unlimited vacation policies may not be as great as they sound

What if your employer told you that you could take all the paid vacation time you wanted?

It might sound like a dream, but it’s becoming reality for some workers, with big industry giants like Netflix and LinkedIn switching from traditional policies with a limited number of annual days off to unlimited vacation time. Instead of getting a specific number of paid days off each year, under these policies employees are told they can take off as much time as they want to, as long as their work gets done. Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want an unlimited number of paid days off?

As it turns out, though, these polices aren’t always as fantastic in practice as they sound in theory. In fact, sometimes they even result in people taking less vacation time than they were taking before their company made the switch.

When people aren’t given clear guidance about how much time off is okay to take (the traditional “you get X days off per year” that most of us are used to), many workers feel uncertain about how much time is really okay. As a result, some end up taking less time off than they used to, because they don’t want to be perceived as lazy or as taking advantage of the policy. It can feel easier to use vacation days when you have a specific number of them allotted to you. It can be harder when it’s left entirely up to your own judgment, and you may feel you need to justify the time in a way that you wouldn’t if you had a clear allowance given to you.

Then, factor in that many jobs never have slow periods, so it can feel that there’s never a good time to get away, and you start to see why many workers have ended up disillusioned by unlimited vacation time. In fact, last year Kickstarter ended its unlimited vacation policy, after finding that employees were taking less time off than they had under the previous policy that had provided a fixed number of days.

Additionally, if it’s not carefully managed, unlimited vacation can produce demoralizing inequities on staff. Conscientious employees aren’t likely to take advantage of their access to unlimited time off, but less-motivated employees – the slackers who already aren’t pulling their weight – can be far more inclined to take off as much time as they can get away with, leaving their harder-working colleagues to pick up the slack.

There’s another downside, too: Unlimited vacation policies usually mean an end to vacation payouts when you leave your job. Companies that provide set numbers of vacation days each year will often pay out any accrued, unused vacation time when an employee leaves (in some states, companies are required by law to do this). But guess what happens with an unlimited vacation policy where there’s no set amount of vacation awarded? You don’t accrue vacation time, and thus there’s nothing to pay out when you leave. That’s good for your company because it wipes away the financial liability they would otherwise be carrying, but you might not be too happy about it.

But even with all of these disadvantages, none of this means that unlimited vacation policies aren’t the way to go. To the contrary, when carefully managed, they can be an enormously appealing benefit that helps to attract and retain great employees. The key, though, is that employers who want to try out unlimited vacation need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how they implement it. They need to communicate clearly with employees and managers about how the policy should work in practice, be explicit about how people can judge when time off is appropriate to take, and ensure that people don’t feel penalized for using the benefit responsibly. They also need managers who are committed to ensuring that employees take real time off, and who are committed to addressing it when someone is abusing the policy, too.

Treating people like responsible professionals who can manage their own workloads is a good thing. It just takes good, competent, involved management – which happens to be the case with most things at work.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 96 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick

    I don’t trust unlimited vacation. I was at a job that offered it once and my boss made it clear to me he wasn’t going to approve as much time off as I’d had at my previous job. I hated my previous job, so I went in with my eyes open, but I’d still rather have a generous and defined amount of leave.

    What happened: We would get conflicting messages, like “great unlimited vacation policy!” followed by “temps should not be covering for people on vacation!” (Translation: Don’t take vacation if it’s busy enough that someone would actually have to be hired to cover for you. Given the unpredictability of advertising and the fact that trips have to, you know, be booked in advance, I ignored the second statement.)

    I’m sure the reason so many Silicon Valley companies are switching to this policy is that California law requiring payout of unused vacation time. I don’t blame them, but I also wouldn’t want to work for another “unlimited leave” company, all other things being equal.

    1. Ann Cognito

      I think it can work if it’s a supportive culture. But I agree with you. So far, I think most experiences have been more unfavorable. I’m in CA, and I’ve heard of Silicon Valley companies who’ve instituted unlimited vacation time policies, but employees don’t ever take anything beyond a long weekend as it’s frowned upon and everyone is watching to see what everyone else is doing (in terms of time off). But my brother recently started a new job and loves this policy. From what he’s said, it seems like it’s a great culture and really supported there.

      But I recently read an article that said that unlimited vacation policies could violate CA law in a number of ways, including the lack of accrued vacation payout when an employee leaves their job, and that it’s a policy that could soon be challenged in CA. I’ll post a link to the article below. It was interesting reading.

      1. Kate M

        But even if it tries to be a supportive culture, it still sets up a culture of uncertainty. Let’s be real – there’s no such thing as “unlimited” vacation. Even at the best workplaces, it would probably be a problem if you took 8 months off at a time. So they obviously have an idea of what an appropriate amount of time to take off is – but they just don’t communicate that to you.

        Your boss might think that 15 days is very generous, but you might have come from a place where you got 20 vacation days. Then, even if you aren’t abusing the policy, it might seem like that to your boss. You might see the unlimited policy and think – great, I’ll be able to take 22 days this year based on how my travel is looking. Then it seems like you’re taking more than a week more off than your boss thinks is acceptable.

        And that can vary by person. It seems so much easier to just have a generous vacation policy in the first place, say how many days you can take, but also not penalize people if things come up and they end up a couple of days over their allotted vacation.

        1. Sans

          And another problem is that it might not be a problem if someone who has been there for 5 or 10 years takes 20-25 days off. But although it’s technically not prohibited, it might not be so good for a person in their first or second year to do that.

        2. Bwmn

          I also think that because so much of this is perception based is that there will be people who take off the “right” days in the right way vs. people who take off the “wrong” days in the wrong way.

          I’m not talking about black out periods or industries with predictable peak busy periods – but rather encouraging taking off dead time days vs. days that may be most preferable to an employee. For one of the many businesses/departments where the time between Christmas is typically dead – giving a huge number of employees those (on average) 5 days off is easy. However, if you aren’t Christian and/or don’t engage in much celebration/holiday activity – then while having the days off may be pleasant – it would be preferable to take off the week after New Years when travel costs are greater.

          Additionally, if someone’s taking off numerous long weekends – that may not register very much, whereas an employee with family overseas who wants to take off 2/3 weeks once a year – that is perceived differently. As someone who used to be in the camp of needing to take all my vacation time once a year to visit family overseas, it was comforting to know that it was a concrete benefit, because while everyone was sensitive to my realities, it was not the norm in how to take vacation.

        3. Ann Cognito

          Oh, I agree with you. Even though I think it can probably work ok in the correct culture, I don’t want to work for one of those places. I’ve actually asked myself if I would turn down an otherwise good job offer if there was an unlimited vacation policy; in addition to the loss of accrued vacation payout if you leave your job, for CA employees at least, there’s also everything you say about trying to figure out what’s ok and what’s not. I’d much rather have a generous policy (I currently have 22 vacation days).

        4. TrainerGirl

          I’m very lucky…my company has an unlimited leave policy, and since my manager and many of my teammates are in countries where it’s common to take far more leave than we do in the US, my manager actually encouraged me to schedule more leave than I had. They want to make sure that the US employees aren’t getting shortchanged since everyone else takes approximately 4 weeks/year.

          1. Not Yet Looking

            Only 4 weeks? *grin* My current (US) company is in a quandry, because my previous company was acquired last year with the assurance that we were all keeping our vacation benefits, and now they’re trying to figure out how to wiggle out of giving us all our 4-6 weeks/year.

            It would be hilarious to watch from the outside, but it is so frustrating from the inside watching how the new company tries to nickel-and-dime things away from us. I cope by reminding myself that even if I get knocked back down to 4 weeks, it’s still better than most US employers give.

    2. neverjaunty

      California laws about vacation time are entirely the reason for switching to ‘unlimited vacation’. The pressure on employees to take fewer vacation days is a side benefit.

    3. HeeHaw

      Agree. It just sounds like a gimmick to me. If the intent of it is truly to attract and retain high-quality employees then why not just offer more PTO time than the average for the industry/job level/geographic area?
      I’m sure there are a few work cultures out there that can make this a success. I’d wager that those organizations are few and far between. I’d also bet that it is mostly (only?) successful in organizations where employees already enjoy a very high degree of autonomy and flexibility in their daily jobs. I don’t see this working well, or being implemented fairly by line managers, in organizations where there is a long-standing emphasis on maintaining a high butt-to-seat ratio.

    4. Josh S

      Wouldn’t a really easy solution to this be to have a policy like the following:
      “Our company provides unlimited paid time off. We anticipate that you will use 2-4 weeks total, and encourage you to take a full week off sometime during the year. Please talk with your manager to make sure your work responsibilities are covered while you are gone.”

      You have unlimited. We expect you to take at least X days off. We know your work won’t ever be “done”, so make sure you’re covered.

      Doesn’t this cover about 90% of the downsides? (Now, the slacker problem remains, but that’s an issue for a manager to deal with!)

  2. sparklealways

    Our company just switched to this and for me personally, it has been great. That being said, I have an awesome manager and a great department where people don’t have jealousy issues over who takes how much vacation. I know of some other departments where this hasn’t been working as well.

    1. Teapot Project Coordinator

      How much vacation have you taken/will you take this year?
      I’ve always wondered how much people actually use in an unlimited vacation company

      1. sparklealways

        I’ve probably taken about 5 days so far. I’ve got a two week trip planned for the fall, so that will be another 10 days.

        For the holidays, I have to travel to see my family and I try to make it back home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I plan my time off depending on how much flights are and what days are the cheapest. I imagine that will be another 4 or 5 days.

      2. sometimes.

        My company went unlimited in Jan. This year I took off a “PTO” day to close on my house (worked all afternoon at home), a “PTO” recovery day after pulling a long weekend of round the clock work for a massive project (worked all afternoon at home), 2 “PTO” days to move (worked both evenings), a PTO day for my birthday (no quotes around PTO – I refused to check email on my bday or work at home so it was a true day off), and a “PTO” day for a funeral where I worked all afternoon. So basically I’ve had one full day off and days where I took a couple hours off. And it’s 6/6, so we’re more than halfway through the year. I recently realized I was completely failing at unlimited time off! I have a trip this week and because we’re low on coverage, I’m only taking 2 unplugged days off and working from my VACATION on the other 2.

        I have surgery planned for August and will be taking a full week off, but I imagine I’ll be working at home by day 3.

        I didn’t want this year to be a total bust, so I’m trying to plan a 2 week trip for this fall. I’m waiting to get it approved, it’s still iffy. I thought I’d love this unlimited model but honestly it just makes me feel guilty about asking for too much, or feeling like I have to work on my days off. And then I feel even more guilty for letting work rule my life. I need to recharge! I find myself wishing for some sort of ailment to keep me out of work for a week or two so I can come back feeling refreshed – that’s never a good sign.

      3. TrainerGirl

        I’ve taken about 6 days so far, and I don’t have a trip planned for the summer, so I’m taking days before/after each holiday and I will probably take at least a week for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I prefer long weekends and days out of the blue so I plan to increase my days off that way. I’ve been at the company for almost 2 years, so my manager has encouraged me to take as much time as the rest of the team. That’s quite a change from previous jobs.

  3. Kyrielle

    The company I’m at now has this – I was a bit unsure when I switched over, but I had the advantage that they’d switched recently and I knew how many vacation days were normal under the previous plan. So I used that as a baseline for my idea of normal, and so far it has worked. Without that, I would be playing “guess from the culture” and be very nervous about it.

  4. Noah

    Where I work now we have unlimited PTO for managers and above. It works out well for me because my boss encourages us to take time off, both vacations and days as needed. However, I have heard others complain that their bosses are not as good and treat a week long vacation as a big inconvenience.

    From my understanding, in my company this came about because some departments were making people take PTO for half days off, some for full days, and some didn’t care as long as you had about 40 hours in a week and your work was getting done. The mandate from the CEO was that we move towards focusing on performance and results instead of butt in chair time, and this was part of that effort.

    I have employees with unlimited PTO reporting to me. It works out fine. We have a shared, department PTO calendar that everyone uses. PTO still has to be approved by your boss, but it is just as simple as sending an email asking for the day, week, whatever off. Unless my entire group asks for the same time off I cannot imagine refusing it. We also have a work from home and flex time policy, and this way I don’t have to really care about if they are really working at home or taking a PTO day in disguise. If their work gets done then that is all that matters.

    1. Anon676

      This is excellent. I wish more employers were concerned with performance and results vs time in the office. I usually spend almost half my day doing absolutely nothing because I’m finished with my work before noon, there’s additional work I can take on (not because I’m unable, but because it’s just not there) and can’t leave for another 4 hours.

  5. The IT Manager

    I agree with this so much. I am aware I am burned out, and I want to take a long vacation, but I feel like I can’t really do that because I don’t have anyone to actually fill in form me while I am gone and a very unpredictable slow period. But my agency does have a “use or lose” policy and both my chain of command, my immediate boss, and I will make sure I take enough vacation so that I don’t lose any.

    I can see how how an unlimited vacation policy without that signal that I might lose leave could lead people/me to take less vacation than they want.

    1. Joseph

      This is exactly the issue. Far too many employees only schedule vacations due to the “use it or lose it” policy and/or seeing in their pay stub every two weeks that they’ve accumulated 27 days of vacation and deciding “time to use it”. So when you go to unlimited PTO, people don’t have that external force pushing them to take time off.

      Theoretically, a good manager should be keeping up on that stuff and pushing employees to make sure they do take PTO every now and then (after all, it’s in their best interest for you to be happy rather than burned out), but very few are sufficiently on-the-ball to keep track of that.

  6. Ruth

    We have up to 6 months sick leave, although you need doctors note for more than 4 days… I’ve heard a few people take ridiculous advantage–the point is to support surgeries and short-term disability–but for me it’s been a little tricky because when I feel gross I think “well, I COULD take a sick day?” But I never know if I really want to or not. I finally set myself the industry norm for library faculty. If I get really sick I won’t count that, but otherwise it helps me not get anxious about it. I think I’d have to do the same with unlimited vacation.

    1. Seal

      At my former job, librarians had unlimited sick leave; staff members had a limited number of sick days that never expired (e.g. they weren’t use it or lose it like vacation days were). My librarian boss at the time was a hypochondriac who took at least a day a week off for years for a wide variety of illnesses real and imagined. Despite the fact he was FT I don’t think he worked a 40 hour week in the entire 5 years I worked for him. After I left they reorganized and his new boss finally called him on abusing the sick leave policy; in fact, I believe they modified it because of him.

  7. Christina

    I know you’ve talked here about the downsides of unlimited vacation here before, but the timing on this is really interesting for me. I’m considering a job with a small non-profit that, in addition to work-from-home and flexible hours (and ability to flex hours, as in work more than 40 one week, work a little less the next), also has unlimited vacation. I’ve talked with the woman who is in the position I’m considering, and she loves it–in one instance, she was able to travel to Europe for 2 weeks for an incredible opportunity to pursue something she’s passionate about.

    I’m coming from an org that definitely has set vacation time, so this would be a huge adjustment for me. Personally, if it was something I ended up doing, I’d track just for myself how many days I took off, at least for the first year to get an idea.

    1. sam

      But a 2 week vacation doesn’t require unlimited vacation policies. It just requires a rational vacation policy with a reasonable manager. My company has “limited” vacation (I get 20 days plus can roll over 5) and I’ve taken at least one 2-week vacation every year since I started. I make sure to schedule it during a time of year that is slow for us, and to plan way in advance, but it’s something I insist on.

      And I did this back when I was working in the hellscape of biglaw as well. if you do it right, it can actually be a lot easier on everyone and coverage to plan one or two longer vacations a year than to try to plan a lot of smaller trips.

      unlimited vacation can totally work if you’ve got a good manager, but I 100% believe it’s a plot to (a) get out of paying for accrued but unused vacation time and (b) overall get people to take less vacation, because people in this country just do not take enough time off unless they’re basically forced to – and even then, like half of us lose vacation benefits we’re entitled to (studies have been done on this!).

      1. Dan

        +1

        I’ve always had “limited” vacation plans, and have taken 4-5 week trips (all at once) to Asia and Europe and what not every year for the last seven years.

        1. overeducated

          That sounds lovely but industry and career stage dependent. I interviewed at a number of organizations this past year that only gave 10-13 days total vacation for the first few years with them. Technically a 2 week trip would be possible, but not until you’d gone a full year without using a vacation day, and then blew it all at once….

      2. Christina

        This is true, and reading it back, I’ve taken 2-week long vacations at my current job with a few months notice, so I’m not sure why that stuck out in mind as something exceptional.

        1. sam

          Because we live in a workaholic culture where it’s considered “stoic” and “dedicated” to live at our jobs instead of, you know, completely unhealthy?

          And I say this as someone who works too much, in a career that lends itself to that lifestyle. But these days I make a point of, at a minimum, not “losing” PTO, which is why I appreciate having PTO that I can actually calculate. My boss is also a bit of a workaholic, to the point where he actually kind of burnt out for a little bit (and he’s a bit younger and more recently from a high pressure law firm than I am). At one point, when I was genuinely encouraging him to take a vacation, I said to him…”I used to be like that – working 24/7, completely dedicating my life to the firm. I gave up entire years of my life to that company, working overseas, never seeing my family or friends, and, of course, ‘losing’ vacation time in the process because I was just ‘too busy’ to schedule time off. You know what all that loyalty and dedication got me? It got me laid off in the second round of layoffs and 6 months of severance instead of the ‘standard’ 3, followed by two years of unemployment during the financial crisis when the firm collapsed.” (He totally agrees with me in theory)

          So now, I still sometimes work crazy hours, but I’m damn sure taking all of my PTO (or at least not ‘losing’ any – I usually end up rolling over a few days, but it’s always under the cap).

      3. Another Anon

        Agreed.
        I worked for a company with an unlimited leave policy that was up to a person’s manager to decide whether or not to approve the leave request. That ended up meaning that some people got TONS of time off, and other got barely anything approved.

        Guess which camp I got? My manager highly discouraged me from even submitting a leave request. And her manager supported her in her decisions. I worked at that company for 2 years and took a total of 6 days off, over the entire period. It was HELL. Frankly, I’ll never work for another company with an unlimited policy ever again. It’s too subjective and too easy to abuse (on both sides- employee and employer).

  8. Anonymous for this

    I just got a job offer and the company offers this. I asked how many days people take on average and the answer was 10-20. Vacation time doesn’t accrue, so you have it right away and are never in the red, but also yes, no payouts. 10 days? Not exciting. I’d be okay with 15-20 though, because it’s better than my current job.

  9. LeRainDrop

    I HATE my firm’s unlimited vacation policy for attorneys. Many years this has led to extremely little (if any) vacation being taken by employees who are conscientious and/or who work for at least one partner who will not tolerate days off when there is work to be done (and there is ALWAYS work to be done). Like Alison pointed out, the success of a policy like this requires managers who are committed to ensuring that employees take real time off. Unfortunately, there usually seems to be at least one manager who will not genuinely support the time off or will use it against you down the line. I can’t count how many times at year-end I have heard a partner complaining when an associate just missed her billable hours, “Well, she took a vacation this year. She shouldn’t have…”

    1. neverjaunty

      Right. Or how it affects you when the managers are doing employee reviews. “Well, Jane got in 2000 hours this year and finished all her projects, but she also took two weeks vacation. She could have done more work if she’d been more conscientious, like Fergus, who only took one long weekend.”

      1. LeRainDrop

        Yes! Most attorneys make their billable hours, but there are still the comments about how so-and-so *could* have worked more, if only she were more committed to her career than to vacation. Ugh!

    2. Another Anon

      +1
      Exactly. There’s always going to be at least one manager who approves less time or holds it against people.

  10. MechE31

    A company I used to work for just implemented this. I’ve had many conversations with my network who still work there about this topic.

    The biggest thing is the uncertainty. No one knows what is acceptable. The only person that had any real insight was a first level manager. He made it clear that it was expected that you would take a “normal” amount of time but it was not to be abused.

    The company is not known for it’s employee focus and it was looked at as a cost cutting move. The company had an unlimited sick leave for many years and it was widely known that if you took over 60 hours a year, you were getting thrown to the wolves.

    1. baseballfan

      “The biggest thing is the uncertainty. No one knows what is acceptable. The only person that had any real insight was a first level manager. He made it clear that it was expected that you would take a “normal” amount of time but it was not to be abused.”

      This is my concern. It’s impossible to know what is really the right amount. I would either be fearing I was taking too much or resentful that I wasn’t able to take enough.

      I like knowing exactly what I am entitled to and what the company is obligated to give me.

  11. Brett

    So, are these companies with unlimited vacation giving paid leave for up to the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave?

    1. sparklealways

      I don’t know how FMLA works, but I think we have a maximum of 3 consecutive months. I’m guessing that is to accommodate FMLA, but it is complete speculation on my part.

    2. AdAgencyChick

      Not at my old job. They’d give you disability for pregnancy, but we were explicitly told that unlimited vacation did not mean paid medical leave.

      1. AFT123

        This was my question too. I’m hoarding my accrual PTO right now to lessen the blow for the 5ish weeks I won’t be getting paid. Even with my company’s fairly stingy PTO policy, I’ll still be able to rely on about 1.5 weeks of that time being paid out with my vacation time. It would be so hard not to be able to count on any PTO pay to cover that gap. Double-edge sword though… for this entire year until I go on leave, I’m hoping to have taken 0 PTO hours in an effort to save them all up, and when I come back to work, I’ll be coming back to a PTO bank with 0 hours.

    3. Retail HR Guy

      Wouldn’t they be required to? FMLA says that employees can always use vacation or sick days if available.

    4. k8page

      At my company, unlimited vacation did mean full pay for the duration of a disability leave until we had an employee go out for 9 months. Once the senior staff saw the cost of paying out that employee, they re-wrote the policy saying that vacation is unlimited but no one can take more than 4 weeks at a time. Now, employees are paid for 4 weeks per leave of absence (we have good std and ltd policies, so there is always some income for disabled employees even after those 4 weeks are used up).

      1. sam

        But shouldn’t this have failed the other prong of most of these tests, the “so long as your work gets done” part? If you’re out for 9 months on disability, that’s a policy that either wasn’t written right or isn’t being implemented correctly.

        1. k8page

          You’re exactly right! It was a policy that had been written poorly and did not include any limitations, so no mention of “so long as your work gets done.” Implemented as written, it got very expensive to continue paying employees who were unable to work. The recent re-write addresses the issue and clarifies the boundaries of the plan.

  12. kristinyc

    I had “unlimited” vacation at two different startups, with a “get your work done and take the time you need” policy. Of course, there was always work to be done, and I almost never got to take the time I needed. Now I’m at a nonprofit that has 5 weeks.

    Also – a colleague of mine works somewhere with “unlimited” vacation (but no maternity leave…) and asked how that would work. They told her she could take 2 weeks for maternity leave and call it vacation. Yeah, “unlimited.”

    1. Snork Maiden

      Hmm, usually you’re forced to argue maternity leave *isn’t* just a vacation…

  13. Ad Astra

    Unlimited PTO seems like a godsend for women who have babies early in the year, though. Otherwise, you end up using all your sick days and vacation days on maternity leave and return in, say, March or April with nothing to get you through the year.

    1. just a thought

      I’m presently living this scenario myself. Had a baby late last year, returned early this year. Vacation is front loaded here so now I get to wait until 2017 to take PTO. At least I have some sick days,.

  14. Aunt Vixen

    I’m more of a fan of removing limits on sick days. (Original typo: suck days. Also accurate.) I think it would be great if I accrued more vacation than I do, but I don’t mind budgeting planned free time and I do like the payout when I eventually leave. I seriously mind budgeting sick time. Boo.

  15. Blanche Devereaux

    I’ve seen some companies offer unlimited vacation with a stipulated *minimum* number of weeks off. I think that’s probably a good way to address the issue of employees not knowing how much vacation they can use.

    1. neverjaunty

      But then the minimum becomes the new norm. It’s really saying that you get X days of vacation, they’re just calling it the ‘stipulated minimum’. Nobody will know how many days over that is OK. And then there will be the perception of ‘geez, we get X days off, why be greedy and take lots more?’

      1. Blanche Devereaux

        Good point and I could definitely see that happening at a LOT in a lot of industries. The companies I’m referencing, however, are so small in size and so big on work/life balance and communication that I can’t imagine someone getting mixed messages or being confused. I imagine there is a balance between observing the minimum and gauging what is considered normal for a particular work culture.

    2. Not an IT Guy

      Personally I’m not a fan of forced vacations myself, I can remember being pretty angry with my company for forcing me to use my last 6 days last year. I would hate to think of how I would feel if there was a stipulated minimum at my company.

      1. Blanche Devereaux

        That’s perfectly fair. Not every company will work for every employee.

  16. Ex Resume Reviewer

    I’d rather see a minimum vacation policy, where employees have to take a minimum of two weeks off, but there’s no set maximum depending on your years with the company or level or max accrual, etc. In my head, that would help encourage people to take time off, but also allow folks who want to take longer vacations or have more long weekends that flexibility.

  17. Mena

    When my current employer switched to this model, I stuck with what I had previously had under the accrual system (3 weeks) as a target. As time went on though, it became apparent that the higher performers would take less (me) and the lower performers feel entitled to treat themselves. After 20 months without taking five days in a row of vacation (just various long weekends here and there when my workload allowed), I took a full week off (5 days) off. I earned it and needed the break.

    But there are others that have taken 3 weeks in the first five months of the year and this has implications for the rest of us as we pick up the slack to meet deadlines.

    Bottom line: whether unlimited PTO is a success depends on your manager. A fair and reasonable manager will approve these absences in an appropriate manner. If the manager isn’t managing the workload across the team in an equitable manner, there is resentment. I look back now and see that some people taking MORE vacation was the reason that I was taking LESS.

  18. Kyrian

    I have this – and it’s actually terrible. We technically get an “unlimited” amount of vacation time and sick time, but it’s entirely at the discretion of the individual manager (HR doesn’t get involved in leave time discussions, unless there is a legally mandated component (FMLA, disability accommodation, etc.)). I have a manager who believes people should take as little time off as possible, including requiring employees to come in to work when violently ill (again, HR doesn’t get involved), and denying most requests for time off aside from major life events (one’s own wedding/honeymoon is okay, although my boss will grumble if more than a week is requested in any case; a discretionary family vacation is usually denied; employees who have been working highly extended hours for a long period of time might get occasional approval to take a long weekend).

    I would rather have a set amount of time I could take, even if it was quite a limited amount (say, 2-3 weeks total leave time including vacation and sick). As it is I can only take off maybe one day every 3-4 months, including working through major illnesses.

    1. Honeybee

      Does your manager basically expect you to have no life outside of work? I mean, they’re basically making it so that no one can go on family vacations, which sounds like it’ll lose you some folks in the long run.

      1. Kyrian

        Yes, that’s pretty much the case unfortunately. Many people do end up leaving after 2-3 years because they get burned out and/or aren’t able to attend to family commitments.

  19. Kristine

    My husband has unlimited PTO and he loves it, but his company is good about letting people take time off. In the course of a calendar year, he probably takes 20 days off total, about half as week-long trips and the other half as random days. And it works great for us because I travel a lot for work and he’s able to come meet me for a long weekend whenever I have the opportunity to extend my trips. My company has a very strict vacation policy (lots of blackout dates and a low number of accrued days) so it’s nice that he’s able to work around that.

    1. Dan

      You don’t need an “unlimited” policy to take 20 days off. Both jobs I’ve had start new employees off at 20 days, and graduate them to 25 after a certain period of time.

      1. gecko

        My husband (mid career engineer) gets 15 days total PTO (sick and vacation). It’s not uncommon in his particular industry.

      2. Kristine

        Do you work at unusually generous places? I’ve never gotten more than 15 days before (combined PTO and sick). Same with my husband, with the exception of his current job. 10 has always been the norm for us.

      3. Spotlight

        You’re very lucky. I’ve never had a job start me off with more than 10 days. The one I just started gives 6 your first year.

        1. Not my name

          6 days for the whole year?! That sounds so awful. Minimum in the UK is 20 days+bank hols and I’m struggling with that at my new place, after working in education and having 25+bank holidays+closure over Christmas+lots of opportunity to earn time in lieu…

  20. Meg Murry

    In addition to all the other issues people have brought up, my other fear with an “unlimited” policy like this is that it would be harder to take a vacation where you completely unplug – either with the boss making it a stipulation that you check in/check email/be available by phone, or with the employee feeling guilty about “taking advantage” of the policy so that they wind up not completely unplugging.

    Also, as a relatively new manager (only 1 direct report) I like that my employee has X vacation days per year and is encouraged to use them – because it means I don’t have to make judgement calls about whether his vacation reason is “worthy”, since so many of these policies are “unlimited with managers approval”. He wants to take a week next month and it’s not during a crucial time when 3 other people already are out? Ok fine – I don’t care if it’s for his honeymoon or to stay home and play video games all week, it’s his time and he’ll either take it now or later in the year. I’m pretty sure the only way I could be a manager with a policy like this would basically be to mentally use the current number of days as a guidline – so since he gets 10 days right now, suggest he stick to 8-12 for the year, or possibly 2 1-week vacations plus other days at his discretion if he’s on target.

    I think the other problem is that I work in a job where there is *always* more you could do – so the “as long as the work gets done” part is so hard to judge.

    1. overeducated

      Ooh, that’s a really good point about managerial judgment. You shouldn’t be making judgment calls about whether his reason is good enough period, since vacation means it’s up to him to make that call himself, but deciding how much is reasonable and how many days to approve early in the year would still be your responsibility, and some kind of yardstick is helpful.

  21. Zahra

    I think a company that starts an unlimited policy as a perk for employees should says “Unlimited PTO !!! (but the minimum we want you to take is X days/year)” That way people know what is an acceptable minimum and those who have unforeseen illnesses, dependents (especially kids and aging parents) that need more care, etc. know that they can still get PTO for those days.

    Is that a reasonable “best of both worlds” solution or am I living in la-la land with Unikitty and rainbows?

    1. EG2

      Yes. I am really struggling with 2 young kids and the amount of sick leave/vacation days I need to take to cover for all of their needs. I can’t even consider taking a real vacation….

  22. newlyhr

    If we had this policy at my last job, I would have been lucky to get a couple of days a year. I had one of those jobs where there is always something you “could” be doing, and my boss was very proud (and simultaneously resentful) of the fact that he had worked six days a week for the past umpteen years and never taken a vacation. He didn’t think anyone else should either.

    1. MommaCat

      “Perversely proud” is the phrase my family uses for folks like that…and I have a few family members who choose to martyr themselves in the same manner. I think they do it entirely to gripe/boast, just saying.

  23. Accounting Chic

    We have a kind of an unspoken unlimited leave policy in my department. We get three weeks of PTO, but we don’t deduct from our banks for sick time or a single day off. I still have to check with my boss, but it is nice to know I can make my own long weekends, or go with my future step son to an amusement park on a weekday and just make sure my work is done. We are only five people, and no one abuses it.

  24. Dan

    AAM,

    You close your article with this: “To the contrary, when carefully managed, they can be an enormously appealing benefit that helps to attract and retain great employees.”

    At my last two professional jobs, we’ve started our staff off at 20 days PTO, graduating to 25 after a certain tenure. Whenever I even begin to think about an “unlimited” policy, I ask, “Will an unlimited policy give me more time off than I already have?” Probably not.

    So, when you talk about attracting great employees, I have to figure out if the unlimited policy is “carefully manged”. Do you know how hard it is to figure that out from the outside? It’s not an attraction. Even then, so much of that is left up to the individual manager. So now I have to figure out how my potential manager handles that. What happens if I start out with a good one, and then get a crappy one?

    I’d much rather have a generous amount of specified leave. Over the last seven years, I’ve never had an “unlimited” policy, and have taken month long trips to Asia and Europe. My next employer is going to have to match that, and if they have an “unlimited” policy, we’re going to have some serious discussions if “unlimited” means I can do what I’ve done under my previous “limited” plans.

    1. overeducated

      Maybe whether “unlimited” sounds amazing depends on whether you’re coming from an employer where the leave policy is currently “generous” or not. I’d call 20+ days for new employees generous – the average for all workers in their first year in the US is only 8.1, and even for “professional, technical, and related employees,” who have the highest average, it’s 10. (This is according to BLS statistics via Google.)

      1. Dan

        The issue isn’t whether unlimited leave “sounds” amazing, but if it actually *is* amazing. And that’s hard to know from the outside, because it requires too much inside knowledge of a particular manager’s preferences.

        Yes, the same can theoretically be said for a policy with a fixed amount of vacation, but it’s much easier to make the argument that my manager is not allowing me to use an explicit benefit, than it is to make the argument that he is allowing me to use a very vaguely defined one.

    2. Ad Astra

      “Unlimited” sounds very appealing to the huge numbers of people who only get 10 days of vacation a year. I can see how it would be less interesting to someone with 20-25 days a year. Personally, 20-25 is pretty much exactly the range of vacation days I’d want to use if I had unlimited vacation.

  25. Nikki

    I would much rather have more vacation days given than this unlimited policy.

    I work in vendor correspondence, which is basically customer service for vendors, and the work is never done. We are never caught up to the point that anyone would have “time” to take a vacation. We all do take our vacation, but with an unlimited policy, I would feel like I wasn’t supposed to take a long vacation, If I were applying for a new job with an unlimited policy, I would be very concerned about whether I would actually be able to take a vacation or if I would be peer pressured to take less time off.

  26. Patrick

    My department has what I’d call a “soft” unlimited vacation policy – as in, new employees are brought in at a certain amount of vacation days but are allowed to take more than the limit assuming there are no major conflicts.. However, we generally don’t make this explicit for entry level employees; I can see where some might think that’s shady but it also stops a lot of the “how much is too much?” confusion when most people are focusing on their 15 days or whatever from their offer letter.

    It’s a bit ad hoc but I also work for a large (just outside the Fortune 500) company without an HR department. I had originally moved to corporate from one of our stores (where I had worked for a few years) and payroll couldn’t even tell me how many vacation days I was supposed to get or if my start date was my original hire date or my second hire date when I started at corporate. No one tracks vacation days except for managers (for their direct reports.)

  27. FreeVacay

    My company has unlimited vacation. During onboarding for new employees, HR makes it clear that the expectation is that employees aim for five weeks of personal time a year. I also have a coworker who, in a previous quarterly review (not our annual one tied to compensation), was dinged for having not taken enough time off (he had taken off only two weeks in the previous 12 months).

    Other things my employer practices:
    Taking sick days doesn’t count towards the five weeks.
    FMLA doesn’t count towards the five weeks either.
    When I took a week off to move, my boss said that also didn’t count towards the five weeks. Moving was considered working and not vacationing.
    Taking off more than two consecutive weeks requires special approval, but any shorter length of time only requires manager approval.

    The bottom line for the company, is that they want people to have time to recharge. Burnout is a serious concern, especially around crunch time. It’s not uncommon for half a team (or sometimes a whole team!) to take off all at once after a project wraps up (and for those responsible for scheduling to take this into account when planning).

  28. Bridget

    My job has the opposite of this–no paid vacation for your first year–but luckily my boss is awesome and lets me take comp days here and there without docking my pay. It’s worked out pretty nicely so far–I do usually work about six days a week on average, but I know that if I ask for time I’ll get it, which is nice (and he seems to realize that I’d never ask for it if there’s something going on that I need to be there for). I was worried about the no-PTO thing when I started but now I’m worried about what I’m going to do when I only have a week of vacation to take next year…though I’m pretty certain my boss will be just as lenient. I hope so, anyway.

  29. I'm a Little Teapot

    I’m always surprised by how few other AAM commenters seem not to have jobs with benefits. I know so many people who have no PTO at all, including myself. Long-term unbenefited temp jobs seem to be the new normal where I am.

    1. Zahra

      I actually am employed for 6 months at a company. I’m not getting any benefits, not even PTO (law mandates that the equivalent of 4% of your pay must be set aside for vacations, to be taken the same year or the next). They’ll pay the PTO at the end of the contract. The contract is renewable and could morph into a full time position. If it does, I’ll be arguing to keep the accrued PTO as is instead of getting a payout. That way I can take a day off if I’m sick or just want to go on vacation.

  30. Teapot project manager

    I would not want “unlimited PTO” I’m sure I wouldn’t take as much I get now as I have 7 weeks. Even someone starting new at my company gets 4 weeks to start then adds a day a year.

  31. Wendy Darling

    My current company has an absurdly generous vacation policy by US standards, and you can only roll over half of what you accrue in a year, so you’re forced to use or lose a significant amount of PTO. Which has the pretty awesome effect of forcing me to go on vacation even though I just started — we’re planning a 2-week trip in the fall and I am PSYCHED.

    If we didn’t have the use it or lose it policy I’d be very hesitant to take so much vacation my first year with the company — I sort of feel like I need to stay and put on a good show. But I’m not getting that back if I don’t use it so I may as well go someplace.

  32. A Definite Beta Guy

    Oh god please no. Don’t let this become a trend. The “work” is never done. I was almost late to my own wedding rehearsal. We had meetings booked till 5 on Christmas Eve. I was asked this morning why some deductions posted yesterday weren’t already cleared (and it’s month-end, too!)
    I took off one day in February, at our absolute dead point. The last time I took off before that was when I left work 2 hours early because my Sister broke her foot and couldn’t chase her 2 toddlers around.

  33. Audiophile

    In two days, it will be my six month anniversary at my job. Hard to believe. I’ve taken one sick day so far and I quickly regretted that. A project I was tasked with was passed around and a bunch of mistakes were made, that I had the pleasure of discovering at the last minute. The only other days off were a comp day from my company and company holidays where the building has been closed.

    I’ve scheduled a vacation for next month, for an entire week. I can’t think of the last time I took an entire week off.

    And I may try to sneak in a short vacation to Vegas in October. We’ll see how my week long absence goes next month.

    I can’t imagine having unlimited vacation, I’m already apprehensive about taking a real vacation next month and I’ve definitely earned this vacation.

  34. WorkingFromCafeInCA

    “Our policy is that we have no vacation policy.” – My CEO. No official constraints, but completely unspecified.

    I should just ask my manager what the expectation is, right? Something like, “On average, is the expectation that we take around 15-20 days?” (that’s being generous… but better to start higher? We are in tech consulting).

  35. Tara

    My boyfriend’s company does a good job of making unlimited vacation work. Its unlimited vacation, with a minimum of one or two weeks. Plus they get benefits that are $2000 (plus $500 for each year you’re there) for fitness, education, devices(like phones, since its a mobile development company) and vacation. At least $1000 of it needs to be used on vacationy things.

    They very much incentivize actually using a proper amount of vacation, with the unlimited on top for if its reasonable for people to use more.

  36. Todd Wiener

    I added this benefit at my company a year ago and it’s been mostly successful. We used to give 20 days of vacation which almost never got fully used plus sick days that were rarely used. Now the average employees take an average of 43 days. They are more aware of the impact their absences have on others and plan accordingly. And if they work long hours, they know I expect them to take time off to balance it out. I’m aiming to have happy, mutually supportive, hardworking, loyal employees with a healthy life-work balance. This policy has helped.

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