak to your employer and I’m sure a reasonable compromise can be made.

My workplace is a huge open space office with multiple teams performing different roles. My team, which operates like a call centre within our business, has many rules others don’t have. We’re regularly moved to different desks (I’m currently on my fourth in six weeks) and we aren’t allowed to eat at our desk while other teams are. My supervisor monitors our breaks and we will get a message saying “are you OK?” if we have more than two toilet breaks in an 8.5-hour day. Is this normal and what can I do about it?

It sounds like your supervisor is from the micro-management school of leadership. As you are finding, it makes for an unpleasant work environment. Let’s break down the issues. I haven’t met anyone who likes hot-desking yet it is becoming more and more common, especially post-COVID. If you’re coming into the office five days a week, I think you might have a better argument to ask for some stability. But that would really depend on the nature of your work and office space so may be difficult to change.

As for not being able to have lunch at your desk, I can understand why you’re annoyed with that double standard. Can you ask your boss why that rule is in place for just your team and request a change?

The break monitoring is extreme. I’d speak to someone in HR if you feel you’re being watched to that level. There will be plenty of valid reasons why someone might need to have a break more than twice a day and just knowing someone is counting your visits to the bathroom is bound to start bordering on undue attention and even harassment. I would definitely speak to someone about that.

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