are unlimited vacation days really unlimited?

A reader writes:

I have a friend who started a new job recently. She had been laid off during Covid when her company had to eliminate about half of its staff. Given what she had told me about how she acted at work – routinely leaving early without making up the hours elsewhere, refusing to ever work late, and generally acting like she was doing the company a favor by working –
I was not surprised that she was one of the people laid off.

When she started her new job after a few months of unemployment, she was really excited and kept talking about how hard she was working and how many hours she was putting in. However, for the last few months she’s been taking a truly crazy number of days off. Almost every week, she tells me she’s taking a day or two and always says, “It doesn’t matter, I have unlimited days.” She also claimed that she frequently worked “really late,” but based on the hours she described, it sounds like she’s only working a little beyond the typical 9-5 work day. Then the other day, she told me she’s “barely working” over the next month or so because she’s taking off multiple days per week to extend various weekend trips and holidays. This alone was a bit worrisome to me, but I became more concerned when she said that she’s taking more days than everyone else and that her coworkers don’t take advantage of the unlimited days. I tried to gently ask how she’s able to get so many days off, saying that most people I know who technically have unlimited days aren’t able to take as many days as they want. She clearly got offended and simply said, “Well, I’m allowed to do it and my boss hasn’t rejected any of my requests yet.”

So, first, is it really acceptable to take a ton of days off even if you technically get unlimited vacation days or is there some kind of implied limit?

And second, is there a better way to broach the topic with my friend? She did not grow up around anyone who worked in a traditional office job, and over the decade we’ve been friends, she has frequently been shocked over things that seem to most of our friends to be basic office etiquette (for example, how deferential you have to be to bosses, how much notice you typically have to give for days off, business appropriate attire, etc.). I don’t say that to be mean or judgmental! I would hate to see her get laid off again or have another professional setback because of this, and I don’t think any of her family members have the relevant experience to think this is odd or set her straight.

I’m also selfishly curious as I start my own job search because if this is actually normal, maybe unlimited vacation days should be higher up in my search criteria.

Unlimited vacation days can be really weird.

They sound great in theory! Who wouldn’t want unlimited vacation? The problem is that it rarely works that way in practice.

In fact, there’s research showing that, on average, workers with “unlimited” vacation time actually take fewer days off in a year (13) than workers who are given a specific number of vacation days (15) … and twice as many of those with unlimited time off say they “always” work on vacation. That’s most likely because, without clear guidelines, people become unsure about how much time off is really okay to take and how much will be seen as excessive. Not wanting to be seen as slackers, they err on the side of caution and end up taking less time than they’re entitled to.

Another drawback to unlimited vacation time is that you can’t save up any paid leave — which means that you wouldn’t get the cash payout you might otherwise receive if you left your job with accrued vacation time remaining. (Not every company pays out accrued leave to resigning employees, but many do, and many states require it.) In fact, that’s been a major incentive, if not the incentive, for employers to switch to unlimited leave; it can end up saving them significant money in the long run.

The most interesting thing (to me, anyway) about unlimited vacation time is that it requires managers to truly manage their teams. They need to be assertive about encouraging people to take time off if their workloads allow it, and recognize and address it when someone’s workload never allows it. They also must be forthright if someone is abusing the system — and create a shared understanding of what that would even look like. Generally that’s something like “as long as you’re meeting your goals and not delaying anyone else’s work, you can manage your own time off as you see fit” … but that can be trickier than it sounds, particularly if employees’ work goals are unrealistically ambitious or if the work environment is so fast-paced that time off means you’ll always be delaying someone else’s work. That can lead a team’s most conscientious employees to feel like they can’t ever take time off responsibly, or can only take very little. Managers have to be really hands-on and fair-minded to effectively manage a team that has unlimited vacation time — and many aren’t.

That brings us to your friend. It’s possible there’s more to her situation than you know (like a health problem, an unusually slow period at work, or an explicit conversation with her manager affirming this is okay), but it sure does sound like she might have a fundamental misunderstanding of how this all works. If that’s the case, her manager is deeply in the wrong for not explaining it to her … but there are plenty of negligent managers who avoid having even mildly unpleasant conversations, and unfortunately that won’t save your friend, if at some point the company gets fed up and decides she’s taken it too far.

In theory, I suppose it’s possible that your friend works at the one company in existence where “unlimited” vacation days truly does mean unlimited, without regard for one’s work. But that seems awfully unlikely. Typically employers have hired you to do a job, they want you there doing that job, and “unlimited” includes the unspoken subtext “within reason and as long as your work is getting done.”

As for how you might broach this with your friend, it sounds like you’ve already tried. I’m not sure there’s much to be gained from trying again! It’s a kind impulse to want her to understand how this might be perceived and that in most companies it could lead to her being let go. But you’ve already raised it and she got offended — which seems like a pretty clear “butt out” sign. The one exception might be if you have a very close friendship and you frame it as, “I won’t bring this up again if you ask me not to, but I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t say something now and you ended up getting fired.” If you go that route, make sure you’re direct — no hinting around, just bluntly saying, “In my experience, unlimited vacation isn’t really unlimited, there are implicit limits, and you can get fired if you repeatedly take a lot more days than everyone else.” But from there, you’d need to back way off and accept that how she navigates this is up to her.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 271 comments… read them below }

  1. WonderMint*

    On average, those with unlimited time off take off less. The company also doesn’t have to pay out unused PTO at the end of employment, because it was never set.

    1. Shark Whisperer*

      My current employer has unlimited PTO. I specifically asked in my interview how much vacation on average employees took. I think the average was 3 weeks (not counting the two weeks the office is closed in December). The CEO had data to show that employees took more PTO after the switch to unlimited. I wouldn’t have been ok with it without that data for exactly the reasons you mention.

      1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

        Yeah, a colleague of mine’s husband just got a new position and she told us that they have unlimited vacation, but “you have to take a minimum of 3 weeks per year” which I thought was a great way to help enforce that people should take it. That vacation time has a minimum and that taking that time to recharge is required, but also providing flexibility for there to be more time off.

        1. Coenobita*

          I was coming here to say this – my brother worked at a startup-y tech place for a number of years and they either had a straight-up minimum or something like “in general, we expect staff will take at least X weeks, most people take around Y.” It was in a state that didn’t require unused vacation to be paid out, and it seemed to work out pretty well overall.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          *drools over a job like this*

          In my experience, actually taking enough time off so you can truly relax is the best way to energize performance. I’ve only had one vacation in my life like that (so far), the one in 2014 in the UK. At one point, I was taking pictures of a mildly creepy old church in Wales and realized I’d completely forgotten I even had a job.

          When I got back to work, after an initial jet-lag day, I became like a sped-up video with “Yakety Sax” playing in the background. I felt wonderful and got a ton of work done.

        3. Spicy Tuna*

          What if you don’t want to take time off though? When I was just getting started with my career, I had moved to a new city and didn’t have any friends. I hated weekends and holidays because I had nothing to do! As I moved further up the career ladder, it became too stressful to take time off. I guess the 3 week minimum could work if you take off one day at time. IDK. I think people should be able to make their own decisions about how much time to take off. It works both ways.

          1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

            If the company really structures it so you can consistently take the time without having all of the undone work landing on you when you get back, it just means that you’d need to seek out something else to do with that 3+ weeks a year. If you’re the type of person who is happiest being very busy, there are plenty of volunteer things you can find to fill that kind of time, and having two social circles instead of just the day job one is probably for the best.

            One of my relatives worked at a bank before she retired, and they required all of their employees to take an entire Monday through Friday week off at least once a year, which served as both fraud-prevention and burnout-prevention.

          2. Bluesboy*

            The ‘it became too stressful to take time off’ is really the problem. There’s no point in offering unlimited days really, if there’s no plan for how to manage work that comes in when you’re out – you just end up trying to work on holiday but away from your normal workstation, or you get back all the stress you are supposed to have lost on holiday within two days of getting back, because you’re so behind!

          3. Erin Johnson*

            In some cases it’s a security thing – there have been instances of fraud or malpractice which have gone years without being found out because they came in every day and covered their tracks. As a result, some financial firms require that staff take 2 weeks off in one go, once a year, at minimum.

            1. TardyTardis*

              I once told a friend of mine that ‘the only thing more suspicious than an accountant who takes too much vacation is the accountant who never takes any” when I was urging her to actually use some of her time off.

    2. KHB*

      I’m curious how much of a spread there is on that “average.” All the stories I read about unlimited PTO seem to involve some people who are really aggressive about using lots of it (often by pushing much of their own work onto other people’s plates) and other people who feel they can hardly take any (often because they’ve gotten so much of their coworkers’ work pushed onto their plates).

        1. Tasha*

          At one place I worked, someone from HR sent around data about time off and noted that several employees took more than the median days. I’m thinking, yeah, exactly half did

          1. KHB*

            That reminds me of my middle school gym class, where the teacher explained that “we’d like to see you all get at least the 50th percentile” on our physical fitness tests. Even middle-school me knew that that’s not how any of this works.

            1. SarahKay*

              I’ll swap you for an Education Secretary (politician responsible for education policy) who wanted all UK children to be above average!

              1. wendelenn*

                I didn’t know Lake Wobegon was in the UK! (Garrison Keillor reference, in case you weren’t familiar)

            1. Mike*

              Well, if sick days are randomly distributed I would expect that but I suspect they aren’t. Additionally, most holidays fall on a Monday or Friday so there would be less opportunities to take a sick day on those days. I would actually be interested to know how evenly distributed sick day usage is.

              1. Violet Rose*

                I think this has come up on this site before – I know I’m personally more likely to be sick on a Friday or Monday because if I start feeling “a little under the weather” on Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll try to push through to the weekend – which means I am more likely to either crash on Friday and take the day off, or succeed but still be feeling like garbage on Monday.

          2. Darren*

            Well not exactly half. The median is the middle value, which means a lot of people (on both sides) could have taken that same amount of days off so they didn’t take more than the median days off (although 50% of people would have been to the right of the median value).

            i.e. if the values were 12,14,14,14,15 the median is 14, and only 1 person took more leave than that (15).
            The mean is 13.8 and 80% of people took more that that.

            1. tamarack and fireweed*

              Ya, well, only because you clustered your values around the middle and are playing with small tolerances and a tiny company in your example. In a large company, with a reasonably wide distribution of how much vacation is taken, “half are above the median and half are below” is a pretty good way of setting expectations for what the statistical outcome is.

              1. Darren*

                Even if you are talking about hundreds of people when you are talking about leave that is likely going to be somewhere between 10-20 days for most people a lot of people are likely going to get clustered at a few values. I’m not saying it might not be close to 50%, it’s just very unlikely that it’ll be exactly 50%.

                It’s correct to say 50% of values will be to the right of the median. It’s incorrect to say 50% of values will be greater (because due to how most things you are using a median on work there isn’t enough possible values to guarantee there won’t be a duplicate of the median value).

    3. DG*

      The only way to avoid taking less PTO than you would otherwise is to create your own reasonably-sized “bank” of days and regularly check-in with yourself to make sure you’re taking it. For me, that amounts to 2-3 full weeks throughout the rest of the year + a handful (maybe another week’s worth) of days throughout the year for long weekends, doctors appointments, etc. My company also shuts down for two weeks at the end of the year, which we don’t officially bill as PTO in our timesheets. Counting the EOY shutdown, that’s ~5-6 weeks off.

      That’s probably a bit higher than what I’d get with an employer-determined bank of PTO days, but if my employer is going to create a system that prevents them from having to pay out vacation time and incentivizes people to take less time off, I’m going to use that system to my advantage.

      1. AnxiouslyAnon*

        That’s exactly what I did at my previous company. We switched to unlimited, and I straight up told my manager I was going to pretend I had 20 days off. One year I had only 15, another I hit 25 (mainly because I took a week and change to help a partner recover from surgery), and the other two I had 20 on the dot. It works well, and I tired to get a lot of people to do that to help their own sanity.

      2. Vacay hooray*

        Unlimited time off has been a huge success at my workplace. When it was adopted any unused FTO at that date was frozen, and will be paid out when people leave. My direct reports are taking about double the time off they did under the old PTO scheme. The only reason I check on the numbers now and then is to nag anyone who isn’t taking it for a long time. I know it’s hard to be motivated during covid when everything is arse.

        Accrued PTO means people don’t take the leave they need. They bank it instead and burn out. It also sucks for new hires – they may need time off but haven’t accrued it yet. Why would your need for time off be linked to tenure at the company? That makes no sense at all. You need what you need, it isn’t the same as cash.

      3. Lab Boss*

        That’s a great idea. If something comes up you can always “break your bank,” and if you just don’t get around to using all of it you don’t feel like you’ve lost part of your compensation, but it’s still an excellent way to make sure your vacation use is deliberate rather than haphazard (which puts you at risk of drifting towards using too much or too little).

      4. Lexi Lynn*

        That would be lovely, but you need management to agree that unlimited vacation time includes days off. In my company with unlimited vacation, everyone was delighted when I got to take an “extended” vacation for Labor Day…I took off the Friday before Labor Day so 1 day vacation and a holiday is considered special. I will never work for another company with unlimited vacation time.

    4. Momma Bear*

      I have had “unlimited” days but it meant that I had no separate pot of PTO vs sick days. It did not mean I could take 5 weeks off in a row, or that my manager would approve all of them, or that I wouldn’t need to be in the office for 3 months solid to get a project done. IMO it is the manager’s job to rein her in (or not) and decide if it impacts her work enough to be a problem. My guess is that down the road she will run into the real limit of this unlimited time, however that works for her company.

      For your job search, determine what is most important to you – salary, time off, flex? And go from there. One old job only gave us two weeks of PTO and I vowed never to settle for that again.

    5. limitedunlimited*

      Yeah, at the one (dysfunctional) company I’ve worked at that offered “unlimited” time off, what that meant in practice was whether or not you were allowed to take any time off was at the sole discretion of the owner, and came with wildly unreasonable conditions (they varied day by day, but included suddenly having to complete projects that you had until that moment not been aware existed, having to “prove” you weren’t “stealing” company time by freelancing on your day off, being allowed to go only if you completed your task list first, which would magically triple in the days preceding the requested time off, getting yelled at for either being lazy or stealing time, etc.) Basically your fate was in the hands of one emotionally volatile individual, rather than there being any sort of process or procedure. Very little time off was actually taken.

    6. Violet Rose*

      I know we have European readers but I haven’t seen any comments to this effect, so I feel the need to point out: the numbers referenced in the article (13 days on average for unlimited, 15 days on average for a specific PTO pool) seem so low compared to the European minimum of “around 30”. MINIMUM.

      This is colouring my perception of the letter pretty strongly, because what if the friend’s cavalier use of PTO is actually only adding up to 20-25 days a year, it just looks like more because it’s more than OP or their peers? Without more concrete numbers, I wouldn’t feel comfortable making that judgement.

      Caveat, I work like a greyhound: short sprints of incredible productivity spaced out by a lot of downtime, so high PTO would actually be mutually beneficial to both me and the company

  2. Anonym*

    I would use Alison’s script and add that it would be a good idea to explicitly check in with her manager to ensure she’s operating in line with expectations, and that the manager is happy with how she’s performing and getting through her workload.

    Just in the name of avoiding a potential problem!

  3. H*

    I am so over this 40 hours a week “butts in seats” mentality. If you get your work done, I don’t care- run errands when you have downtime, go to the gym during lunch, take your PTO, HAVE A LIFE OUTSIDE OF WORK… why are we scruntizing everyone’s ability to be work robots? Your job will be posted as soon as your body is stiff and cold.

    1. Annoyed*

      THIS. I’ll work hard to deliver within reasonable work hours, but I will not live to work. The mentality that everyone should work non stop all the time to make a tiny minority even more rich and be expected to be grateful doing it is disgusting.

      1. H*

        This is what got me “Given what she had told me about how she acted at work – routinely leaving early without making up the hours elsewhere, refusing to ever work late, and generally acting like she was doing the company a favor by working” Like… is this your friend?!?

        1. H*

          This too: “She did not grow up around anyone who worked in a traditional office job, and over the decade we’ve been friends, she has frequently been shocked over things that seem to most of our friends to be basic office etiquette (for example, how deferential you have to be to bosses, how much notice you typically have to give for days off, business appropriate attire, etc.).” IT IS THE CULTURE THAT IS THE PROBLEM. IMO we are all TOO deferential to our bosses.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Wait, we have to be deferential to bosses, what? This is news to me. I thought we had to be respectful and collaborative with everybody in our workplace equally? Who are this group of friends with this weird, and possibly borderline toxic, basic office etiquette? (Going by, not just this, but that putting 40 hrs/week in a 40 hr/week job, refusing to work late, etc is slacking.)

            1. David*

              Yeah I caught that too :-)

              But to be fair, “deferential to bosses” can mean any of various things, some of which are totally reasonable (e.g. when your boss makes a decision on a business-related matter you should probably defer to that decision), and based on the letters Allison posts if nothing else, there are clearly bosses out there who really do expect even the unreasonable kinds of deference.

          2. Karo*

            I think it depends on what the OP means by deferential and how OP’s friend was originally acting. You shouldn’t have to bow and scrape for your manager but there’s still a line you can’t cross – you can’t curse out your boss, you can’t keep pushing a conversation, etc. If you’re used to a retail/food service environment, you may not know where that line is, or how to gauge when it’s time to provide input versus time to do the work as assigned. When combined with the other conversations OP is having to have with her friend, I don’t think it’s out of line to assume that she needed a bit more deference.

            1. Rusty Shackelford*

              I agree. We’ve seen enough letters here from people who thought it was perfectly appropriate to push back and explicitly ignore their boss’s instructions to know that “deference” means different things to different people. You don’t have to bow and scrape, but you have to understand what “boss” means.

          3. MusicWithRocksIn*

            I hate seeing this idea represented in the media so much. Especially in procedural shows, no one ever has a good work/life balance. Even people who schedule vacations end up canceling them because something at work came up – or having to solve a random murder while on vacation – and I feel like it sets such a bad example of what idea we should all be striving for. I get that the tv show is about solving mysteries or whatnot, but sometimes it feels like no one on tv ever takes time to relax.

            1. Lab Boss*

              This. TV seems to shape a lot of people’s ideas of cultural norms, because they internalize the way things work on TV without equally internalizing that it’s fake because it’s on TV. If a show is set in a workplace the characters will all sleep with, date, drink with, and interact almost exclusively with their coworkers. Any vacation will be cancelled or turn into a chance to do work. Acceptable workplace behavior will be blown up in favor of hijinks & sex (in comedies) or drama & sex (in dramas).

              Of course that’s because nobody wants to watch The Office if the first prank is met with “please don’t do that again” and “oh, OK, sorry that I bothered you” or an episode of NCIS where the gritty crime solver goes fishing in the mountains for a week and has a real nice relaxing time without any murders.

              1. Evan Þ.*

                Hmm, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t mind an episode where the secondary cast has to solve a murder while the normal lead’s on vacation. Maybe we can get a few shots of him on the beach taking a quick call to say “Oh, the Jenning’s case’s in the blue folder. Good luck on the investigation. See you next week.”

        2. Nanani*

          This. Even if Friend is taking “too many” vacation days – the rest doesn’t track.
          There’s absolutely nothing wrong with leaving early (as long as you’re not missing meetings or something like that) and refusing to work late. In fact there are a lot of cases where you definitely should NOT work late! Making up hours isn’t a thing if your job isn’t hourly. If the work is getting done, it’s getting done.

          1. Julia*

            Whether it’s ok on a moral level is one thing. Whether it’s going to get the friend fired is another. LW seems to be concerned at least partly for the latter reason.

        3. ecnaseener*

          Yeah that seemed excessive to me as well. As long as “routinely” isn’t, like, every day, it sounds totally fine to me to leave early sometimes — assuming it’s the type of work where your coworkers aren’t having to cover for you whenever you’re away for short periods.

          It does sound like the PTO use now is past the point of still getting her work done though…

        4. AY*

          Definitely sounds like the OP is early in her career! This is exactly how I treated and thought about work until I realized that work wasn’t my life and that I needed to set boundaries in order to live my life.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Yep. I was like that too (having grown up with a workaholic dad) and was in my early 30s when I got my first “the company won’t love you back” talk. (From my boss, by the way.) It was eye-opening to me.

            1. NACSACJACK*

              Coming to that realization is hard for me, even 30 years later. If I put this kind of energy in, shouldnt I get some kind of return on investment. I get disappointed every time, but I keep buying into it because otherwise I wouldn’t be a very good worker.

        5. BigHairNoHeart*

          I’m going to give the OP the benefit of the doubt that the reason she’s concerned isn’t due to a value judgment of how much the friend is working. It’s because she rightly understands that her friend’s company might get upset with her, not tell her, and eventually fire her. That would suck if it happened and the workplace would be wrong for firing her without warning, but it’s a thing that happens and I don’t think OP is a bad friend to acknowledge that.

          Might be wrong! But I wanted to throw out that possibility.

          1. AthenaC*

            What jumps out to me is the friend’s framing – it’s not “I’m getting my work done so why shouldn’t I leave early?” Rather it’s “I have unlimited days it doesn’t matter.” In many professional environments where there’s a body of work that’s shared among multiple people, if you’re taking more time off than the average person, you’re not doing your fair share of work.

            1. Eldritch Office Worker*

              Right. And the friend DID recently get laid off from a job she approached with a lackadaisical attitude. Obviously correlation =/= causation, but I think LW is genuinely concerned based on the data available, not just trying to impose archaic workplace norms on the friend for the sake of enforcing those norms.

        6. Colette*

          In many jobs where it’s OK to leave early, you’re also expected to stay late when the job needs you to. You’re paid to do the job, and the job doesn’t always fit within business hours.

        7. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Like… is this your friend?!?

          Story time: once, a then-friend* had an interview at a place where I worked. Our employer had, at the time, given us step counter devices, and encouraged walking and entering our steps into some kind of a contest I think(?) As a result, everyone was taking periodic brisk walks around the parking lot, which I found helped me clear my head and be more productive in my work. My friend arrived for her interview when I was on one such parking-lot stroll, and was shocked and appalled, “why are you outside during work hours?” I suddenly hoped that I wouldn’t end up working with this friend. (I didn’t.)

          *”Then” due to the fact that the friend later decided that she needed to take sides in my divorce (however she defined that), took my ex’s, and I haven’t seen her in probably a decade.

          1. Koalafied*

            I remember starting a new job at a place where people actually took a lunch hour and often left the building for it, and seeing two coworkers leaving with a frisbee one afternoon to go toss it around in a park up the block. I was all flummoxed: “How… how do I get to do that?” *bewildered face* One of the guys said, “You get a lunch hour, don’t you?” and it blew. my. mind. I’d spent the first 3 years of my professional career eating lunch at my desk while I worked, every single day.

        8. Cait*

          Yep. This sounds like the OP has drank the corporate mentality Kool-Aid. Leaving work early every day can be a problem, but I technically leave work early every day because I need to pick up my child from daycare before a certain hour and my boss has agreed. So if no one has mentioned it, then it doesn’t sound like it’s a problem. Also, there’s no point in “making up hours” if you’re already getting everything done in a timely manner during work hours. As for refusing to work late…. MORE people need to refuse to work late! If they’re not paying you and it’s not in your job description, you are under no obligation to stay late just to look like you love working. Finally, she’s doing the company a “favor” by working just like they are doing her a “favor” by paying her for said work. Your company is not your family or your friend. You don’t owe it your loyalty and you definitely don’t owe your time and energy if you aren’t getting paid for it. They offered the days so she should take the days. More people should be doing the same because what Alison said rings true. You aren’t getting paid for any leftover time if/when you leave so I think more people need to participate in what’s called “malicious compliance”.

          1. MissBaudelaire*

            If if OT is offered, I really think more people should say no thanks for it. There comes a point where even being paid over time is still eating up ALL my time, I’m crabby and exhausted and don’t feel good, none of my chores are getting done… and if I say “No,” everyone else looks at me like I’ve just suggested work in only our underwear.

            “What about the mooneeyyy?” they ask. Well, what about it? Sure, more money is always nice. But I’m always going to need more money. And it isn’t like they’re handing out free money, I still pay taxes on it, so it’s never as much as it looks on paper. “What about the other people staying late?” they say. Well, what about them? They should say no, too, if more of us said no and stood our ground, maybe they’d quit with the skeleton staffing and OT wouldn’t be an issue!

          2. Julia*

            I agree in principle, but come on, this is an employee who looks like she’s taking off one or two days a *week*. That’s pretty far outside most office norms, and it would be reasonable for her employer to push back if they wanted to.

            1. Cait*

              Sure. But it’s her employer’s responsibility to say something. If she’s getting her work done and not inconveniencing anyone else then her employer would have a hard time explaining why they’re upset she’s taking advantage of something they offered.

            2. Darren*

              If it’s a problem her manager shouldn’t be approving them and should have a chat to her about it. It is possible that the company really is as flexible as they say they are and as long as her metrics are still good they aren’t going to complain about her taking days off.

    2. MK*

      Ok, but companies rarely create full time jobs and pay someone to do it, when the actual workload can easily be done in three working days. The only way I could do my job and take one or two days off every week is if I was working 20 hours days the rest of the time, and I am an unusually fast worker. And if the job doesn’t have clear metrics, it might not be clear that you aren’t as productive as you should be.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, this. If I was leaving early and taking that much time off, my coworkers would be picking up a lot of my slack and there would be problems.

        Asking somebody to work full-time (not crazy overtime, with wiggle room because we all need it sometimes) is not asking people to “live to work”. It’s asking them to do the job they were hired to do. That’s the agreement–we pay you full-time salary for (averaging out to, in time and tasks completed) full-time work.

        1. Anti anti-tattoo Carol*

          Yep, this. Paid work is transactional. Labor for money. If she’s not providing the labor they pay for, then that’s a bad thing and grounds for a PIP or dismissal. If she’s getting her work done (i.e., providing the agreed-upon amount of labor), the days off shouldn’t matter, especially if she’s salaried. My workplace frames it as “you’re paid for the output, not the hours.” You’d have to know your environment, though, because at a less kind institution, it would be used against the employee. I admit that I am very lucky that their expectations for output are reasonable.

      2. CBB*

        companies rarely create full time jobs and pay someone to do it, when the actual workload can easily be done in three working days.

        Rare but not unheard of. I have a full-time job where I need to be on duty 7-4 everyday for the week or two leading up to the completion of projects. But other weeks tend to be slack. As long as I show up for meetings and respond to emails, no cares or notices how many hours I work.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      There’s a huge middle ground between being a corporate robot never taking any personal time and someone who decides to take time off as much as possible right off the bat. The OP’s friend needs to know whether the company culture really does allow for this or if they are exploiting the unlimited status. If it’s allowed and the friend is doing fine, more power to her. If she’s overdoing it, that needs to be discussed and clarified by her manager.

      Incidentally, I had a relative tell me that they weren’t surprised that I got laid off given my flexible schedule and apparently casual attitude toward work. The relative has a more traditional approach to work, I do not. I had an approved flexible schedule and the nature of my work makes it hard for the uninformed to tell how hard I’m working or what I’m producing and how it compares to others – in fact I was one of the top performers. In my case I got laid off because the senior manager targeted me personally (this was long suspected and later confirmed); it had nothing to do with my casual attitude or flexible schedule, or performance for that matter.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yes, there’s a world of nuance between “capitalist simp” and “unemployable cretin” and most people exist in that middle ground. Framing things in extremes is something we typically avoid here that I really hope we don’t lose as the world gets increasingly partisan.

        1. AthenaC*

          At the end of the day, if you want to command professional respect and have your pick of reasonably high-earning jobs … you need to be worth the money to your employer. If you center your entire professional identity around the work that you refuse to do (as some of the comments here seem to imply), you will be hard pressed to find someone who wants to pay you a substantial amount of money to not do work.

            1. AthenaC*

              I mean …. not really. Habits have consequences. Look, I know for a fact that there are plenty of abusive companies out there, but it seems lately I’m seeing a lot of people feeling they are entitled to great salaries for minimal work, and then they turn around and get resentful of the people who actually make good money because those people put in the effort to earn it.

              1. Eldritch Office Worker*

                And rational people make tradeoffs. The people who want great money for minimal work are a vocal minority that aren’t rational actors. But even in good companies, plenty of people accept less money for more work-life balance. You’ll hear horror stories on both ends but you can set boundaries on your life and still have a successful career for doing a reasonable amount of work.

              2. H*

                “I’m seeing a lot of people feeling they are entitled to great salaries for minimal work” Like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?

                1. Therese*

                  You actually think that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos don’t work hard? Just wow. YOu could say a lot about these guys, but lazy, I don’t think so. I think you are out of touch.

                2. Firm Believer*

                  This is such an ignorant comment. These people are revolutionizing society and likely never NOT work. You have absolutely zero idea what the work days of these people look like. That mentality is why they are billionaires and you are not.

                3. Le Sigh*

                  I may not know what Jeff Bezos’ work day looks like and yes, his company changed the world, but he also built it on the backs of a system that is very much abusing poorly paid workers. So excuse me if I fail to deify him.

                4. Gumby*

                  There are many reasons why I might not like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, or think that the way that they are making money causes societal harms, etc. But “minimal work” is not one of them. Ditto very many CEOs whose pay seems grossly out of proportion to what employees are paid. The system that deems their work worth multiple millions per year is out of whack, but that doesn’t mean they are doing minimal work. They are likely doing a great deal of work.

                5. Le Sigh*

                  @gumby Sure. My comment nested poorly and I was more referring to Firm Believer’s comment about revolutionizing society and especially “That mentality is why they are billionaires and you are not,” which is both inaccurate and seemed unnecessary.

                6. Dr B Crusher*

                  I mean, they may work hard, but given they are worth billions, even if they work 23 hours a day that’s minimal effort for that sort of money. A billion is a frankly insane amount of money for one human to have, multiple billions even more so.

              3. Emily*

                AthenaC: I agree 100%. I’m all for holding companies and employers accountable, but there are some who forget it is a two way street. Employers are allowed (and should) have reasonable expectations of staff.

        2. twocents*

          THIS. The suggestion that it’s inherently awful for a company to want people to work full time in exchange for full-time pay is just such a weird shift in the comments on AAM in recent weeks.

          I get it! If your job sucks, you probably don’t want to be there! But you can’t be Pikachu shocked that not many companies are willing to pay for “I will work whenever, as much or as little as I please.” And really, is that actually terrible? I mean, how many of us are really comfortable paying for a service and finding the car mechanic will get around to it whenever it bloody well pleases him?

          1. Firm Believer*

            Seriously. I don’t know where these shoulder chips are coming from. The theme here has always been employment is transactional in nature and should be treated as such. If that is the case, then you gotta perform under the requirements of the transaction.

            1. Le Sigh*

              I think some of the chips are coming from the fact that although it’s transactional, employers (at least in the U.S) have typically held the majority of power and plenty of them haven’t held up their requirements of the transaction. But even so, for a number of years people have towed the line. I think the past 12-15 months have made people either realize that the system isn’t what they promised or they just want to see things change, and/or they got way more vocal about it. They see an opening to push back. Are some people hyperbolic and over the top? Sure, but so are the CEOs writing op-eds about how terrible WFH is and how good, loyal, patriotic people want to come in.

              Pushing back against employers holding the power is how we got things like minimum wage, child labor laws, and weekends. People can be a little over the top, but it isn’t a big mystery where it’s coming from, at least to me.

        3. Koalafied*

          Yes, and the extreme framing is usually closely linked to a perspective that assumes everyone is operating in bad faith. Often on the basis of one incident, jumping to call people toxic or manipulative or otherwise assign malicious intent to their actions. Having a knee-jerk response of “screw the company, they don’t care about you so you shouldn’t care about them,” or “don’t trust employees, they’re always trying to pull a fast one and cheat the company out of wages.”

          The reality of the situation is that a healthy employer-employee relationship is one that is mutually beneficial and organized around shared goals. The employee doesn’t have to subordinate their own interests to the company’s needs, and the company doesn’t have to roll over every time there’s any employee pushback on a decision. Both should be able to articulate what they need and what they’re willing to give, to seek common ground where the two overlap, and to terminate the employment arrangement with respect (meaning: giving standard 2 weeks notice and trying to get things as squared away as possible during that time if resigning, or giving at least 2-4 weeks’ notice and/or severance pay if laying someone off) if what one is willing to give can no longer meet what the other needs.

      2. Heather*

        My mom is “old school”. In her mind, 9-5 is the minimum you must work every day. She was in health care and then corporate insurance claims before retiring. I’m a trial lawyer. I work 80+ hours a week when on trial. Of course I’m going to leave early and time some time off after a verdict. She is horrified that I do that, but I’m salaried and not going to burn myself out just because.

    4. Mr. Shark*

      H, I understand your point, but accessibility is also important. Even if you don’t need “butts in the seats” 40 hours a week, sometimes knowing that someone is there and available to answer your questions on a set schedule (or in an emergency) is very important.
      I guess if all of your work is project based and you know nothing new is going to come up, having no set schedule is not an issue. But for most jobs, being available is important.

      1. CRM*

        I really do agree with this. For the first three to six months of my current job, I could fairly say that I only had about 3 days or less worth of work to do in any given week. They hired me to take over a few specific processes from my manager, who was overwhelmed with work, but it wasn’t enough work for a full-time position. Of course I picked up slack with other duties as needed, but I was still heavily underutilized most weeks. However, because I was in the office every day, I was able to make connections with my coworkers, sit in on meetings, stay in touch with my manager about upcoming initiatives, and generally learn about the inner workings of the organization. Also, because of my light workload I was able to respond to emergency requests right away and ensure that my work was close to perfect, aspects which greatly bolstered my reputation. Even though my productivity was low (and I spent more time browsing the internet than I care to admit) just being around and staying in work mode helped me integrate.

        When my manager left, followed shortly after by the pandemic (which accelerated work in our industry), it became all hands on deck. Suddenly I went from stretching out tasks to working overtime. I am grateful for the time I had to slowly acclimate and get to know my work and environment, which left me feeling prepared and ready. I can’t imagine how it would be if I had been taking a day or more off every week during that time, much as that would have been nice at the time.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        This is how my spouse’s and my jobs both work – it might not be 8 straight hours of work, but we have to be available for customer needs that arise. So, doing laundry is not a problem, but going to the gym or somewhere that we’re not able to be responsive would be. I’m sure this is very job-dependent, too.

        1. Liz*

          That’s kind of my job. I have daily and weekly tasks that have specific timelines and deadlines. I also have others that are constant, but don’t have specific deadlines, just need to be kept up with. So if I’m off for a week, and maybe spend the next week catching up, it really isn’t an issue, except that I have more to catch up on at one time. I also field inquiries and requests about stuff, so either my boss or I needed to be available, during general working hours, to handle those.

        2. Recruited Recruiter*

          This is my job as well. I spend a surprising amount of time “Engaged to Wait.” I have regularly scheduled tasks that can typically be done in about 30 hours per week. The rest of the time, I am available in case employees have issues, or a disaster occurs or someone wrecks a truck. If that happens, I promptly go from engaged to wait to well past 40 in that week.

      3. greenwalker*

        People are already ridiculously available through email and text. If there is an emergency requiring a response and someone is not in the office, they get texted.

        1. Koalafied*

          For a lot of roles, “availability” isn’t just “able to respond to questions off the top of your head.” It can often mean you need to be able to get to a computer within 20-30 minutes so you can do a quick task for them – send a file from your hard drive, login to a secure system to pull information, or search through old reports to look up an answer you don’t remember off the top of your head.

          During the final week of December I never take PTO. I’m not expected to get any work done, but unless I take PTO, I’m expected to be available. That means I can sit in my den and watch TV all day, or spend time gardening, or take my dog on a leisurely walk… but I can’t go to the movies or sleep in until noon. To me it’s a very fair trade-off to be limited by the need to stay close to my computer in exchange for not having to deplete my PTO while I spend the day doing almost anything else that I want to do.

      4. LizM*

        Yeah, if your office has core hours, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that you’re *usually* available during those hours.

        Like, it’s not a problem for me to make a quick Starbucks run and be out of the office for 15 min, but I can’t just leave the office for the day at 2:30 and go grocery shopping. If I’m working, the expectation is that I’m responsive until around 4. Of course, I can take an afternoon off here and there for a doctor’s appointment or as personal leave, but not every week, and barring a personal emergency, it generally needs to be planned in advance and noted on my calendar.

        Also, not everyone likes having to listen to me run errands while we’re trying to talk about a complicated work issue, and not everything is simple enough to handle via text. It’s a lot more distracting than people realize, and I do need to be in a place where I can focus.

        Again, it’s fine if it happens once in a while, but people do notice if it happens all the time.

    5. James*

      It depends on the nature of the job, and how it’s billed. A lot of my tasks aren’t “Do X for Y hours” tasks, but rather “Be here X hours and able to immediately respond to anything and everything that comes up” tasks. If one of the team leaves it means that the rest are overburdened by definition.

      Also, this blog is “Ask a Manager”. Managerial questions–like staff and workload–fall under the management umbrella. NO ONE hires more people than they need, and most teams are under-staffed. This is because a manager’s first loyalty is to the company, and if I can increase my margin by using less people I’m going to. It’s a way to cover for teams that don’t make margins this quarter (and before you say it, not making margin means losing money and if that happens enough everyone loses their jobs). I acknowledge that this puts extra burden on employees (any good manager will), but on the flip side employees constantly push back against it. You end up with an equilibrium that usually isn’t perfect for anyone, but which is the best possible outcome for this specific situation.

      From a personal perspective I find it amusing that people complain about 40 hours. In my line of work 10 hours is standard, 11 to 12 isn’t uncommon for management staff. I get that my job is somewhat unique–it’s driven by the necessities of the work, not by managerial viciousness–it’s just something I find sort of funny. Differences in perspective and all.

      1. anonymous73*

        I know some people complain just to complain, but so many are overworked and underpaid, and all that creates is burn out. As a manager, or in a position where you need to be on call after hours, your salary generally reflects that extra time. I have no problems putting in extra hours when needed, as long as I’m not given a hard time by management (or nosey co-workers who like to clock watch for others) if I’m caught up and need to head out early one day.

        1. James*

          One way the company I work for addresses this is to require 80 hours per 2-week period, but give flexibility for how you do this. If you work extra hard on Monday you can take off early Friday and no one bats an eye–just let your manager know. For field staff this is a really good perk. If you work 60 hours the first week (believe me, this is easy) you can get a four-day weekend the second week and still get overtime.

    6. Mental Lentil*

      If you could get your job done in 30 hours instead of 40, a lot of companies would prefer to pay you for 30 hours. Yes, even if salaried.

      1. Baska*

        It’s funny, because I’ve run into the exact opposite of this. In one of my jobs earlier in my career (and, incidentally, one of the only ones where I worked for a big, international company), I routinely got my work done in about 6.5 hours per day, but was too zonked to keep working for the remaining hour and a half. I asked HR if there was any way that I could leave early and just be paid for the hours worked, but they told me that, no, the benefits were all calculated based on a 40-hour week, so I had to work 40 hours. I was LITERALLY WILLING TO DO THE SAME AMOUNT OF WORK FOR LESS MONEY, and they told me I couldn’t. The culture is so messed up. (NB: I’m in Canada, so exempt / non-exempt isn’t a thing here. But I was considered full-time at this job.)

      2. James*

        What I actually want is for you to do 40 hours of work in 30 hours–so that I can add another 10 hours of work to your schedule. That means that the person next to you moves a few feet further away from burnout, or that I can get this project done faster and therefore under margin, or I can use you to build a bridge with another department, thus getting us all more work for the future.

        Either way, I’m gonna fill up that 40 hour work week. ESPECIALLY if you’re salaried.

        1. Le Sigh*

          Wait, I’m confused — what do you mean, you want someone to do 40 hours of week in 30 hours? How does that work?

          1. James*

            When I build a project I estimate how much work each person can do a day–sample X wells, drill Y feet, survey Z acres, complete Q sections of a report. Do that much work in that amount of time and I make my margin–I earn the company the profit I told them to expect.

            If you do that in 75% of the time, that means I’ve saved on your labor by 25%, meaning I have a higher margin–I’ve got the same product, but cheaper. That also means you have availability for 25% more work. Given how my industry works you don’t get paid if you don’t work–billable hours and all that–so that means some other project can get ahead a bit. Or I can use you to get ahead on a project. That’s not a bad thing, by the way–if you’ve got 10 hours at the end of the week I can afford to risk having you take on a higher-level task, because it’s basically free for me (or, rather, I’m already planning to pay for it so it’s not extra).

    7. Sans Serif*

      YES!!!! That’s one thing that WFH because of covid has shown – work gets done without standing over someone’s shoulder and counting the minutes they’re at the computer.

  4. Lacey*

    Well, your friend sounds like she wants to misunderstand work place norms. But you’re not wrong about how unlimited vacation typically works.

  5. CarCarJabar*

    IMO: Unlimited vacation days are a scam to help companies’ financials look better. They don’t have to accrue an unpaid vacation time liability if they offer “unlimited” vacation.

    1. Not a cat*

      Yep. I come from startups and our vacation days would “disappear” from the ERP when we were looking for the next round of funding. They claimed to be tracking by hand, but I know they weren’t.

    2. Dust Bunny*


      Ours stops accruing at 280 hours and we have separate medical time (so the 280 hours is just vacation; I’m not sure medical ever stops accruing? I think I have almost 500 hours right now. I’ve donated hours over the years or I’d have a lot more). I don’t take a lot of time off but I certainly don’t feel deprived and I have more time accrued than I have any idea how to use. And, yes, we are actively encouraged to use it. But it’s also a nice place to work so people aren’t burned out all the time.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      One thing I like (paradoxically) about the “use it or lose it” vacation time. You never feel bad requesting vacation time, because your boss and you both know that it’s either that, or you lose it. I can totally see how and why, at most companies that have unlimited vacation, it ends up being used less.

      1. TimesChange*

        Yes! Officially our vacation time does not roll over (you can push a couple days “off the books” with management agreement and take them early in the year, especially if there’s an expected crunch at end of year). So most people try to be respectful of vacation time. Normal people don’t want to be responsible for someone losing their vacation days. We’re also salaried exempt so it’s easy to push time around/flex time/etc.

        We have a separate “sick time” that’s basically take-whatever-you-need and if there’s something big (surgery, etc), we’ll figure out the right bucket for that. Since our sick time is faux-unlimited, a lot of people end up working from home when sick. I usually just take a sick day and don’t work because…I’m usually no good when sick (unless I’m staying home with some symptoms that aren’t bad, but don’t want to spread strep throat until I’m sure it’s allergies or something transient). I can imagine if we switched to “unlimited” vacation time, we’d have a lot of people taking very little time.

      2. catbowl*

        My first professional job was at a place that let you roll over literally years worth of accrued vacation time. There was definitely a culture of “why are you taking so much when you could save it?”

        My second professional job was use it or lose it, and I also preferred that even though it was technically less. I used it much more liberally.

      3. Aggretsuko*

        Yeah, I couldn’t get any time off before December except guess what, I hit my vacation limit! Now I have to be out of the office even though we are super swamped! Nah nah nah nah!

    4. ursula*

      Yeah part of me honestly respects that this person was like, “oh unlimited? Cool, gonna help myself to as many days as I feel like.” Enough people are being squeezed by ‘unlimited vacation’ employers in the other direction (as others have covered) and not getting nearly the time off that they should. If someone isn’t gunning for a long career in X industry, I kind of love the idea that they would take as much vacation as they can get away with while still cashing the FT checks.

    5. TrainerGirl*

      It really depends on the company. I worked for a tech company with unlimited PTO, but I suspect that it worked there because we had employees all over the world, and of course, workers in other countries have different expectations for how much leave they take. My manager let me know right away that folks generally took 5 weeks per year, and he’d be looking for me to take a minimum of 4, because the US employees always tended to take less time.

      1. Yup*

        Which is probable. Just emphasizing that I can see how the friend’s viewpoint is being reinforced if she is following her employers procedure and routinely getting the time off approved by her boss.

        1. ecnaseener*

          Absolutely. She’s probably in a mentality of “I can always ask, boss will say no if it’s not okay” and who can really blame her for that?

      2. Beth*

        If the friend doesn’t get fired, the rest of the team is going to quit, because all they see is this one newbie slacker getting away with it.

      3. Bamcheeks*

        I mean— that’s just a crappy boss. And if she does lose her job because her boss is too bad at being a boss to clearly communicate expectations, that’s definitely the boss’s and the company’s fault.

        If your friend came to me and told me, “I know your boss says X is ok, but it isn’t really and you should stop doing that”, would many people listen?

      4. twocents*

        Honestly, for a brand-new hire, it may be less headache to go “sure, approved” while working with recruiting for her replacement.

      5. Anthony J Crowley*

        Oh gawd is this an ask Vs guess thing?! I never even thought of that!

        (If you’ve never come across this before Google ask Vs guess culture, it’s a game changer)

        1. ecnaseener*

          I mean…sort of? But in a context where you explicitly must ask and be granted permission. So if the problem is that the boss is expecting her to guess, he’s just wrong — unlike in normal social situations where neither the “ask” nor “guess” approach is objectively wrong.

      1. Gan Ainm*

        My thought exactly. I would absolutely speak up to an employee who was doing this, but I could also see a bad manager not saying anything, or, a company having a policy of not saying anything, for fear of wayward managers discouraging any vacation time.

        For example, pre-COVID our company had a generous / liberal work from home policy and the higher ups actively encouraged it, but many direct managers forbade it, so in reality no one actually got to wfh. The only way that changed was they took the decision out of managers’ hands. I could see something similar happening with this kind of PTO policy, saying you’re not allowed to decline or discourage use of it.

  6. generic_username*

    I hate unlimited days-off work policies. They usually mean you have to work on vacation, or that you’re so busy and tied to your job that you can’t get away anyway. My BIL has an unlimited policy but minimum annual billable hours (which, lol….), my husband used to have unlimited hours and he spent all of our vacations reading and responding to emails.

    Your friend is definitely going to be let go/fired for not performing well if she’s actually taking that much time off.

    1. generic_username*

      I forgot my friend who had unlimited time off and a super flexible schedule. Great on paper, but then her boss would call at 10pm on weeknights and on Saturdays and Sundays with questions. She was ALWAYS on the clock, ALWAYS. No thank you!

      1. Sullivmke*

        I have plenty of friends who have a set number of vacation days, and their bosses still call them at 10pm on weeknights and on Saturdays/Sunday. And while they’re on vacation. That’s not only a symptom of unlimited time off.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          In my last job, I had 6 weeks of defined PTO (a perk of being a loyal 15 year employee). Yes, I still got emergency calls and was expected to support projects I managed after hours as required. Yes, my boss said, “just come in at 9 if you have a 7 pm call” and no, I didn’t do that. A lot of us with large amounts of vacation took the day “off” and then worked from home (pre-Covid and WFH). You could accrue and rollover 2x your vacation, so when I quit, they paid me over $30,000 for 12 weeks of vacation. The only time I could take off was that 1-2 weeks of “real” vacations where I was traveling out of state with my family and the rest of it was spent each year on these fake days off where you’re still checking email to make sure the ship doesn’t crash into the rocks. Six weeks was nice, but I rather have 4 weeks guilt-free, and I never want unlimited time because I do see that being the same situation as my last job.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            (Meant to add that the boss who said start later if you have to stay later also regularly texted people all evening and sent emails from 11 pm-1 am. That place had a crappy workaholic culture. You can opt out, but your career stalls out, too.)

        2. generic_username*

          True. But I think having a set schedule and set vacation time helps set boundaries. For me, no one is allowed to expect to reach me when I’m off work or on vacation. Even my boss.

      2. Rainy*

        A (former) high-level director in my division said once that they wanted our services to be available 24/7, which is nice in theory, but since they did not then pony up budget to hire two more shifts of employees, I took nothing about it seriously.

        No one can afford what it would cost for me to be on the clock 24/7/365, because I have a pretty good idea of how long I can do that without cracking up, and in that time I need to make enough money to retire on, because I won’t be good for anything at all for a long time after.

    2. Smithy*

      I also really hate unlimited PTO because they so often seem to be coupled with jobs where managers are often the least trained and supported in actual management. Therefore questions like “how much time should I take off?” is a question managers assume or hope will be answered by either common sense or platitudes like “we’re all adults here”.

      If the OP’s friend is simply green to office 9-5 workplace norms due to the familial/social settings in which they were raised – neither of those answers actually help. Nor do they help “race to the bottom” environments where people take less and less vacation or work through vacation time.

      Some people really do work better and learn norms faster with more boundaries. Essentially, teach me all the rules, and then going along individually learning where and how rules are flexible. Taking that away entirely is just not something I’m a fan of.

  7. Sullivmke*

    I’ve worked for two companies now with unlimited vacation, and I actually have found it to work quite well (not just for me personally – I manage teams). However, it’s not really branded as “unlimited” anymore, but is instead “Take what you need (with manager approval).” I’m more than willing to work a few extra hours on some days to get my work done if it means I don’t have to say no to long weekend trips or other activities because I’ve “used up” my days off. In my experience at these two companies, people tend to take 3-4 weeks on average of true vacation. Having a defined number of vacation days does not mean you’re never are asked to work late or put in extra hours or even work while on vacation, and that’s what bothers me about that approach. If they’re going to count how many days I’m taking off, I’m going to be much more deliberate about counting the number of hours I’m working in a given day/week.

    1. Overeducated*

      I think the issue here is that when it is “unlimited,” how much is appropriate to take depends not just on workload (because if anyone in an understaffed workplace had to wait until the workload was manageable, they’d get NO time off), but on norms. If you’re an extreme outlier taking 12 weeks when everyone else takes 3-4, that’s probably going to impact you even if the time is technically “unlimited.” I appreciate that my time off is very clearly defined by the hours earned with each paycheck, but also that a use-or-lose cap and a widespread culture that losing it is bad combine to make even workaholic managers take some time off.

      1. Roscoe*

        Exactly. Its just based on your teams norms. If you take far more than anyone else on your team, it looks bad. So its “unlimited”, but doesn’t mean people won’t have certain opinions about you

    2. Ali G*

      This has been my experience as well. “Unlimited” PTO has limits and it varies widely (IME even between departments at the same employer which is unfortunate). Where I worked our “rules” we basically you can flex your time as needed and you don’t have to worry about tracking an hour here or there for appointments, etc. and then they asked that you not take more than 3-4 full weeks off a year (actual vacation). So basically you had as much time as you needed for life and getting sick, then actual weeks of vacation was capped.

    3. hayling*

      Agree. I work for a high-growth tech company in the SF Bay Area. We have a “flexible PTO” policy, which means “take what you need but don’t go crazy”. In the manager handbook it tells managers to encourage people to take about a week per quarter. One of our company values is balance, so I think this works well.

    4. sacados*

      I would agree, I think the biggest caveat for these unlimited vacation policies is that how well it does/doesn’t work is HIGHLY (if not almost entirely) dependent on the company/department culture and your manager.
      Do they model appropriate/not stingy use of actual vacation?
      Do they actively encourage people to take time off when they’re able to?
      Do they push back against employees answering (non-emergency) emails or attending meetings while on a scheduled “vacation”?

    5. The Price is Wrong Bob*

      They are not vacation days if you have to be connected to a phone or a computer and respond to work stuff. Unless you are delivering babies or doing another on-call medical job, it’s really a way to steal vacation time from employees.

    6. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think the biggest issues with adding the manager approval caveat is that it sets up for having disparate treatment of employees based on manager. If Accounting gets unlimited time off, but Marketing gets side-eyed if they ask for more than a week, that’s a problem and having a free-to-interpretation policy can lead to disparate implementation.

  8. fiona the baby hippo*

    Most companies adopt ‘unlimited vacation days’ as a way to avoid paying out accrued vacation when you quit. I think if a company was really committed to a work/life balance they’d give you a set number of vacation days but roll up personal days into an unlimited sick day policy so you can, say, take a day off to move or a half-day to take your car to the dealership without having to chip into vacation time. I had a friend whose manager basically let her operate like this but I know that’s the exception rather than the rule.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      Exactly. I’d MUCH rather my beautiful California law of unlimited vacation roll overs and full payout when I leave.

    2. Smithy*

      I have this situation now, where the assorted “life needs” of going to the doctor, DMV, etc. aren’t touched by either sick or vacation days. That is strictly a dynamic with my boss but does far more in the true work/life balance.

  9. Firm Believer*

    I’m so glad this is a topic today. I give my employees 20 days PTO and expect them to be taken, on top of the week at the holidays unless there is something urgent. To me this is a much better system for the employee than the false idea of unlimited PTO. There is no such thing as unlimited PTO. And I believe those who have that constantly have to be asking, am I taking too much? Am I taking advantage? Am I being looked at critically for how much I’ve taken? Instead of being able to relax on earned PTO that they can take free of criticism from colleagues or bosses. All unlimited PTO is is a sales tactic meant for recruiting purposes. And as someone stated above, those people usually take less. Do you really think your boss wants you to take 30 to 40 days off? No, they don’t.

    1. Kevin Sours*

      It’s not meant as a recruiting tactic. As I recall it comes out of silicon valley tech culture where taking time off (particularly at startups) is not really encouraged by the culture. So PTO builds up. And then either people get to limits and the company has to buy it off to keep working, people taking it off in inconvenient chunks, or it builds up as a liability on the balance sheet. And California is *particularly* protective of workers PTO so they have to pay it out when somebody leaves.

      “Unlimited” PTO means that PTO never accrues and is never a thing unless people actually take it. While making it harder for employees to know how much PTO is reasonable to take (again especially in work cultures where taking it isn’t encouraged to begin with)

      1. Firm Believer*

        I still believe despite how it started that it’s a recruiting tactic. It certainly is in my industry.

      2. Le Sigh*

        I’m sure there are companies out there that mean what they say about unlimited PTO — and if they put structures in place to make it happen, great. But my experience thus far is it’s favored by companies that want to sound like they care about your work/life balance but ultimately make it too difficult to really ever take that time. Maybe they just pester you at all hours, even if it’s not urgent. Or they promise not to bug you on vacation but then there’s some urgent client presentation that you *have* to be there for and *has* to be during your planned time off — which okay, it happens sometimes, but every time, without fail? Or they pile on so much work you can never really take it, or you feel so worn down and guilty you just…don’t take it. But then in one-on-one meetings they’ll encourage you to take time off…but never actually create the conditions for it.

        So, essentially, a marketing gimmick that frees up their liabilities on their spreadsheet. Real win-win for them!

    2. The Price is Wrong Bob*

      Allotted time and creating a culture where no one hassles you for time off is so important. My boss wants me to take my 30+ days off, but he is not American so he sees that as the starting minimum.

      1. Bluesboy*

        Or Italian! We have more than 30 days off a year (so more than six weeks) plus national holidays (8-12 more days per year). My boss really struggles to take time off, partly because he’s busy, but partly because he loves his job. So he often works through his holidays (he submits them for approval after taking them, because if you submit them earlier, the software locks you out so you can’t work anyway).

        Unfortunately the result is that it makes everyone else on his team feel that they need to be available for work on their holidays too, which isn’t ideal. He would love to be able to take less days.

  10. Sambal*

    I have two schools of thoughts. The first is that if she’s completing her work on time and her manager is okay with it, who cares? Our systems are so set on appearing busy, I’m kind of envious of the guts it takes to just take all this time off without a care in the world.

    But other part of me agrees that she’s probably making a bad impression at work and will appear as if she isn’t there to be a team player. It probably is coming off selfish to the rest of the team, especially as she’s new. And that may follow them throughout their career.

    My previous company had “unlimited” time off. In the years I was there, I was able to work my way to 7 weeks off. But, boy, they worked me a TON (including about half my weekends) when I was at the office. And I was able to prove that I was responsible enough to climb up the ladder with additional time off, which helped.

    Now that I’m slightly older, I’m over it. I want my weekends plus a set number of days that I’ll use up every year.

    1. ecnaseener*

      I think it very much depends on the nature of the work / how work is assigned.

      If it’s a call center-esque thing, where calls are always coming in and are shared among the people present at that moment — then someone who takes a ton of time off is doing way less work than her coworkers and making them all do a little more work. (I doubt this is actually a call center, but imagine something along those lines.)

      But with bigger projects that aren’t really affected by short absences (ie even if I’m out the day a new project comes in, I’ll still get assigned that project if it’s my turn), then it makes more sense to operate on “as long as you get the work done on time.”

      And of course there’s lots of in-between stuff, like if the role is supposed to include being available for the occasional client call, or if people often need you for time-sensitive help.

      1. Littorally*

        Right, yeah. And what you’re calling “call center-esque” extends quite a lot farther than strictly call-center jobs. My current job, which is several steps up the seniority ladder, still operates on this model — we’re case managers, and you get assigned cases each day you’re in the office. If you’re in the office fewer days, then even if you work just as hard when you’re in, you’re still handling fewer cases and your coworkers are getting more assignments when you’re out.

    2. LKW*

      This is where I’m straddling – simply because we don’t know the nature of the work or the productivity of the friend.

      If the work is done – have a nice day off. Good for you! But… keep in mind if you consistently demonstrate that you are getting the work done in less time, it would be perfectly reasonable for the company to change the role from full time to part time. You’ve proven it can be done on a part time schedule.

      If the work is not done – or is case management – and it means your co-workers need to pick up the slack… not good. You’re abusing a system and management should be stepping in to make it clear that approvals will go through a bit more scrutiny.

      But there are people who simply take the mile when given the inch. The free donut stasher, the candy jar emptier… this should not be surprising.

    3. JM60*

      Even the “7 weeks off” you got is actually terrible if you’re working about half your weekends. If you took 7 complete weeks off, but were working a total of 1 day each of the 45 weekends after a non-vacation week, then you did about 9 weeks of work on weekends. If you subtract that from the 7 weeks you took off, that’s a total of negative 2 weeks of vacation!

      I can certainly understand why you’re over it.

  11. DrSalty*

    When I got promoted I was moved to unlimited PTO, to my dismay. I keep my own tracker of my scheduled PTO to ensure I take at least as many days as are owed me based on my years at the company.

  12. Similarly Situated*

    I have unlimited PTO, but I’m required to find coverage myself. That means training other staff on how to do my job, bargaining with them to do it, then monitoring my email for the inevitable “weird” emergency that the boss says no one else can handle.

    In other words, I never take vacation.

    1. sofar*

      I’m in a similar boat. Plus, with “unlimited” PTO, we’re expected to be on call and jump back in if there’s a fire to put out. After all, we didn’t burn a “nonrefundable” vacation day, so we can just “make up for it” with another one of our unlimited-but-not-really PTO days.

      I’ve had to become very adept at making a big deal about “camping” or being otherwise unreachable and absolutely NOT responding to Slack/email (and making this very clear in my out-of-office response and my “away” message on Slack). Because our culture is very much that people are still reachable on their days off, I see this as doing a favor to everyone because it’s clear I’m not going to parachute in — they’re empowered to find their own solutions.”

  13. Jean*

    I don’t even see why you’re so torqued up about this, to be honest. It’s none of your business, and you’re way too invested in and judgmental of your friend’s work related choices. Let it go.

    1. Alli*

      This + 1!!! As someone who was also laid off during covid, I’m also disturbedby the fact that the OP was “not surprised by her getting laid off” when half the staff got laid off. So much of layoffs has to do with arbitrary factors and not how many hours someone is butt in seat. If they eliminated half the company, chances are even if she did stay late every day, her position still would’ve been eliminated!

    2. NerdyKris*

      Because friends tend to care about eachother and don’t want to see them get fired if it’s avoidable? Most people don’t want their friends to suffer unnecessarily.

      1. Jean*

        There’s caring about your friend’s well being, and then there’s inserting yourself into situations where your input hasn’t been solicited and probably wouldn’t be appreciated or even taken under advisement. The friend is an adult and needs to learn these things on her own, even if that means “the hard way.”

        1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

          Well, yes, the friend needs to learn. And peers are often a good source of information, especially if they’re good friends who are willing to point out when you’r veering into “breaking expected norms” territory.

          Is it okay for OP to see a figurative cliff Friend is driving towards and not saying anything? Personally, that’s not what I want from a friend (and have appreciated the times they have pointed out the figurative cliff). Once OP says something, *then* they need to leave it alone.

          And, quite relevantly, OP was also writing to AAM to ask if this is how unlimited time off works, to inform their own job search.

    3. BigHairNoHeart*

      It’s very tough to see someone early in their career make avoidable mistakes and suffer the consequences. I’ve been there! Maybe OP’s super off base in her assessment of the situation, but I understand the concern of not wanting your friend to get fired.

      I think you’re right that OP needs to let go though. She might be right or wrong, have a pure motivation or not, but her friend is unlikely to accept the feedback, so it wouldn’t help to keep pushing.

      1. Sambal*

        I think OP is coming from a good place, too.

        Potentially OP can introduce this blog to the friend? I agree that most people would be resistant if someone, totally unprompted, criticized the way they’re running their life.

    4. gmg22*

      Came here to say this. TBH it doesn’t sound like the OP likes this “friend” all that much. Maybe there is some envy of the flexible schedule, maybe the friend acts entitled in other areas of her life (like the OP described her doing at the previous job) and it’s affecting their friendship negatively, maybe some of both … but the OP can’t do anything about this particular situation except look for a similarly flexibly-scheduled job if that’s what they want. This kind of setup still being the exception rather than the rule, it just makes good sense to assume that “here are your X number of days of CTO, please use them” means just that. But where it applies, also assume that “you have unlimited vaca so long as the work gets done” means just that. Let it go, OP. And maybe think about what you mean when you say “friend.”

    5. RagingADHD*

      Yeah, there’s a not-great dynamic here. This says they have been talking about work topics “over the decades they’ve been friends.” If that’s a real timeline, then these are not people early in their career. And the friend has been laid off *one time* in the middle of a global pandemic.

      Friend seems to be doing okay in their work life overall, and LW is veering into inappropriate and intrusive mothering.

      If Friend is making a mistake with PTO, that’s between them and their employer. It’s not LW’s job to stop Friend from making mistakes (even if that were possible). If LW thinks Friend is annoyingly flaky, then maybe it’s time to rethink the friendship instead of trying to micromanage Friend’s work life.

      Like, if LW truly considered Friend as an equal adult instead of a DIY project, would they still be friends at all? Is there enough other good stuff going on in the relationship?

  14. Sammy*

    Good for her! She has found a workplace that vibes with her lifestyle. If her boss is approving the days, she is probably getting her work done. What’s the problem?

  15. AthenaC*

    Everyone needs to pull their weight. If you’re [i]always[/i] the team member who doesn’t get their work done because you’re “on PTO” [i]again[/i] and other people need to work late to make up for you, you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. Or if you’re [i]always[/i] the team member who can’t take on additional work because you’re “on PTO” [i]again[/i] and other people need to put in weekends to do the work that you could have helped with, you’re not holding up your end of the bargain.

    In organizations with unlimited PTO, it does get a bit more gray and it takes more active management both to make sure people don’t abuse it (as it sounds like the friend may be doing) and to make sure people take ENOUGH PTO. I’ve heard horror stories of other companies in my industry that in theory have unlimited PTO …. but no one ever seems to get PTO approved. On the other hand, my company is VERY permissive with PTO, and in fact we have had multiple messages from leadership encouraging us to take more.

    We have had people that seem to use PTO as an excuse to not get their assigned work done, but in those cases the performance issue is not getting the work done in the time alotted for it, not the fact that they took PTO.

    1. sofar*

      Yep. We have a team member who has interpreted “unlimited PTO” to be “PTO whenever I want.” She’s not that high up, so she can generally get away with it (plus there are a few others in the department who have the same job as she does, so there’s always coverage). But she misses meetings at the last minute and will often just take a week off out of nowhere (often during our busiest times). She’s also starting to make noise about people who “haven’t been there as long” getting promoted “ahead” of her.

      I’d like to go back to the 20 vacation days, 10 sick day policy I had at one company. That was generous, but clear. And nobody was shooting themselves in the foot by enjoying the “unlimited” policy a bit too much, while others worked themselves silly trying to get ahead.

  16. sock knitter supreme*

    Armchair not-a-lawyer legal question: if someone were to, when hired into a job with unlimited leave, take too much of that leave and be fired for it, and then they filed a wrongful termination lawsuit stating that the employer had acted in bad faith by misrepresenting the amount of allowable leave time (“unlimited” but hewing to unspoken and possibly unevenly enforced rules of thumb) … could that create problems for all companies with such policies? Basically, is this like the Uber of leave policies and the reason it’s so popular and successful is that the legal/regulatory system hasn’t caught up and plugged all the leaks yet?

    1. ecnaseener*

      IANAL but I would guess the company would be fine as long as their written policy said something about taking a “reasonable” amount of PTO — and/or if they can say “we didn’t fire her specifically for taking too much PTO, we fired her for not getting enough work done”

    2. AnotherAlison*

      Legalities aside, the manager is approving this time off. If I asked for weeks off, they were approved, and THEN I was fired for taking time off, that would be ridiculous. If there was no approval chain of command, I could see a lawsuit for the scenario you describe, but not for the OP’s friend. Also: There could be something in the policy that makes it more “undefined” vacation than “unlimited” vacation, but we all just refer to it as unlimited.

    3. AthenaC*

      As I understand, people aren’t fired for taking too much PTO. They’re fired for not meeting performance objectives. Those performance objectives (X chargeable hours per year, for example) are typically clear and easily measurable and apply to everyone …. and are impossible to meet if you choose to take “too much” PTO. So it basically becomes a question of whether you can manage your professional obligations appropriately with the amount of PTO you’re taking.

      I’ve definitely had some team members that use PTO as an excuse not to get their assigned work done … and they ultimately get fired after a pattern of not delivering their assignments on time. NOT because they took PTO.

      1. Beth*

        Yes, this. She would be in trouble for not doing her job in the time she did spend in the office — or possibly due to the horrific destruction her slacker attituide causes in the rest of the team.

        If I saw someone in my office putting in so little time, I’d be completely pissed off.

    4. braindump*

      My armchair not a lawyer legal answer thinks it depends on how the employee could show evidence they were “fired for it”.

      I assume the employer would claim something like job duties were not being adequately performed.

    5. Anonym*

      I would imagine the reason for firing, both on the books and in fact, would be not getting their work done, rather than the amount of PTO taken. If a fired employee filed suit and said it was because they used the unlimited leave policy, I should think the employer would have some other policy to point to that includes doing your work to a satisfactory degree. (IA very much NAL, of course!)

    6. LabTechNoMore*

      No idea about the legal implications, but I’m glad someone is finally pointing out the misnomer of “unlimited” vacation time. Maybe I’m just overly literal, but unless someone can take a vacation for 365 days a year then there’s nothing unlimited about it. The whole unlimited PTO setup strikes me as disingenuous on the employers side, if they’re really just trying to make the employee guess the correct amount of vacation time they have in mind.

      That said, it sounds like OP’s friend is enjoying actual unlimited PTO, so good for her!

  17. Jenny Linsky*

    I’ve been a manager at two different (tech) companies with unlimited or “use what you need” PTO policies and I hated it. The way the policies were written, as a manager I was legally not allowed to tell team members how much time off was too much; I could only deny requests if they were coming at a bad time (for instance, “You can’t take that date off because it’s the day before our scheduled release”). Most team members were very conscientious and if anything didn’t take enough time off (and I would then urge them to take time off, and in one case forced someone to), but once or twice I would have a team member who was taking significantly more time than their teammates–not quite as bad as the situation described here but not too far off–and there wasn’t much I could do about it. At both companies when I asked HR how I should be handling this, I was told to measure them by their output (a suggestion I’m seeing in these comments), but the nature of our work was such that it wasn’t easy to set a quantitative goal. We had projects that could take two days and similar projects that could take two months (often because of circumstances outside of our control) and most attempts to say how long certain types of work “should” take so that we could set some reasonable per-person output goals always ended in failure because so much of our work involved running into tangled messes beneath the surface that took longer than anticipated to clean up. With that kind of task, asking “Do they get all their work done?” doesn’t make it any clearer because there’s always a ton of work to do and we can’t effectively say how productive any individual should be. I have no idea what kind of work the person in the original question is doing, but I could absolutely see myself being that manager and having to approve the time off simply because I don’t have a good alternative.

    1. Colette*

      Yeah, some jobs are hard to measure. I’ve talked before about how I used to be in an IT group that handled tickets. Sounds easy to measure – but I usually ended up with the complex issues that took a long time to resolve, as well as implementing new systems and meeting with vendors. So if you measured based on how many tickets I closed, my numbers were lower than others.

      Now my job involves meeting with people and making sure processes are followed. Also really hard to measure.

      1. Gumby*

        Yeah, I am not sure I have had *any* job where there were easily defined metrics that could be used in this way that wouldn’t/couldn’t be immediately gamed. If you are going to make salary and employment decisions based on the number of bugs I find? Each typo on a page gets a separate bug report.

        Though most of what I do is not amenable to metrics like this at all. (I am no longer in SQA.)

  18. drpuma*

    I’ve taken way more time off in my first year working at a Fortune 50 company with generous “limited” PTO (that they expect and encourage us to make use of!) than I ever did working at a Silicon Valley startup with “unlimited vacation.” Since we could work from anywhere, the running assumption was that we would. I much prefer having limited PTO and a boss who wants me to use it.

  19. AKchic*

    LW, this is your friend, not a coworker, employee, or someone who you’re going to be financially supporting if she loses her job. Why do you feel so sure that she needs to hear this advice from you?

    Whether your friend is misusing, abusing or misinterpreting the “unlimited” leave policy isn’t really your concern or your place to judge. If her supervisor has a problem, her supervisor can bring it up. If her company wants to rein her in, her company can do so. Right now, you’re sounding judgy (whether you have a good reason to be or not doesn’t matter) and you’re throwing some classist shade with the whole “She did not grow up around anyone who worked in a traditional office job” bit. It sounds like you’re hinting that her family may have been shift workers (I.e., retail, janitorial, anything that has not had a traditional 9-5 office job and therefore wouldn’t “understand” office staffing and vacation norms).

    If you want to preserve your friendship, you may need to step back and stop trying to manage your friend’s professional life, especially since it doesn’t appear like she’s asked you to help her with it.

  20. Alex*

    This is super relevant to me today, as I was just thinking about applying to a job that said it had this policy, and honestly it gave me pause and is noted as a “con” in my brain for just the reasons Alison outlines. Right now I have a fairly generous, but explicit, amount of time off and there is no grey area around it. Much less stressful.

    1. Sambal*

      You definitely need to ask about this policy if you get an interview. Ask how the policy works, how much time do people generally take off, etc. Broadly speaking, unlimited PTO isn’t great, but there are some places that make it work.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      Id ask each person that you interview with “I’m wondering how your unlimited PTO policy works in the real world. When did you take your last take vacation? How long was it? Were you asked to work while you were on vacation?”
      People can give you a canned response about how great it is, but you get the real story when you ask for the receipt.

  21. Purple Cat*

    I might as well have “unlimited” vacation time. I earn 5 weeks, plus 2 weeks carry-over and I don’t take nearly enough time off because the work piles up anyway.
    Unlimited vacation time just reduces the liability the company has to pay out when an employee leaves.
    Companies aren’t planning on hiring someone full-time if it only requires 2.5 days of work/week.
    So maybe she’s a superstar who’s getting more done in her actual working time than the average employee, OR she’s failing spectacularly and has no idea.
    I think the key point is her boss is approving her time, so if they’re not complaining, you shouldn’t either.

  22. Littorally*

    As long as her boss is approving it, I don’t see anything to really get that preemptively worried about — especially since you are her friend and not someone who is relying on her income. I could see a spouse or older kid having a lot more solid grounds to fret.

    If she were the one writing in, I think my stance would be that she should be really vigilant to make sure that not only is she completing the workload assigned to her, but that her overall productivity is not significantly lower than her coworkers’ despite the time off (ie, is she completing X amount of work per month? rather than Y amount of work per working day?) But ultimately, that is neither your circus nor your monkeys.

  23. irene adler*

    Unlimited vacation- be careful what you wish for.

    I attended a 3-day, local seminar with a gal who worked at a big, local and exclusive biotech company that has the unlimited vacation policy.
    Funny thing though. She wore the same exact outfit all three days. And she was very late getting to the seminar each day.
    I chatted with her (and shared notes on what she’d missed). She was very nice. Said she hadn’t been able to get home to sleep/change clothes as she’d been at work when not at the seminar. I asked if this was unusual. “No,” she said. The work was very demanding. They were expected to always be taking classes outside of work and had very high goals to meet. Lots of team projects to work on.
    I did make the joke about taking all that unlimited vacation time to recover from all this work. She smiled and said that no one she works with takes much -if any- time off. In spite of the policy. They just can’t do it.

    She wasn’t sure how much longer she would enjoy working there.

    Seems to me “unlimited vacation” is a way for management to ignore the burnout many must be experiencing.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I’m at an “unlimited” company and I can agree. Unlimited PTO is used as an excuse to have people work 24/7. I work holidays and weekends, and I’ve only been able to use 4 days PTO over the last 1.5 years. And you get contacted to work while you are on vacation because it’s viewed as working at another location, not as time away from working.

    1. Simply the best*

      Huh. I would hope if my friend saw me doing something she worried could get me fired, she’d let me know.

      1. anonymous73*

        OP said her peace once. Now she needs to let it go as it’s none of her business. If my friend was judging my situation without having all of the facts, AND kept pushing me about it, we’d have words. And they wouldn’t be kind words.

        What people never seem to understand is that even if you come from a place of good intentions, it doesn’t absolve you from making the other person feel crappy, especially if you’re being judgmental. See: unsolicited advice.

  24. Butterfly Counter*

    Hmm. I am kind of seeing this in the light of attendance in college.

    As a lecturer, I do take attendance, but I don’t use it to count against students who don’t come to class. It helps me connect names and faces and, at the end of the semester, I can confidently say that Student X showed more competency in class than their test grade showed and feel like I can bump up their grade. It’s not just about butts in seats, but about being able to recognize and reward effort that goes beyond just the metrics of my grading. Students who do well by doing the readings and assignments without a stellar attendance record still get a good grade.

    If this friend has middling metrics based on however her effort is assessed and they compare it to the amount of days she’s actually shown up, I can’t see that going well for her in the long run. On the other hand, if she’s turning in good work on the days she does show up and meeting her supervisor’s expectations, utilizing the unlimited vacation approved by her manager should not count against her.

  25. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    As far as I can tell, unlimited PTO is truly unlimited unless you try to use it.

  26. Spicy Tuna*

    Unlimited PTO is so that employers don’t need to pay out unused PTO and carry it as a liability on their books. At my last job, the company allowed people to accrue as much PTO as they were entitled to. I had a PTO bank of six weeks, which was a nice bonus after I left.

    My cousin works for a company that has unlimited PTO and he reports that he and his colleagues take far less time off since the policy was instituted.

  27. Cat H UK*

    I’ve just been tuped from my UK based Finance company to a large American company that has “unlimited” time off (branded as flexible). However, we still get our contractual 28 days plus bank Holidays that we must take each year. Then on top of that, we have our FTO. I like this system because it means that you are still having at least 28 days of your choosing off each year, then you can grab some extra days if you need them.
    For example, I’ll be moving house in the next couple of months so will probably take 2 weeks off to settle in, decorate etc. It’s nice to know that I can do that without worrying about days off here and there and making sure I keep some aside for emergencies

  28. Turtle Wexler*

    In my experience, the other major issue with “unlimited vacation days” is who actually gets all that vacation, in practice. The inequalities of the workplace — in my experience, how women were treated — are present in whose requests are approved by their managers, who has consequences for how much vacation they’re taking, and who can just “take a personal day Friday” and who can’t.

    1. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

      There’s also the mommy-tracked danger. If you ask for a day off for a sick kid or elderly parent as a woman, you seem not committed to your job. As a man, you seem noble.

  29. Beth*

    I work for a firm with no formal vacation day policy — and no way is it unlimited! The LW’s friend wouldn’t last three months here.

  30. Wats*

    There are A LOT of comments about bad experiences with Unlimited PTO, but it can really depend on a lot of factors. Company policies, manager decisions, and personal workload. My manager truly believes in it. He says as long as it’s less than 2 weeks, consider it approved. If it’s longer, we need to have a discussion first to make sure there is proper coverage. But, I’m lucky that the work that I do can be covered by a few other people in the company in a way that only adds a couple short meetings to their calendar. Plus, if my work starts to slip, that’s something he should be keeping an eye on and will let me know.

    I’m just saying, I have had great experiences and much prefer it over 2 weeks off that’s never quite enough for random stuff I want to do throughout the year.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      That’s awesome! But I’m also not a huge fan of policies and laws that are reliant on competent management. If there were more competent managers we’d have way less AAM letters (less interesting ones for sure).

    2. SnapCrackleStop*

      Just chiming in with my positive experience. We changed the policy to Unlimited PTO (under another name) early in the pandemic. Before that, I had been around long enough to have 4 weeks of PTO and would usually come close to using that up.

      Since the change, I really have taken time when I needed it and it’s been fine. I’m on track to use more time than last year and it truly is fine. Folks who have lost family members, been sick with COVID, moved house, etc have seem to be really using the policy and it seems to be genuinely making work-life easier because people have time to live their home-life.

    3. Lynn Whitehat*

      I’ve had good experiences with it too. In practice, I’ve found it means “normally 20-ish days a year, and we’re not going to get too rigid about exactly what you’ve accrued.” In contrast to one place I worked, which started people at 2 weeks per calendar year, use or lose, no exceptions. People who had family overseas, which was a lot of the employees, all took the last two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January, every other year, because it was the only way to put together more than two weeks of vacation ever. Of course then we were quite short-handed for a month, which was sort of OK in December but not great in January. All because of an inflexible method of counting vacation.

  31. YL*

    For any place with unlimited PTO, I would ask explicit questions about how it’s actually used.

    What the average # of days employees take off per year?
    Is there a blackout period due to business needs?
    Are there other rules?
    Do you look to see who should be taking PTO because it’s been a while since they had a day off?

    For example, one company told me their employees averaged 5 weeks of PTO under their unlimited PTO policy. They also said don’t exploit the policy. So, you can take an entire month off one summer, but don’t expect to have that approved for the next summer.

  32. KWu*

    I read it as OP being concerned that her friend is getting set up to miss the implicit judgments around use of this particular benefit. It’s one of those things that perpetuate privilege in a supposedly “meritocratic” system, certainly. I can definitely see it playing out as the friend eventually getting shafted due to poor management, but at the same time, the friend does not seem open to advice or other perspectives. If someone isn’t open to the idea that what other people literally say is not necessarily the actual policy that is carried out, they kind of have to be left to learn that lesson for themselves. I’ve been there!

  33. RJ*

    The last two companies I worked for have both switched over to unlimited PTO policies for project managers/leaders. I was at the second when this was implemented there and the transition was interesting to read. Half of them took less time. 25% took no time. The other 25% took more time than they had in the past.

    I get that this PTO policy was primarily started for the benefit of the employer, but part of me is happy that some employees are able to take advantage of it while they can. However, please keep in mind that employees can and have been fired and disciplined for taking off too many days when this relates to performance/task goals that are not met or exceeded for the year. When management wants to, they’ll find the verbage to use to get rid of someone who takes too much time off.

  34. Anon so you can't yell at me*

    It seems like there have been more of these linked ones lately. I wish they were eventually posted here. Not everyone can afford multiple website subscriptions.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      There aren’t more. One a day, same as it’s been for a long time. Alison provides hundreds of free articles to us, she deserves to have paid gigs too.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s been one per day Monday through Thursday for years — hasn’t changed in years!

      NYMag and Vice are eventually posted here, but my agreements with the outside publications make me wait X amount of time first (usually 90 days, and then I just go back and replace the link to the outside pub with the full article).

      But yeah, there’s no expectation that everyone will buy subscriptions. I still need to promote my work though!

  35. mark132*

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the friend’s boss simply doesn’t track the days off each employee takes, and may not really be fully aware of how much time they are taking off. This would especially be possible where a boss has 20 or more direct reports.

  36. Turanga Leela*

    I have an unlimited vacation story!

    I used to work in a small office where we had no official vacation policy. There wasn’t an official number of vacation days, and no one kept track, but my boss rejected the term “unlimited vacation.” We also didn’t have official holidays—there wasn’t a calendar. I routinely worked on Labor Day, MLK Day, and so on. So you just kind of came to work on weekdays, and if you needed time off, you told the boss, who would approve it if she thought it was reasonable.

    One year, I told her I was planning to travel for the winter holidays, and I’d be gone from December 22 to January 2. Boss said that seemed excessive, because I’d already taken a lot of leave that year (I’d been on family leave). I changed my plans so I’d fly back on December 30, which she approved.

    Fast forward to December 31. I go to work. I send boss an email about my project. I quickly get a response: “Why are you in the office? It’s New Year’s Eve! Go home! I’ll see you on the 2nd.”

    I never found a way to bring up with her that I’d cut short my vacation in order to come into the office… on days when she didn’t want me in the office. It wasn’t the kind of workplace where that conversation would have gone over well.

    1. Meep*

      I have a similar story but inversed. I let my manager know I was taking a week off to go skiing for the Holidays six months in advance. She agreed and seemed excited for me. At the time, she mentioned something about how she should also take a vacation that week, but I shrugged it off. I reminded her at three months, one month, and two weeks. Each time she said she remembered and was happy for me. Fast forward to the day before – she pulls me into her office and reams me out for taking a vacation while she is out of town and how “we” need to “plan” better as “both” of us cannot be out at the same time. But she was oh-so generously going to let me go ~this time~. I was so shocked I didn’t know how to respond so I just thanked her and went on my vacation. I never knew how to point out that SHE hijacked my vacation days.

      1. Jean*

        What she did was 100% intentional and done with full knowledge, because she knew you would never be able to find a way to point out the obvious to her. I hope you don’t work under this person anymore.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I’m curious what you’d prefer if you worked somewhere that wasn’t required to pay out

  37. Meep*

    It sounds like taking time off is the least of her worries and to just let her go out the door.

    We have a manager like that. We, peons, have 2 weeks of vacation per year and have to fight to take off typical holidays. She, on the other hand, takes a vacation for 1.5 weeks every 2-3 months and then gushes over how she hasn’t had a vacation in ~soooo long~. When holidays like Memorial Day coming up, she pretends we are forced to work and then takes the day off herself. She also “works” from 4 AM to 8 PM – when actually it is more like 9 to 3 pm with a sizeable lunch break in between.

    Her manager will hopefully wise up, unlike our special snowflake’s. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to make her wise-up.

  38. Meep*

    It sounds like taking time off is the least of her worries and to just let her go out the door.

    We have a manager like that. We, peons, have 2 weeks of vacation per year and have to fight to take off typical holidays. She, on the other hand, takes a vacation for 1.5 weeks every 2-3 months and then gushes over how she hasn’t had a vacation in ~soooo long~. When holidays like Memorial Day coming up, she pretends we are forced to work and then takes the day off herself. She also “works” from 4 AM to 8 PM – when actually it is more like 9 AM to 3 PM with a sizeable lunch break in between.

    Her manager will hopefully wise up. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to make her wise-up.

  39. Hiring Mgr*

    Does this question really have anything to do with unlimited vacation? It sounds like your friend is just an unmotivated employee – it’s hard to imagine a standard PTO schedule would change much

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Well OP is also asking for clarification for their own understanding, so yes.

      Additionally OP seems to know that, and wants to help. And should probably stop butting in, but I think OP is coming from a genuine place and also wants to understand unlimited vacation time better.

  40. anonymous73*

    This week seems to have a “not my circus, not my monkeys” theme of letters.

    I realize you don’t want to see your friend lose her job again, but unless she’s asked for your advice, it’s really none of your business. If your friend isn’t getting her work done, that’s something for her manager to address. There are actually some managers and companies that care more about employee productivity that those employees being in the office for exactly 40 (or more) hours per week.

  41. LizIndeed*

    I’m about to start a new job and am assuming in the first three months of the year I won’t take any time off, despite being given some mental health days, personal holidays, and accruing time off. I will then save it for maybe a bit more time off around the holidays when people are out and using PTO anyway.

    I’ve been in an unlimited PTO situation in which I DEFINITELY overused (I had a trip planned to Europe and China before being hired that I had saved up PTO for. When I changed jobs I was paid out the PTO I was saving and also got to use the unlimited PTO to take this three week trip). But it was a small company of friends, and in general I limited myself to taking 3-4 weeks a year just to be fair about it.

    To me it’s less that she’s taking so much time off- but that she is taking it off right away when starting at a new place.

  42. SwampWitch*

    In my experience with unlimited time off (paid) it was unlimited but it did have a price of complaints, emotional labor, and basically having to spill your guts as to why you weren’t going to be there. No HR to enforce anything, so. Wasn’t sorry when that didn’t pan out.

  43. LizM*

    Honestly, if my manager told me “You can take off as much time as you want, you just have to make sure your work is covered,” I don’t see how I could take off more than a couple days at a time. I manage a number of people who would feel the same way. But given that the culture here is that your leave is part of your compensation and you’re entitled to take it before it expires, it means that if someone has saved up enough leave for a 2-3 week vacation, we’re able to make it work, because as a manager, I feel an obligation to let someone take the leave they’ve earned.

    It may be that I ask them to get certain work done before they leave, or we just agree that certain work won’t get done while they’re gone, or we shift another employee’s workload to make sure the mission critical work continues, but we figure it out. And I don’t think the employees mind (no one has complained to me) because they know that I’ll make the same accommodations for them to be able to go on vacation.

    I just don’t see how that conversation would work if it was “unlimited leave”. I was lucky that we were able to do a 2 1/2 week road trip last year. Given my nervousness around flying at the time, I don’t think I would have seen my parents at all had I not had the time off. But I also don’t know if I would have been comfortable asking for that time off if I couldn’t see that I’d earned it on my earnings and leave statement.

  44. House Tyrell*

    Every workplace and position is going to look different so it’s totally possible that your friend has truly unlimited time off and it’s not impacting anyone. My old office had unlimited time off for my level and above- although the trade off was that we were generally 24/7 on call (note though that we only got late night calls maybe 1-2 times a week, and our office was good about making sure you weren’t contacted on vacation.) The only time this really had an impact was when my boss had a pre-planned vacation for during my second week. We generally requested off a month or two in advance for vacations a week or longer to ensure coverage and the C-Suite and VPs definitely took off way more time than anyone else (like 3 months of the year on average) but it didn’t actually disrupt our workflow, everything was done on time and equitably, and overall we were all happy. But I definitely was too nervous about taking off “too much” time so I never took off as much as my boss or his did.

  45. Ursula*

    I wish everyone with employers who have unlimited PTO would do this. It’s exactly what corporations deserve for coming up with this policy.

    This is also a solution to the recent letter from the guy who gets all his work done super quick – let him use his unlimited time off whenever he’s done with work for the day.

  46. Therese*

    My workplace doesn’t have official unlimited vacation days, but in practice time off is extremely loosely monitored, it’s mostly the honor system. People often leave early to work from home, most managers don’t check. It would be easy to take advantage of, but in reality, it becomes clear relatively quickly when someone just isn’t pulling their weight. Since OP’s friend started the job recently, the manager might just be waiting to see how things go, or just not paying much attention until low productivity becomes too apparent to put down to ‘being new’. Still, given what OP has described, I think it’s quite likely the friend will get in trouble eventually. As AAM said though, I don’t think the friend is looking for any advice, so OP should leave them alone. After getting fired /laid off a few times they may or may not see the pattern, though many people never learn. It’s not on you OP.

  47. Trombone*

    I think this LW’s concerns for her friend are more about her work ethic, and less about the unlimited PTO. I mean – she lost her job partly (and I know it was a layoff) because she didn’t work very hard at her last job. Taking off early, never staying late, acting like it’s a favor when she works at all. I think the LW kind of wishes she could just tell her friend – dude, most people who are work-successful work pretty hard, and have a fair amount of commitment to their jobs.

    Also, I can’t tell if she’s more towards the family was independently wealthy side (and so no one in her family worked typical 9-5s?) OR the opposite – no one in her family were good role models because they didn’t work much and struggled? I’m thinking maybe the independently wealth side since she seems to have tons of money now for trips, weekends away (after being unemployed for awhile no less!).

  48. Silicon Valley Girl*

    The LW’s friend seems a bit slacksidasical to me, regardless of the PTO policy.’

    I’ve worked at 2 companies with “unlimited” or “untracked” PTO for employees. At one, they said PTO was unlimited, but it was up to each manager, so if you had a cool manager, you could take a month off at a time & chill, but if you had a jerky manager, you couldn’t take a long weekend w/out being barraged by emails & texts about your work. I did not stay long there!

    My current employer’s unlimited PTO is much more equitable — from the top down, everyone is encouraged to take the time they want & need & with few exceptions, you’re NOT expected to be on-call when on vacation. It got a little weird during lockdown when everyone stopped taking PTO because nobody could travel; then everyone got burned out), but by the end of the year management practically forced folks to take time off ;)

    Sure, it’s a benefit to the company to not have to pay out PTO when ppl leave, but when managed well, it can be a benefit for employees too. I’m much happier just knowing I can take time when I want instead of scrimping & counting every hour accrued so I can take a vacation.

  49. Hermione Danger*

    I worked at a place that had “unlimited vacation”. I took more time off than everybody else, but that was 2 1/2 weeks a year total.
    Our awesome, really incredible IT guy who rarely took time, made arrangements with his boss to take a full month to do something he wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The day before he was supposed to leave, HR approached him and said he didn’t have permission, so he couldn’t take the month—or any time at all. He pointed out that it was fine with his boss and they already had coverage arrangements, but HR said, “You didn’t make arrangements with us, so you can’t take the time.” He quit immediately, without notice, and went on his trip.
    So, not only does unlimited vacation mean the company doesn’t have to pay out when you leave, they often create obstacles to your taking it.

  50. El l*

    I think “unlimited vacation” is what I call a “Dylan Rubric*” concept: Everyone must always be honest if it’s going to work. Managers must understand their underlings’ jobs and needs extremely well, and be willing to go to bat for them to cover their time off. Underlings must have a strong knowledge of when they can and can’t take time off, and they can’t be so conscientious that they never take time off.

    And that’s the inherent problem with a Dylan Rubric thing. Most appeal to our adolescent brains: “Whoa, time off anytime I want!” But they require far more maturity, self awareness, and communication than the standard…which is why they often don’t work.

    So count me out, unless it’s a small team who have a good track record working together.

    *After the Bob Dylan lyric: “To live outside the law, you must always be honest.” Meaning: To live without rules, you must regulate yourself to a high standard.

  51. Nicki Name*

    My current company has unlimited PTO, but they come with a guideline of “we expect you to use at least X days per year” where X is a bigger number than most people in the US ever get in defined PTO. OTOH, you have to get approval at the VP level for any vacation longer than 2 weeks, so that discourages taking it in larger chunks.

    1. AKchic*

      That sounds lovely.

      A job I had paid so little that even though I was accruing 7 weeks of vacation a year (plus 2 weeks sick leave, 14 paid holidays, one floating holiday, and one mental health day), that I literally couldn’t afford to DO anything during my vacation time. My entire paychecks were going to my rent on a 3 bedroom 1.5 bath townhouse style duplex in a horrible part of town that should have been condemned (and 6 years after we’ve moved out, STILL hasn’t been rented out officially).
      I liked my job well enough, but non-profits pay so terribly and my state’s COL is too high. I was paying 40% of my pay for my insurance premiums and taxes, and my insurance at the time was terrible.

  52. Ori*

    Not working your required hours / treating work like a joke is not remotely in the same bracket as not working late.

  53. itsame*

    I moved from a job with a set number of PTO days to “unlimited” days, and I wasn’t pleased about the change. The rest of the benefits are much better at new job, so the change was worth it, but the vacation I accrued at my last job paid out (legally required in my state) and my new job obviously doesn’t have any vacation time accruing. It’s also just difficult to figure out how much time is okay to take off with an unlimited policy. I’ve decided to make it a personal point to take off the same number of days my old job gave me, both as a way to have a firm number (even if it only exists in my mind) and to make sure i’m not downgrading my own benefits.

  54. JM60*

    “Unlimited” vacation is never unlimited. If it was, you could start your vacation on day 1 of your job and keep collecting paychecks without working until you officially retire. You obviously can’t do that without getting fired in a hurry.

    What “unlimited” vacation really is is unspecified, non-guaranteed vacation, which is why it should always be looked at with healthy suspicion. Personally, I like my vacation policy (15 days/year, about to increase to 20), much more than the “unlimited” vacation policies at many companies in my industry.

  55. I'm leeeaving*

    “Another drawback to unlimited vacation time is that you can’t save up any paid leave”
    This is actually a benefit not a drawback. People take the leave they need instead of saving it for the payout and increasing burnout. Disconnecting personal time off from the financial equivalent is good – change my mind.

    1. JM60*

      On average, people take less time off under “unlimited” vacation policies, often for reasons mentioned in the article.

      1. I'm leeeaving*

        That seems more like a bad company / bad manager problem than a bad policy. Where I work people are taking much more leave than they did under the old PTO scheme.

        1. JM60*

          I disagree that it’s only a bad company/bad manager problem. It’s also a bad policy problem partly because “unlimited” vacation leaves the vacation time unspecified and non-guaranteed. It’s generally in the best interest of employees to have a guaranteed set of days because it makes requesting days off more comfortable, or if you choose not to use them, it can be nice to know that they’re in your “back pocket”.

          Think of it another way: Let’s say you’re given a job offer with an “unlimited salary” policy rather than them specifying a certain salary. They tell you’ll get paid as much as you want on each paycheck, except each given request on each paycheck is subject to your manager rejecting the dollar amount you requested if it’s an unreasonable amount. Do you think that would be a good deal for you, the potential employee? I think not. I’d like an guaranteed salary rather than feeling like I’m begging and constantly negotiating with each paycheck. I would avoid such an “unlimited salary” policy, even if people say that they ended up making more money after they switched to that policy.

          Your employer is an outlier. Even if people are using more vacation on an “unlimited” vacation policy, there’s nothing stopping them from combining it with their old PTO policy: People accrue a minimum guaranteed vacation, but there’s no cap for how much they use beyond that. I think that’s what employers should do if they genuinely want the “unlimited” vacation policy to be good for the employees. That’s more akin to giving someone a guaranteed salary, but occasionally giving them a bonus on top of that.

  56. Boof*

    LW, this sounds like a “not your circus” situation – be friend to friend and don’t feel obligated to teach your friend workplace norms, especially when they aren’t asking you for help on that. At best, if your friend brings up taking a bunch of time off because “unlimited vacation” you can just say “huh, that sounds unusual, I didn’t think it worked like that” but I wouldn’t push it if she doubles down, just shrug and move on.

  57. oldtech*

    Really interesting post – thanks Alison! I recently started a new job with unlimited PTO, and it’s been fascinating to see how it’s playing out. My department head implemented an interesting policy to provide guidance on PTO. Everyone on our team must take at least one long weekend every other month, and must take at least one full week vacation each year. No arguments here with that.

  58. Emily*

    Dust Bunny: Exactly! (I keep thinking of the scene from Friends where Rachel, Ross, Chandler, and Monica all say that they don’t think their bosses like them and Joey points out that maybe it’s because they’re hanging out of the coffee house during the middle of the day on the work day). Having reasonable expectations for the amount of work someone needs to get done is not outrageous.

  59. Frustrated Fan*

    It drives me absolutely insane when I read a letter and then instead of Alisons response at the end there is just a link to a website where I have to pay to read it. Aaaarrrgghhh!!!!!

    1. londonedit*

      How do you think she earns money from her writing? Seriously, these responses every single time are ridiculous.

      1. Frustrated Fan*

        I actually wouldnt mind if she had said “hey, there are also some letters at this link”, but what is annoying is reading the whole letter before finding out that I wont get to see the response, it a bit bait and switch…

        Also im loving “what an odd comment”. Its not actually odd at all but I see what youre doing there :)

  60. Miss Curmudgeonly*

    The company I work for has unlimited PTO to which they added “at your manager’s discretion” – meaning the people in Europe would previously take all of August off and that was considered…not good. Hence the change from no qualifier.

    Most of us hate this policy. Why? Because EVERYTHING is lumped into PTO: vacation, sick time, holidays. So yes, you have to request Labor Day off, or Christmas, etc. You can’t take half days off, so while many places let people off early on Christmas or New Year’s Eve (for example), here you’d have to take the whole day off. And then it all gets lumped together, so even if you’ve only taken off holidays, a few vaca days, and have had a few sick days, it starts to LOOK like a lot, even though it isn’t.

    I’m pretty sure most people take off less time than they would otherwise because they don’t want to seem like outliers, and because it’s stressful always doing the count, i.e. typical holidays, typical number of sick days, typical number of vaca days based on tenure, etc., to make sure you’re within some arbitrary range. Whereas with a standard policy, you know how many days you get, you know the holidays, and that’s it. No thinking or maneuvering required.

    What people will do is “game the system” i.e. they won’t officially take a holiday off so that it won’t count in their tally, because they (rightfully) assume that most people won’t be working so they can be available in slack, but chances are almost 100% that no one will contact them.

    Of course, given the makeup of the Board of Directors, it makes sense that they’d have this policy so that they don’t have to do a payout when people leave.

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