What to do when the boss suddenly cancels your vacation
By Elaine Varelas
Globe Correspondent

Q: I work part time in retail with no benefits. I requested a “not available to work’’ week a month in advance. Management then told me the week before my days off that I’d have to cancel my plans because the store blocked any time off requests for that week. I was surprised they could do that without any notice to employees. Is it right for them to do that? Is it legal?

A: It’s disappointing to learn that your employer doesn’t want you to take time off when you made your plans in advance, requested days off through the appropriate process, and assumed everything would be fine because you had not heard otherwise. But organizations do need to prepare for big events that will affect their business and have to staff accordingly — for example, a sports bar might need more servers when a local team makes the playoffs and it expects business to surge on game days.

Kristin McGurn, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP with expertise in labor and employment, explains: “Many Massachusetts retailers impose black-out periods during which employees are instructed not to schedule vacation — for example, because customer traffic is expected to be heavy during certain seasons.’’ McGurn says this is legal, but these policies “need to be clearly communicated and consistently applied.’’ She says if you scheduled your vacation outside of a clearly communicated blackout period, it is less common for retailers to cancel scheduled vacations on short notice.

What isn’t clear here is whether the blackout period was previously communicated and whether your time off was actually approved. Either way, whenever there is a disagreement between an employee and management, don’t immediately jump to issues of legality. Instead, see whether the situation can be worked out through a conversation with your manager. The company’s “management’’ is a different entity than your individual manager. Discussing the situation with your manager should be the first thing you do — but don’t attach blame in the conversation. For example, say something like this: “I see that time off requests for next week are being blocked. Over a month ago, I submitted a request for time off for that week for personal commitments that I need to honor, but I don’t want to put my job in jeopardy. What are our alternatives?’’ The hope here is that your manager — understanding that this is a part-time job and that you followed the correct process for requesting time off — will allow your vacation to stand. But it’s also possible that he or she will maintain the blackout.

Management might also be evaluating the perceived importance of your plans, which presents a challenge. Others might think, “You can go to a cookout next weekend or take your mother shopping after work hours,’’ but no one can tell you how important your plans are to you. And while you aren’t required to tell management what you’re doing on days off, if you’re trying to convey how important these vacation days are, you might consider revealing your plans to explain why you don’t have flexibility.

If you can change your plans, another option is to ask the company to compensate you for any money you might lose by rescheduling. Typically, if management asks you to cancel time off, they will reimburse you for expenses you have already incurred. McGurn explains that some employers might fully or partially cover “unexpectedly forfeited vacation expenses as a means to manage employee morale, since you are on the front lines with their customers.’’

If your first two options don’t work out and you simply aren’t happy with the company’s management style, you might make the decision to leave the organization, which is understandable. But talking to your manager is the place to start — you might just find a compromise.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston, and serves on the board of Career Partners International.