When the implicit becomes explicit

What would it do to you, if you knew how few vacation days your boss takes?

When the implicit becomes explicit
Photo by Gift Habeshaw / Unsplash
This is a post in a series of Stories From My PhD. For background on this series, read the announcement post.

Reading my emails from when I started my PhD, I see that I was full of a different kind of energy. Naive energy, sure, but also unencumbered by how things “were supposed to happen” or the ‘just’ in the “just the way things are.”

I recently discovered an email that I received only two months into my PhD. Looking back on it, I understand it as part of a pattern, but hindsight is always better.

This email shared the Personal Time-Off (PTO) of every person in the department, how much PTO they had left in that year, and their birthdays. With names!

The intent was not problematic — people need to take their PTO and too many hadn’t. The employer was trying to ensure people took their time-off.[1]

However, the outcome of this email was not fine.[2]

First, sharing such detailed information is a violation of data privacy. Multiple layers of management approved this as okay to be sent out, while they could have easily caught this as a problem. I ended up having to be the one pointing it out to them when I received my colleagues' information. The spreadsheet included the exact amount of hours of PTO, including whether they took special leave. This was pre-GDPR days, but there were already data protection laws in place regardless. I got a personal apology because I pointed it out, but the rest? As far as I know they did not.

Second, sharing the PTO of the entire department made implicit work pressures explicit. One third of the department took too little PTO that year.[3] If I do a rough split into junior and senior,[4] there is a clear discrepancy: 25.7% of junior folk took too little PTO and 53.3% of senior folk. With more senior staff taking too little PTO than enough, they did not role-model all that well. As a cherry on top, both my supervisors took too little PTO as well that year.

One press of the “Send” button that I remember almost a decade later. I now know I am susceptible to overworking - back then I was not. I cannot dissect my entire life and attribute causal relations, but that also does not undo the responsibility of the university. If you ask me, knowing your boss takes too little PTO contributes to a work culture that promotes overwork more than it does to counter it.

We have meaningful impacts on each other’s meaningless lives, whether we want to or not. By doing so, we are granted the privilege of co-writing each other’s stories. This specific instance taught me a lot about being intentional with my actions, because despite never knowing what our effects are going to be, I do my best to not role-model throwing caution to the wind.

  1. More cynically, I would imagine it’s because the employer did not want to be put in the position of having to pay out remaining PTO, which they are legally obliged to do but tend to be reluctant about (because it’s expensive as fuck). ↩︎

  2. Yet another example of how good intent does not undo bad outcomes. ↩︎

  3. The entire department including student-assistants and retired professors too, so this is and underestimate. ↩︎

  4. Rough split because I categorized all permanent staff and anyone with a dr. as senior for these purposes, which is not the best definition, I know. ↩︎