I’m part of the 2 percent. I work for the tiny fraction of U.S. companies that offer unlimited paid time off (PTO). That’s right, I get to watch The Price Is Right live as much as I want! Or something like that.
Are you jealous? Don’t be. You’re probably taking more vacation than I am — because workers under traditional use-it-or-lose-it policies usually take off more time than we 2 percenters.
At every organization, regardless of PTO policy, people feel reluctant to take days off. One study showed that 41 percent of Americans don’t take any vacation days at all. At. All.
Is that you? Are you someone who thinks your company is overpaying you so you choose to reject part of your compensation? (That’s what PTO is, after all.) Or do you fear that work will build up? (Don’t worry. Your plate will be full no matter what you can’t accomplish today, tomorrow, and many tomorrows after.) Or maybe you think your department will collapse if you’re not there for a few weeks? (The whole company, probably. Maybe even the country. The planet.) Or do you simply agonize over the optics of potentially taking off too many days? (Whatever “too many” means.)
The last concern is especially relevant under an unlimited PTO plan. At my company, I’m told that, really, no really, no but for real, really, people may take PTO as they wish. That’s why, after starting my job this past June, I’ll be taking the next six months off.
No I won’t. Because I can’t. (Can I? Boss, you reading this?) Obviously, truly unlimited is truly impossible, but that’s beside the point — because this has nothing to do with policy and everything do with branding.
Unlimited PTO is a corporate cultural value disguised as a benefit. It’s less about giving people freedom to take vacation days and more about branding an employer as progressive and humane. It’s a stance that implicitly conveys that the business treats adults like adults by empowering people to balance work and life. It’s a marketing ploy to attract candidates.
Does that sound crass? Cynical?
Maybe, but there’s nothing wrong with using a perk to brand yourself as an employer of choice. There is, however, something wrong when a policy is on paper only. So if you’re going to offer unlimited PTO, here’s the LiberGuide to doing it right:
Do Not Track
Don’t calculate how many days your people take off. I know, I know, you think you need these details, but for what? Don’t you have enough big data that you don’t know how to or plan to use?
Information is only important as you make it. Choosing not to measure PTO tells workers that you’re not judging your people based on time they take off. It also helps cut down on paranoia by discouraging people from benchmarking their PTO against their colleagues’.
OK, but what if people abuse your policy?
Except, what does it mean to abuse unlimited PTO? I’ll tell you what it does not mean: taking off too many days. Companies should judge people against meeting reasonable quality and quantity of work expectations, particularly since we all know that showing up for work doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing any.
The key word above is reasonable. If workload demands or cultural expectations necessarily prevent employees from taking PTO, then you best believe your employees will let everyone know on Glassdoor. (So much for your branding trick.)
Finally, and most importantly, force people to stay away from work by creating a minimum PTO policy. Tell your people that they must take two or three weeks off per year, and make sure they do it. (This is your only excuse for breaking the do-not-track rule, and even then, you needn’t keep tabs beyond the minimum days.)
A minimum PTO policy is a great way to let your people know that you want them to relax and recharge and have a life outside of work. (And, by the way, you don’t need unlimited PTO to have minimum PTO.)
All that said, I’m not naive. I know that unlimited PTO is a lie at many organizations. But it doesn’t have to be.
I have a friend who’s looking for a job. For real, a friend. Not a “friend.” While I’m also currently searching for new work, this isn’t an after-school special in which we all know the real identity of the “friend.” But like the moral tales you sometimes watched when you got home from class, this story also offers a valuable lesson.
What I’m about to describe is every candidate’s worst nightmare. It’s something that lots of people wonder: Does this actually happen? It happens. Sometimes like this:
My friend Steve* (of course there’s an asterisk) was recently offered a job at America’s Most Disorganized Employer* (there it is again!). He was eager to accept it, except the offer letter lacked enough details. Beyond salary, it mentioned little else. Clearly, a red flag demonstrating a sloppy hiring process or total ignorance about what candidates value, or both.
So Steve did what every candidate should in such situations. He contacted the hiring manager for more information. That’s when he learned that America’s Most Disorganized Employer allows only 10 days for PTO, including sick days. But who cares. Is there free soda? A ping-pong table?
Nothing like companies offering stupid, meaningless perks to try to hide an unwillingness to recognize that people have lives outside the workplace, right? The best talent such firms can hope to lure are job-seekers desperate for work.
Steve was one of those people. He was planning to ultimately accept any offer, but again, he did what every candidate should. He negotiated for more money and more time off, to which the hiring manager replied, “There’s wiggle room.”
No there wasn’t. Continue reading