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Out of the Office, Out of a Job?

Out of the Office, Out of a Job?
In a stormy economic climate, workers sometimes worry that taking advantage of benefits that take them out of the office, such as telecommuting, flextime, parental leave or even vacation, will increase their odds of being laid off.   

While benefits that physically remove you from the office for long periods of time may hurt you, a week out of the office for a vacation probably won’t, experts say.

Could Vacation Put You on a Permanent Vacation?

The fear that you’ll be let go during your vacation may be common, but it’s not realistic, says Paul McDonald, Robert Half Management Resources executive director. “You never know and everything is uncertain when you’re in an economy like this, but generally, we find employers will do layoffs systematically and face-to-face,” he says. “It may be a surprise, but it usually isn’t done telephonically when you’re traveling the world.”

In tough times, taking an extended vacation may lead coworkers to question your commitment, says Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney at Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia. “A three-week vacation might not resonate well,” he says. “Take two weeks rather than four, or take long weekends rather than being away for an entire week.”

He also argues against the conventional wisdom that you should completely unplug from the office while on an extended vacation. “You should expect to be doing some work on vacation,” he says. “Not that you’re available 24/7, but you can help manage or move matters.”

Score points by staying in the office when everyone else is out, like at the end of August. “Frame your vacation in a way that’s helpful to your boss, by saying ‘I’ll take off at a different time, so I’m here when you’re not here,’” Segal says.

If your supervisor doesn’t vacation this year, should you? “If your reviews have been average and above average, your company is stable and your supervisor tells you to go, you should go,” McDonald says. “However, if you are still concerned, talk with your boss before you leave to make sure there won’t be any surprises.” If your reviews are solid, but your company is unstable, you may want to spend your vacation time on a job search and save the money you would have spent on a trip in case your employer goes under.

Increase Face Time to Decrease Layoff Risk

Telecommuting, parental leave and flextime also reduce the amount of time you spend in the office. Can using those benefits increase your chances of being cut? Probably, says Los Angeles career coach David Couper. “You need to be around and be seen, and if you’re not, that’s a problem,” he says.

Determining whether to telecommute depends more on the company culture than the economy, says Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston career-management consultancy. “If your company encourages it, it’s probably a nonissue, despite the recession,” she says. “If you are one of a few people that telecommute, now is probably a good time to head into the office and interact with your colleagues.”

If you are a telecommuter, communicate constantly. “Be available by instant message and stay locked in,” Couper says. “You don’t want people gossiping that they tried to call you and you weren’t there, or they emailed you and you didn’t respond for three hours. If they’re looking at cutting people, you’ll be seen as someone who doesn’t put the time in to help the company.”

Even a benefit as simple as flextime can work against you. If you start at 6 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m. and your boss works 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., he may see you leave at 4 p.m. and think you’re a slacker, even though you both work the same number of hours.

Be mindful of how you use other benefits, including travel to conferences and education reimbursement. “Even if those programs haven’t been frozen, people are frowning on them,” Couper says. He's heard stories of coworkers complaining when people leave the office to attend essential meetings. That's not surprising since so many people are working double-time to handle increased workloads brought on by layoffs.

FMLA Is No Shield

Using health-related time off may be legal, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to layoffs because you’re home with a new baby or a sick relative. The Family and Medical Leave Act spells out what employers must offer.

“If you’re let go because you took FMLA, that’s unlawful,” Segal says. “But the fact that you took FMLA doesn’t mean you’re immune to a layoff. If the layoff is based on overall commitment and two of four FMLA employees were found to have less overall commitment, then you might question it. But, if there are 20 people in a department and they let go the four most junior and two of them are FMLA, that’s going to be lawful.”

In a perfect world, great work should ensure employment, but it doesn’t always work that way, Varelas says. “It is more important than ever to build and maintain relationships within your company, and the best way to do that is through regular face-to-face interaction,” she says.

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