Sunday, June 28, 2009


A reader has a part-time, hourly job with a six-month contract that is due to expire within a month. Her contract calls for her to work 20 hours a week, but from the very start she has been clocking in from 32 hours to 38 hours a week.

Before committing to the job, she had told her boss that she planned to take a vacation _ her honeymoon, in fact _ a few weeks into the job. As the time for her honeymoon drew near, however, her boss asked her to move back the date of her vacation. She agreed, and rescheduled the trip for a few months later.

When the newly appointed time for her honeymoon rolled around, her boss again asked my reader to move it. Again she complied.

"Now," she writes, "I plan to take my honeymoon in four months, about three months after the end date of my current contract."

Even though her contract is soon to expire, however, her boss talks as if she will still be on the job in three months, despite the fact that no new contract has been signed or negotiated.

My reader is starting "to feel taken advantage of," she writes. "I figured that it would be legitimate for me to make vacation and other plans after the end date of the contract, since the company had no legal obligations to me. What sort of ethical obligations do I have to stay here and re-sign the contract and make my plans around this job?

"And what does this sort of behavior say about my boss's ethics?"

To answer the second question first, this boss is apparently someone who asks her employees, even her part-timers, to alter their plans to meet the needs of the company. There's nothing wrong with that. The boss's job is to see that the company's needs are met and if, as in this case, the employee agrees to adjust her plans, it's reasonable for the boss to assume that the adjustments are OK with her.

Nothing that my reader tells me suggests anything unethical about her boss's behavior. She may be demanding, self-interested and lacking in empathy for the personal needs of her employees, but that doesn't make her unethical.

Moving on to the first question, my reader has absolutely no obligation, ethical or otherwise, to continue with the company after her contract is up, let alone to rearrange her life plans accordingly. The whole point of a short-term contract is that neither party is bound beyond the short term.

That she even raises the question suggests that my reader's real problem is that she has trouble saying no to her boss. If it's the boss's job to see to the company's needs, it's the employee's job to see to her own needs.

Particularly in this case, when my reader had told her boss about her honeymoon plans even before signing the initial contract, there is no ethical constraint to prevent her from declining to make adjustments to her plans that go beyond the agreed-upon terms of her contract. When the boss asked if she could reschedule the first time, she should have said no.

Granted, some employees have a hard time viewing their boss's requests as mere requests. The power differential creates an intimidation factor, even if the boss has no intention of coming across that way.

Nonetheless, an employee shouldn't expect his or her boss to be a mind-reader or an advocate for employee rights. A request is a request and, particularly when the parameters of the relationship are laid out contractually, there's nothing wrong with respectfully declining requests that don't fit within an employee's outside plans.

The right thing for my reader to do is to be honest with her boss. She should call her attention to the fact that their contract is about the expire, and that her future employment there is not a given. If, as it seems, her boss still wants her services and if she still wants to work there, they should negotiate a new contract.

At that time she should make clear that she intends to take her twice-readjusted honeymoon as currently scheduled. And when the seemingly inevitable request for a postponement is made, she should respectfully decline to reschedule.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Bill Jacobson said...

On the hours issue, it is certainly NOT unethical for an employer to offer a part-time worker extra hours. Many workers in this economy wish they could be so lucky! Perhaps it reaches to unethical levels if she refuses the extra hours and he demands them - but that would be breach of the contract and lead to other remedies. If she hasn't refused the extra hours she has little to complain about.

The honeymoon issue is different though. Honeymoons are (hopefully) once in a lifetime events tied to bigger more expensive events - the weddings. It is wholly unreasonable to expect an employee to reschedule their honeymoon -not once but twice - in light of the sunk expenses involved.

It is curious to me that she was unwilling to stand up for herself earlier - assumedly on threat of losing the job-but seems very willing to abandon a continued contract now. If she wants to continue the job she should put her foot down when it comes to reup and make it clear that there will be no rescheduling a third time. On the extra hours, that would be her opportunity to speak up on hourly expectations as well.

Poor communication yields misunderstandings.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

One wonders about the third party involved here. Her husband,with whom she has a marriage contract.
Is he also expected to ask his employer to reaassign his duties for a third time?
I believe the wife's first consideration should be to her husband. If her employer still requires her services, then draw up another contract to become effective after the honeymoon.