columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

Every time I have ever had a day off, whether it is a scheduled vacation day or a day I've had to call out sick, my boss calls and texts me with questions many, many times throughout the day.

It wouldn't be bothersome if his questions were ones that only I would know the answer to, but they are not. He will call and ask me about tasks completed, where he could just look in the log we keep in the office and see for himself. Often he will ask about something very minor (which he could still see for himself in this log) that I cannot even remember.

I've told him multiple times that I can't remember these things off the top of my head. And that since I'm not in the office to look myself, I don't know and couldn't tell him, and even where to look to find the info himself. All of this to no avail.

I've tried not answering texts and calls, but he just gets angry and calls and texts more, telling me it's extremely urgent.

I don't want to tell him flat out, "Please do not contact me when I am not in, unless it is a serious emergency." That feels out-of-line since he's my boss. I'm at a loss here. Do I just sit and deal with the calls and texts even though I'm off?

Green responds:

Your boss is totally out of line. And it's actually perfectly reasonable for you to hold firm about this--not necessarily that he can't contact you outside of work at all, but definitely that he can't expect you to respond when you're out sick or on vacation, unless that's something the two of you have negotiated ahead of time.

Before I go any further, I should note that all of the advice that follows is based on the assumption that you're not in a field where constant availability is part of the deal. There are fields like that, but I assume you would have mentioned if you were in one of them.

I'm going to recommend at least one thing, and possibly two things.

The thing you should definitely do is this: Starting now, whenever you take time off, state explicitly beforehand that you will not be available. For example:

  • "I wanted to remind you that I'll be on vacation tomorrow and Friday. I will not be somewhere with reliable phone service, so I won't be able to respond to calls or texts."
  • "I have the flu and will be out sick today. I'm hoping to sleep this off, so I won't be answering calls or texts."

Then if he tries to reach you anyway, you ignore those calls, as you told him you would. If he gets upset that he can't reach you, talk to him when you're back at work and say something like this: "I reminded you before I left that I wasn't going to be somewhere where I'd be reachable by phone or text. Is there something you'd like me to do differently when that's the case?"

If he's unreasonable enough to say, "Find a way to be reachable," then you say, "That won't always be possible with everywhere I might go when I'm on vacation and not working."

But if the conversation does go in this direction, then you need to do the second thing I'm about to suggest, too: Which is to have a big-picture conversation with him about his expectations for your role. That means sitting down with him and saying this: "You seemed frustrated when you haven't been able to reach me when I'm out sick or on vacation. I understand that in rare cases an emergency might come up that means you have to contact me. But in general, I'd like to know that when I'm taking time off, I'm able to fully disconnect and you'll understand if I'm sick or busy and can't respond."

If he pushes back, saying that everything he contacts you about is an emergency, or anything else ridiculous, then say this: "I really need to be able to take leave and have it be real leave: Days where I'm not expected to work. I know that you, of course, need to be able to keep your own work moving on those days, but my benefits package gives me X days off a year, and it's important for me to be able to use them. When I'm back in the office, I'll attend right away to anything that's come up. Based on what I've seen come up when I'm away, I think that should keep us in good shape. But if you need someone available for this work every single day of the year with no exceptions, then we need to train someone as a backup for me when I'm out. Should we figure out who would make sense for that, or would you rather try seeing how it goes, with the understanding that I won't always be available when I'm out?"

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