THE BLOG
08/28/2015 01:19 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2016

Why Won't My Employees Admit They're Going on Vacation?

As another summer comes to a close, I find myself noticing once again that my co-workers and employees have been very reluctant to both commit to a vacation and to communicate that time off to everyone else.

As CEO, I find this frustrating -- it's a waste of time to set up a client visit or an internal meeting only to hear from one of the essential participants that he or she will be on vacation. We have asked, even pleaded, that people mark the days when they will be away, even if they are still tentative. To be fair, some of my colleagues, with a degree of self-confidence and consideration, do indicate their days off well in advance -- but the practice of the stealth vacation still persists.

And yet I realize that my company is hardly an exception. Studies consistently show that Americans are vacation-phobic, leaving as much as half of their annual paid vacation on the table. The reasons cited include an aversion to piles of work on return, the fear of being replaced, or a "martyr complex" that holds that the office can't run smoothly without me. Of course, martyrs beget more within an organization, creating pressure on others to exhibit the same self-sacrifice.

And in our industry - financial services - this attitude may be even more pervasive. At the financial institution where I spent 22 years before co-founding Aureus, I would sometimes run into one of the veteran fund managers in the lobby of our building, as I was about to take the elevator up to our offices. He would describe with obvious bravado how he had already been at the office for at least an hour, getting tons done, and was now getting back from grabbing some coffee. I would stand there, at 7:45 a.m., feeling jealous and inadequate -- exactly the intended effect.

So now, as a leader, I try to encourage people to take a break and get away from the office. No one has ever been denied a vacation, even at a challenging period - for example, one month into their employment or during the first two weeks of the year (which are very busy at our firm). We try to be generous as well as flexible about paid time off, offering three weeks of vacation for new employees, which increases over time to five weeks at twelve years.

What do we expect in return from our staff? That we try to avoid all taking off the same weeks during the summer and in the days around Christmas, and that everyone post their vacation, as soon as planned, on our shared Outlook calendar. But based on the actual notices on the schedule, we are failing miserably at convincing everyone to comply with this request.

To solve this problem, we're trying to focus more on teamwork, collaboration, and coordination. This isn't easy in an industry that often prizes grueling hours and extreme work devotion, in which one of the key measures of value to the firm is the perceived number of hours in the office and the fewest hours away from work. People who come up through such cultures may be used to concealing their time off - and rewarded for doing so, some research has found.

To counteract this culture of anxiety and hiding, I have made an effort to be very clear about my own vacation plans and have encouraged other senior staff to do the same. Part of this is about trust -- in our collaborative work environment, a large part of our success hinges on the dynamic nature of small group debates. Those debates can only happen in a culture of mutual respect and trust. The lack of transparency about when we are in the office undermines that mutual trust.

We have also begun to include a discussion of who will be absent over the coming two weeks, either for business travel or vacation, in the agenda for our only weekly staff meeting. This is a helpful summary of who will be available over these days, but it also puts subtle pressure on my coworkers to participate in the program.

It seems counterintuitive to make acknowledging a vacation a stressful event, but once we are all comfortable with accepting our own need for time off, I am sure the guilt will disappear. If people have to sheepishly admit that they were planning on being off later this week or next week, it's not as if they are coming clean about a coke addiction. It is just vacation -- and they deserve it.

Maybe if we complete a single quarter when all vacation days are posted in advance, I'll give the whole company an extra day off.

And order everyone to take it.