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November 08, 2009

"Getting to Yes"

This week and next I'll be in New England for five days. The goal: attend a conference in my field, see friends and colleagues, and, most importantly, inhale the true autumn air.

But to get to that point, I first had to get the green light from my supervisor here. (I'm working part time these days.)

My strategy for getting to yes: make it very, very hard for her to say no.

I offered to get things done ahead of schedule and be available remotely for last minute/urgent problems. I explained that this was critical for my professional development. And I gave her a chance to let me know what she'd need from me, if I were to be gone for a few days.

I made it so easy for her to say yes that if she said no, that would not be the kind of place I'd want to work anymore. In which case I would quit. (Please note that I'm not being cavalier -- I value this job, but my first priority right now is to be a grad student and to consider my career post graduation; so any job that would stop my academic or professional progress would have "quit" written all over it. In obnoxious fuschia, no less.)

Lo and behold, she said yes.

Asking for time off from work is no big deal, right? Millions of people do it every day, around the globe. Unless they're French or Italian, in which that time off arrives on their doorstep every year wrapped in a big silver bow and sprinkled with lavender scented cocoa powder. Because those happy f*ckers really know how to legislate vacation time.

In any case.

For me, this asking was significant because it contrasts dramatically an experience I had in 2007. I was interning at Big Powerful Corporation, living by my lonesome in Boston. Mr. A had moved to California at that point, to the same city where my family lives (i.e. San Diego).

So it made sense to spend Thanksgiving with them.

I inquired if I could have the Friday after Thanksgiving off, so I could travel to be with my family.

My boss said no.

Not only did he say no. He made me understand that I was being impertinent for assuming someone else could be on call that day, in case there was work to be done, when I was the newbie. He berated me for being selfish and clueless. I continue to understand that reasoning; after all, it was a very hierarchical organization, and it's the kind of business where you can't fall asleep at the wheel or just shut down for a day. On the other hand, there were alternatives -- the most reasonable being that I would work remotely that Friday. And I disagree with his method of declining my request.

Well, La Roxy of 2007 just nodded and sat back down at her desk.

And then she moaned about it in a long phone call to Mr. A.

He ended up coming to visit instead.

Happy ending?

Doubly so.

We had a charming holiday. And I learned a few things about asking in the corporate world. If you're going to request an exception or exemption like unscheduled time off, make it easy for the other party to say yes. Never accept a judgment from on high without at least trying to make a case. And unless you have mouths to feed or your livelihood depends on it (which, I realize, is the vast majority of cases out there), value your spine more than a potential rec letter...
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