Unlimited Time Off! 🥕

Considerations for Employers and Employees on the unspoken limits of Unlimited PTO

December 28, 2019

Unlimited time off policies should be handled with care.

TLDR; There are limits to “Unlimited PTO”. Those limits should be defined and measures should be taken to check those who use it most and least.

It’s quite the incentive, and one that may sway your decision to pursue or accept an offer with one company vs another.

Beyond the obvious benefit of taking time off, not having to track PTO hours is invaluable.

Unlimited Paid Time Off! …is it truly unlimited though? 🤔

Truth is, it is never unlimited. PTO has limits based on general company factors, and others unique to each individual employee.

Let’s look at the general factors first:

General factors that affect PTO use

The most obvious factors that affect PTO don’t vary based on the individual:

All the following limit one’s ability to take time off:

  • High workloads
  • Tight deadlines
  • Poorly planned projects
  • Peer pressure, or pressure from Management (Guilt for taking time off)

Individual factors that affect PTO use

Now we get into factors that might be different for each individual. These are more self-imposed limits.

  • Individual sense of responsibility to company, manager, and co-workers
  • Dedication to be available to clients (For client-facing roles)
  • Strong work ethic
  • A need to prove oneself either to keep a job or in pursuit of advancement

These are all factors that affect the use of PTO. They are different for everyone and the “unlimited” trait of the PTO perk is what end up causes a “disturbance in the Force”.

Responsibility and Work Ethic

Take any group of employees and each will have different work ethic and sense of responsibility.

Some employees may feel a strong responsibility to their manager, team, or clients, while others place priority on the “work/life balance”.

Even if the company strongly values a work/life balance, there will always be employees that accept greater responsibility. In the context of an unlimited time off policy, this results in less time taken off.

The issue here is that the hardest working employees, those who could use time off the most, end up taking less time than others. This can lead to issues with morale and respect issues between team members.

A Practical Example

Let’s look at a simple example of Bob and Alice, and how Alice might come to resent Bob, the company, and the unlimited PTO policy itself.

Here’s the situation:

  • Bob and Alice cannot take time off at the same time.
  • Bob scheduled 24 days of vacation off this year. (Let’s say 4 separate weeks around major holidays)
  • Bob schedules his time off many months in advance.
  • Alice generally takes about 12 days off per year.
  • Alice’s life is more dynamic, not allowing her to plan vacations very far in advance.
  • Alice has family coming in next week and Bob has a cross country trip planned, he cannot cancel.

There’s a number of subtle things here that chip away at Alice’s morale and respect for Bob, the company, and the concept of unlimited time off.

  • Bob takes much more time off than Alice.
  • The team sees Bob as less dedicated than others.
  • Bob is likely providing less value to the company.
  • Bob is strategic about reserving time off making it difficult for others to schedule bigger holiday vacations
  • Alice needs time off, and she can’t get it

It’s not Bob, it’s the Policy (or lack there of)

Bob did absolutely nothing wrong yet it’s understandably causing a negative impact on Alice.

Bob was told he has “Unlimited Time Off” and it would be perfectly fine for him to take another couple weeks per year off.

That said, even someone who takes vacation as liberally as Bob knows that there’s a limit to what he should be taking. His interpretation is just different than others.

Solution: Improve and Define the Unlimited PTO Policy

Just as with clients, setting expectations with employees is key to successful engagements. To do this the employer should reduce, or even remove the need to interpret what “Unlimited PTO” means.

Consider the factors above and situations mentioned as they pertain to your company then establish expectations for those favoring either side of the work/life balance.

  • Establish an expected upper limit to time taken off.
  • Establish a minimum time off.
  • Make it a policy to check in with anyone at the max or minimum at least a couple times per year.
  • Encourage those not taking time off to take the time; Let them know it’s OK, even for them.
  • Formulate a way to give priority for time around holidays to employees who haven’t taken a lot of time yet. (If they would be blocked from taking time off by others scheduled)

There’s no list that’s going to accommodate each company the same. Use these as guidelines to get ahead of potential issues around time off as they relate to your company.

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