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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Taking a Personal Day (Plus Some!)

employee asking about PTO
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If your office distinguishes between vacation days, personal days, and sick days and you’re feeling more than a little confused, know that you’re not the only one.

One company I worked at made a strong distinction in the type of paid time off (PTO) each of us had. A colleague decided to heck with not being able to use her unused personal days to tack onto her six-day trip to the Pacific Northwest. Since the system was all digital and needed only to get approved by management, she took her trip with both vacation and personal days and successfully “used” all of her PTO before the new cycle.

I’ve known plenty of people throughout my professional life who’ve used all three types of days interchangeably to no one’s chagrin. It’s likely that some companies even expect this to occur and accept it as easier than changing the employee handbook and protocol in an official manner. But at other organizations that aren’t so flexible, knowing when to take a personal day versus a sick day versus a vacation day is imperative.

A personal day is, technically, not a vacation day, and it’s not taken when you’re home with the flu. It may be used for a medical procedure, a moving day, or a day to visit your ailing grandmother. Attending a funeral, of course, is no one’s idea of vacation, and so this too would be considered a standard personal day. How much detail you give when you take one of these days depends on the situation. Just as you don’t need to give your boss a play-by-play of your stomach bug, you also don’t need to regale him with a long story of why you’re attending the funeral of an elementary school classmate’s father even though you haven’t seen her or her father in at least 15 years.

While they may all seem the exact same to you (you’re off for the day), the differences tend to be more about how your manager and team interprets them. When you return from a vacation day, people tend to ask you how it went. However, a personal day can be just that, something more personal that you’re less likely to be pressed about, even casually. In addition, it’s less likely to be planned way ahead of time (like a trip out of the country would be), yet it wouldn’t be as last minute as a sick day. Muse Director of HR, Shannon Fitzgerald, suggests that employees check the employee handbook (if the company has one), since many organizations do have very different ideas on what constitutes a personal day and what doesn’t.

But, let’s say you just have no need to ever take a personal day this year. Are you at risk of losing valuable PTO-day?

Not necessarily. If observing the actions of your colleagues isn’t enough for you to determine how your company handles the differentiated days off, and you’re really, truly not sure if it’ll pass muster for you to take that 10-day trip to Belize even though you only have eight actual vacation days left, you should schedule a meeting with your manager or a trusted HR person. Fitzgerald advises employees who have questions to speak to their boss or human resources team member for info on how the leave policy is defined.

If your boss is understanding and a proponent of taking time off to recharge (which, good news, more and more bosses actually are these days!), he may tell you that of course you can use your personal days to top off your vacation. If he’s hesitant or looks uncomfortable, immediately offer to take the additional two days non-paid if borrowing from your personal days is unacceptable. If he sends you to human resources, take the same approach. Explain that you’re out of vacation days, but seem to have personal days to spare, and if you can combine them, that’s be great, and if not, you’ll gladly take two days without pay. (Of course, keep in mind, two days without pay is just that, two days without pay.)

Since more and more companies are moving away from the categorized model of compensated days off, the next time you find yourself accepting a job offer, look closely at the PTO policy. If it’s splitting your time off between personal and vacation, don’t be shy about renegotiating that part of the offer—especially if you don’t foresee yourself actually needing the personal days.