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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

How Unlimited Vacation Works in Reality (and Not Just in Company Handbooks)

Like flex hours (Can I really work 11 to 7 PM if that’s my preference?) or personal days (Is it OK to use them to make my trip longer?), the increasingly popular unlimited vacation policy contains a lot of gray.

Because while your boss may not be keeping tabs on how many days you took off last month or year, that doesn’t mean you’re at liberty to take off as much time as you want. After all, you have a job to do. You’re getting paid to do said job—not go on vacation.

For obvious reasons, this can be very confusing. So, in an effort to make it less so, I spoke to a variety of people at a range of companies about how this unlimited time works for them in real life and how they feel about it. (Hint: It’s not a perk across the board).

How Does it Work?

One of the differences between a limited and unlimited vacation policy is the lack of formally tracking and recording absences. But, regardless of how relaxed your company is in this respect, there are certain expectations and guidelines (written or not). You can’t just book a trip to Europe for 15 days without first speaking to your manager. Nor can you let your boss know on a Monday that you’re planning on taking the remainder of the week off (emergency situations aside).

As the Muse employee handbook states in regards to our policy, “This means we don’t cap the number of vacation days you take each year. This does not mean, however, that you can never come to work or take vacation whenever you want.”

So No One Tracks it at All?

Not quite! Just because it’s unlimited doesn’t mean that your company don’t want to know who’s in the office and who isn’t. Betsy Hayes, the Human Resources Manager at Framebridge, maintains that HR doesn’t track a person’s days, but that after your manager approves the time off, you do make note of your upcoming absence in a master calendar.

Meanwhile, over at Function1, Lisa Michel, an associate, notes that the organization has an online request system—not to track how many days a person is out, but rather for organizational best practices.

What Are the Benefits?

The beauty of a legitimate unlimited structure means you never have to barter for days you don’t technically have. There’s no keeping count. You don’t have to wait to accrue vacation time before you can take the break you need to ultimately do your job better.

This is why, more often than not, employees—especially those who view their employers in a positive light—view the flexible policy as a perk. Michel says that it gives the staff at Function1 “peace of mind.” People are getting their work done and respecting the policy but not stressing out if they need to miss an extra day here or there—time they’d otherwise be keeping track of nervous that they’re running out of days.

Julie Bogen, Social Media Manager at Vox Media, concurs: “It’s great to feel like the company trusts us to make responsible decisions regarding our work and time off and not to abuse it.”

Agreeing with Bogen, Dori Gray, Community Manager at Medidata Solutions says it’s a “huge relief not to have to count or keep track of my days,” acknowledging that it’s “also a relief not to have to limit doing what I want or need to do because of an arbitrary rule.”

Gray echoes this line of thinking, explaining that her understanding of Mediadata Solutions’ implementation of the unlimited PTO policy was “to create a more adult environment. Prior to the policy, employees would have to account for their time off, but when they worked more than 40 hours per week, they were not necessarily rewarded for the overtime. Now, employees are accountable for meeting their objectives, not tracking hours.”

And the Downsides?

If you’re hellbent on finding something negative to say about unlimited PTO policies, you won’t have to dig too deep. The policy has been misused or misconstrued by some businesses, and disgruntled people are feeling the impact. For some people, it really is too good to be true.

One man I spoke with (let’s call him Jerry), who wishes to remain anonymous for reasons that are about to become clear, says his organization’s unlimited PTO was a reason he almost didn’t take the job. “I think it’s false marketing and not really unlimited,” he explained to me.

Although Jerry was told by HR upon reviewing the job offer that most people at his level took about four weeks a year, the company “wouldn’t guarantee that in writing,” and as a result he barely took off any time this year. He says he’d be lucky if he could get away with two weeks total (the standard PTO at many other organizations).

Jerry’s boss doesn’t take more than this, and he believes people at the organization don’t value vacation time—in spite of the generous-sounding policy. Following the example set forth by his manager and other senior-level execs, Jerry and his colleagues stick to the standard 10 days, regardless of the stated policy.

Indeed, the structure has been said to work to organizations’ advantage, and there are certain instances (see Jerry) when this is accurate. For example, if an employee quits, he’s not owed unused vacation or personal time. And if an employee takes less than the set two or three weeks year after year, then the company is saving some money.

How Do You Know if a Company Really Means It?

While it’s not the best idea to inquire about vacation time in that first phone call with the recruiter or the initial interview, it’s definitely OK to try and get details about the company’s policy.

Does it support time away and offline? Does it view a mental health day as important as an out-with-the-flu sick day? Does it actually encourage its staff to take vacations? Because you might be hesitant to ask these questions directly, you can ask leading ones that’ll help paint a bigger picture of the organization and its values.

For example, if you’re interviewing at a company boasting an unlimited PTO policy as a benefit or perk, ask if it always had this type of flexible structure. If so, inquire about how the leadership came to that decision.

Seek information on how the employees feel about it. Were many of them unfamiliar with it before, and how did they grow accustomed to it? Answers that discuss the overall well-being of staff, the importance of trust between an employee and a manager, and resulting boosted morale should eliminate any concerns that it’s merely a cost-cutting strategy.

Regardless of how demanding your job, how much you value your work, or your company’s policy, you must not underestimate the importance of taking time to recharge away from work. You can do this at an organization offering unlimited vacation days or at a more traditional business that gives you a set number of PTO days.

Photo of woman on vacation courtesy of Dougal Waters/Getty Images.

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