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I want to go on vacation and not think about work at all but they want me to provide them a contact number in the event of an emergency (server goes down, web service malfunctions, etc). I am afraid that it will be abused (they will contact me before trying everything for example) but I also think that if I am on vacation I should not be bothered even if there is an outage. Does anyone have experience with situations like this? What's the tactful approach? Any creative solutions?

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I guess we are assuming here that there is not a procedure or requirement for this in place at the company you are working for? Is that Even that common anymore? This is something I thought the expectations for are usually handled in the interview process. –  Bill Dec 15 '10 at 20:51
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Where I work if you are DNA for a server then you are getting that call vacation or not. This is why we pay employee's a salary not an hourly rate. There is no clock just a yearly figure we compensate you for your time (time varies). Not saying I agree nor saying you should not enjoy your vacation but this is the nature of the beast. –  Chris Dec 15 '10 at 23:15
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@JohnL: It may depend on jurisdiction, but in Australia at least it works the other way: your "hourly rate" would be calculated from your yearly salary. That's why you don't get paid over time, etc. –  Dean Harding Dec 16 '10 at 0:30
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Holiday? Do people still have those? –  Orbling Dec 16 '10 at 0:36

17 Answers 17

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Hand them a phone number and a quadruple overtime rate.


The goal here is not to make lots of money, the goal is to discourage needless annoyance. You're available, but only if you really need me. The database crashed, the users are compromised, you're getting multiple DDOS waves, that's when you pick up a phone. Can't find the username for some non-critical system? Don't bother.

You have to draw a clear line on what is an emergency and what is not. Go over common cases and solutions prior to taking vacation. Make sure everyone is notified ahead of time so that they can run any critical systems / processes through you before you leave.

Vacation is time off. Make sure it stays that way.

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I second this but vacation rate should be quadruple overtime, not double. –  Jas Dec 15 '10 at 20:29
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If they can tell the difference between your phone number and your rate at first glance then yr doin' it wrong –  CAD bloke Dec 19 '10 at 6:13

'Emergency contact information'

  • Type 1 response: in each case, the contacts you are giving are well-trained to handle a particular type of emergency situation. An emergency response team should consist of various professionals.
    • Give the building hazmat emergency contact information.
    • Or, give your lawyer's contact information, in case you need to obtain a bail.
    • Train a deputy officer. You should pay at least 40% of your own salary to that officer.
  • Type 2 response: delegate emergency power to your boss.
    • A robust server should be able to solve every problem by restarting. To make it easier, someone should wire the restart to a panic button.
    • If it is too difficult to restart the server, try turn off and cycle the entire building's power.
    • Another panic button will automatically sign up a cloud service with your credit card info, and then migrate the server to the cloud. Bill your boss later.
  • Type 3 response: for mission-critical operations.
    • Insist on using Twitter for text-only communication.
    • Set up a secret code system, for example: hard disk down = 041
    • Meanwhile, bring a laptop with VPN and 3G worldwide roaming so that you can fix the problem remotely.
    • Hire a local driver who is also trained as a security guard.
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If you are really the only person who can fix their problem then they really need to rethink a lot of things. What if you quit? What if you died?

The should not need to call you.

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If you feel that it's your company then give your phone number and say when they can call you - what kind of problems you can solve on holidays an what not. If you feel that you just work for someone just give phone number, and turn it off. Because you need get better job.

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Why not define backup staff that takes over your part when you are on vacation? Then, announce that only the backup people are allowed to call you. This means everybody has to "mess around" with the resources they have before doing that annoying call.

Secondly, I think a phone is a horrible medium for things like that. Be lazy answering calls, but take 5 minutes every day to check and reply to emails, and you will see the quality of the requests skyrock immediately (because a written mail forces the sender to re-think the situation in order to specify it in written form, and because they see they get replies as time allows).

If you crash with your car, and are dead, nobody will reach you on the phone. That's why every organization should have backup staff members that can take over the job of other key players. It's not just the holiday question.

Note that many people running from vacation phone calls LOVE being important. They are not really annoyed, they love being sought after, and they often do their part to manifest this bug as a feature in their career. This is unsincere because when they say "don't call me, I am on vacation" they really say "I love being rare, and I improve that state all the time, because that enables me to be annoyed, and I love that too because it shows how important, and ruling I am!". Bah. The fact that it is rather easy to find backup people for 99% of even the most insane job's tasks underscores this...most "heroes" prefer to whine and run instead of building and living a backup solution.

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I used to be that guy... The one who the business absolutely needs to have access to, and I used to enjoy it.

But now, my response would be:
Give them the number for your insurance company. Since an emergency of the magnitude required to bother you on vacation, should probably require submitting a claim to the insurance company anway. And maybe a call to the official emergency services (fire/police/ambulance) as well.
Thats right, something better be burning or somebody died, before they interrupt your vacation.
Sombody's worried about the information only you have? They should prepare for that before you go on vacation. And make darn sure they show their appreciation - and start by not bugging you on vacation.

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Find a job where they will not abuse the emergency contact and let you relax on your holidays. If you are the only one person, who can help them, something is wrong.

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Give them a cellphone number, but tell them you might not be available over extended periods, because you don't know how good the coverage is at the place you are going to. Then switch it off whenever you don't want to be disturbed, but in case they called, call back several hours later, or the next day, or whenever you feel like it.

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My current role is very good about this sort of thing but at my last place I started deliberately going to places where I knew reception was bad. I highly recommend the Scottish Highlands for that and many other reasons... –  Jon Hopkins Dec 15 '10 at 21:17
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It happened twice too me that my cell phone failed exactly on christmas eve, and since I was in Poland with my family, I couldn't fix it until my return to Austria. Must be bad luck. –  user281377 Dec 15 '10 at 21:37
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@TheLQ: "helps" in what way? Failing phones a good thing when you're on holiday :-) –  Dean Harding Dec 16 '10 at 0:34
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I am going to have to start answering questions on this site just so I can downvote. Imaginary -1 for advocating dishonesty. –  Sparr Dec 16 '10 at 6:09
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Sparr: Being available during vacation is already a obligingness, being available 24/7 destroys the purpose of the vacation: recreation. Even if you promise certain response times ("will check voicemail every x hours"), you will find it more difficult to relax. Just don't do that. Because of this, "might not be available over extended periods" is perfectly honest. And I don't think you should be too honest about the reasons. Too much straightforwardness hurts everyone. –  user281377 Dec 16 '10 at 7:54
  • The concept of a Holiday is to NOT have to worry for that week your off!
    Though centuries ago vacations could last for months, in todays rushed up digital society vacations last only one or two weeks. Comon!!! Everything needs urgent fix. Yeah right! tell that to the hotel lady who is now massaging you and asking wether you prefer Mango or Cranberries baby!!

  • Only take the responsibility, if its your own private service/company, then i can image you bring your cellular phone with you. Otherwise let the owner/boss worry and take the risk of their own service!

  • Bon Voyage!

alt text

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@omeid, if you are on a HOLIDAY, relax like its your holiday -1 sorry –  Sam Dec 16 '10 at 10:21

Enough commiserating...

How fortunate you are that you are so vital to the continued success of your organization. They need your contact info because what you do might as well be black magic or voodoo to them, and they are totally afraid that if they can't get to you in the case of an emergency, that everything will come crashing down around their ears..

I won't lie, I originally got into this business solely for the money, and then realized how much I loved it. My first employer in systems realized how much I loved it, and exploited my work ethic for as long as they could. Until of course my quality of life became so bad, that I had to force myself to drive to work every day. Vacations? Bah! No one could take care of the system as well as I could myself! Needless to say, that didn't last very long.

This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but what has worked for me in the past is to train a backup. Depending on where you work, and the kind of people that you work with, that perfect vacation covering helper maybe right around the corner.

At one place where I was a sys admin for several years, I was usually working 10-12 hour days EVERY day because I didn't have backup helper. When I finally gave in and found someone, I was shocked that they were excited to do all of those mundane tasks that I didn't have time to automate. Every single one of those tasks that I thought 'why would anyone that is non-technical want to do this?', they took care of, and asked for more. You probably won't even have to give them any money for it, they will probably do it for the thrill of being needed. Or better yet, probably for just a referral for some other job they really want.

Start hinting around the office that you want to train someone to be able to help you out. A good place to start is usually the head administrative assistant, or an HR manager. Tell them that you want to try to help someone out and 'see if they can rise to the occasion', and that you want to make sure that if anything happens to you that there is a contingency in place. HR people and administrative assistants eat that stuff up, they might even have someone already in mind.

Good luck, your sanity isn't worth a paycheck. It's up to you to have the strength to create the work environment where you can take a vacation when you want, and not have to worry about getting called.

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I give them what they want.

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At my last job, I never had a single day off work (whether sick, or booked annual leave) without a phonecall to fix something.

You get sick of that.

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I say tough luck!

Your job might not be like the doctor, but even though you don't save lives, some things come attached with your career choice.

IMHO the most ethical thing to do (though I understand it's difficult in many cases) is give the whatever contact number they need, clarify VERY well what they can expect from you in a holiday (availability for a major outage etc), you must manage it carefully and politely but you can avoid any abuse by stating than you are on you vacations and this does not correspond.

I you do this, firm but gently, (normal) people get and won't bother again.

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You can also tell them that since you're on vacation you drank a fair amount of very good whisky and that they should not rely on your answers to fix any mission-critical systems. –  Christopher Mahan Dec 16 '10 at 3:28

IMO that depends (among many other things) on how much vacation you have per year. Living in Europe I have more than one month of vacation each year. If I was in the US, with, say, two weeks vacation per year, I'd be much less willing to be reachable in those two weeks.

What I usually do is to leave a mobile phone number, indicating that I might not be reachable, but will try to get back ASAP.
However, I'm not sure they're realizing that, if we were sharing a meal in front of the tent after a long day of hiking, I'd consider it impossible to get back right away. Likewise if I spent the day in the natural history museum with the kids.
Taking 10mins to log in per VPN from home and have a look at something to make a guess at what it would take to fix it is different.

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Good point on the holiday difference. I try to forget how impoverished the US minimum allocation is, feel sorry for anyone on that grind. –  Orbling Dec 16 '10 at 0:39

I am always willing to give my contact info to people at work. I trust my coworkers to not call me unless it is a truly important matter. And if it is a matter of that gravity I am willing to help. I have even taken time out of vacations to dial into important conference calls. But of course I had a beer in my hand when I did. :-)

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Well, I thought this is obvious, but here you go: I consider it wrong advice to take time out of vacation to dial into important work conference calls, so I down-voted. (This isn't SO. I'm not voting for getting the facts right here, but for dis-/agreeing with answers to subjective questions.) –  sbi Dec 16 '10 at 13:18

I have had a few scenarios where I'm on holiday and the boss has called to ask me how to do something on a project I've been working on.

In one case I was the build guy, something broke, and I was out at lunch with my girlfriend, and the boss called. My answer was that I was at lunch and, whatever it was, it could wait until I got back (I didn't actually ask what it was). Any issue can wait up to an hour.

In another case I was off sick for a week, and my boss (different boss) phoned and asked how to run a tool I was in charge of. It was obvious, and I told him that, but I told him how to do it anyway since it was 3 minutes of my time.

And another case a few years back, after about 10 minutes of trying to talk things through over the phone with no progress I said it would have to wait until I got back because there's no way I'm spending all my holiday time on the phone with my boss.

My advice is hand over your details, but if a call lasts more than 5 minutes say "look, is this likely to be resolved in the next 5 minutes? Because if not then I'm working and I want this day back in lieu". Likewise if they call too often. Make it clear that it's an emergency number. To be used in emergencies.

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In my experience, this does send the message that the calls aren't free, which is one of the misconceptions that can lead to the kind of abuse you're concerned about. Of course, sometimes the project is at a point where they will take that cost. If you're worried that the project is at that point, you can put a rough quota on it, and if they really do abuse it, you do have the option to put the phone down. Politely, of course - "sorry, this is cutting into my time with my family, I'm going to have to go". –  JohnL Dec 15 '10 at 21:26
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You have to be careful about this kind of attitude too. It can get you fired when you return. –  quickly_now Dec 19 '10 at 6:47
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This may be different in different territories, but in the UK if I was fired for that then I'd have a clear case for wrongful dismissal. –  JohnL Dec 19 '10 at 12:58

Back in the day we used to get "pager pay" if we were to be on call. You could try "clarifying" whether that's whether what they're offering. Then, assuming they just want you to offer to have your vacation interrupted for free, tell them you will check your voice mail (on your cell, at the hotel message centre, or at home) each night, or once a week, or whatever you feel like offering, and give them that number.

There are times it's handy to go on vacation into the wilderness (no cell signal) or to a country where your cell phone doesn't work.

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+1 also, in some places, being "on call" is considered legally equivalent to being at work. –  Larry Coleman Dec 15 '10 at 19:30
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I recall an incident when the network engineer was on vacation (2000-2001) and management came screeaming asking how to get a hold of him "right now". I replied that he was attending burning man in the desert, and that short of sending someone there to look inside all the hippie tents, it was impossible to get a hold of him. –  Christopher Mahan Dec 16 '10 at 3:25
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@Christopher, as if I needed another reason to avoid Burning Man, now I'll associate it with a bunch of half-naked network engineers. I still can't decide if that's more ironic than bank executives on Harleys. –  JustinStolle Dec 16 '10 at 8:43

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