QMore than two years ago, I began planning a trip to see the World Cup in South Africa. I cleared the trip with all the appropriate supervisors at my firm a little more than a year ago. I had planned on taking off two weeks (because you don’t fly all the way to Africa just to watch a soccer game and go home). I had a safari and some other side trips planned after the match. I know it’s a lot of time to take off, which is why I gave the firm so much notice, but it’s a big firm, so it shouldn’t have been too hard to find someone to cover for me while I was away. I’m sure you can guess where this is going.
A week ago, I was told I would have to cancel my trip because some work had come up. But, not just any work—work for a department I’m not a part of. I work on the corporate side, so things have been a bit slow, but litigation is fairly busy, and they wanted a “corporate perspective” on one of their matters. I tried explaining that I had been approved to take the time off and there were at least a dozen other people with enough free time who the litigation department could use. No dice. Apparently I’m the only man for the job. (I’d be flattered if I wasn’t so pissed off.)
And it gets worse. I was initially told I’d be compensated for my vacation costs that I couldn’t get refunded. But, the HR department had a different story. According to some pencil-pushing shrew, it is law firm policy that employees must purchase only fully refundable airline tickets, so basically, I wasn’t going to be compensated for my airfare. If you’ve ever bought fully refundable tickets, you know they’re a whole lot more expensive than regular seats, and when you have approval for your trip a year in advance, you don’t think you need them.
A junior partner who I work with a lot heard what was going on and offered to help me get compensated, and it’s a nice gesture, but he’s a service partner. How much pull can someone have if they still have to bill 3500 hours a year? In a better economy I would just quit. In fact, before all the finance jobs disappeared I had been planning to make the jump into banking. It doesn’t look like I’d be able to find another job for a while if I quit, but it doesn’t really feel right letting my firm steamroll right over me. Is there anything I can do other than just accept my sad fate?
Oh, and just to add insult to injury, the partner who ruined my World Cup trip explained that the deadline on the project was set in stone, couldn’t be moved, because after that date he’d be on his way to the Shanghai World Expo. Please tell me there’s an option other than just sucking it up.
AThis might surprise you, but you have two avenues for recourse. The first is promissory estoppel. The firm made you a promise that you would be able to take time off to go on this trip, and you reasonably relied on that promise in incurring travel expenses, and now the firm has broken its promise. You’re entitled to be compensated not just for the costs of the trip, but the actual value of seeing the World Cup live. It’s a pretty open and shut case, and even a rookie litigator could win this one.
Your second claim is going to be a bit more tricky. Even though it may seem un-American, you actually have a legal right to your vacation time. Paid vacation is earned compensation just as much as your salary. The firm can no more deny you your vacation than it can decide to withhold your paycheck. You may need to make a good faith effort to use your vacation days later on in the year, but if the firm keeps insisting you stay in the office and your vacation days expire, you can sue and get compensated for them.
These are both entirely valid claims, except for one minor detail: this isn’t a first year contracts class, it’s the real world. So, yeah, you’re pretty much screwed and have absolutely zero recourse. Really, the only thing you could do in retaliation is jump ship. But, as you’re aware, there’s not yet another ship to jump on to. Take the money that was once your vacation fund and start building a permanent vacation fund. Polish up your resume, and start contacting head hunters. The finance market is starting to recover, and jobs will be coming back. Maybe not right away, but within a year you might have a real shot at leaving.
The trouble is, if you’re like most people, you’ll stay angry for a few weeks, maybe even a few months, but eventually that anger will subside and you’ll go back to accepting the day to day drudgery of law, as if that’s the way things are supposed to be. Find a way to constantly remind yourself that you want out. Get a World Cup postcard and pin it to a bulletin board in your office. It will take a long time to find a new job, but if you can keep yourself motivated and actively looking, you will eventually find something. Keep some money in the bank so you can afford a pay cut if necessary, but most importantly, stay angry.