Gini Dietrich

The Truth Behind Unlimited Vacation Time Policies

By: Gini Dietrich | August 2, 2016 | 

The Truth Behind Unlimited Vacation Time PoliciesUnlimited vacation time.

How does that make you feel when you hear that?

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

All the time off you want/need in a year, but what’s the catch?

Of course, the business has to be in good standing—as a collective, the goals are being exceeded and it’s making money.

And, as an individual, you have to exceed your goals.

But if those two things happen, you can have all the time off that you want.

It’s a perk many start-ups use to lure their team away from competitors.

It’s even one we offer.

But, it turns out, there is an even bigger catch: Unlimited vacation time really means you have to work during your holiday(s).

Humans Are Not Robots

Let me back up for a second.

We do offer unlimited vacation time—and not with the catch that you have to work while you’re out—but it’s nearly impossible to get people to take time off!

Last year, I had to bribe Laura Petrolino to take time off.

This year, I had the exact, same conversation with Corina Manea (and finally convinced her to take this week off).

I’m probably the only boss in the world who tracks how long you’ve been with an organization and whether or not you’ve taken any time off….and then forces it upon you.

I am a big, big believer in having time to relax, recharge, and rest.

You know why?

Because human beings are not robots and we come back, even from just a few days off, more productive, more creative, and more energized.

It’s completely selfish. I want my team to be all of those things. It’s better for me and for my organization.

Humans Burn Out

But if you have to work through your vacation?

All of those benefits disappear.

And not only that, but people burn out.

Even if we adore our jobs and love the work we’re doing, our brains need time to do something else.

This is why we come up with great ideas in the shower or while exercising or sometimes even when we sleep.

Our brains are doing something other than work.

So come back to the “perk” that many start-ups offer in unlimited vacation time.

The catch truly is: You want to go to Europe or Africa or Australia? Great! Make sure you’re still attending meetings, responding to and forwarding email, and doing a minimum day’s worth of work.

That, my friends, is not unlimited vacation time.

That is a change of scenery.

It’s a totally cool perk if you want to be a nomad and work from anywhere, anytime and no one cares if you’re remotely even in the same time zone.

But it is not unlimited vacation time.

Humans Are Responsible

Unlimited vacation time means you get time off—truly off—if you need to meet the cable guy, have surgery, or want to leave the country for a few weeks.

It means you can attend your cousin’s wedding and still go on your annual boys’ trip.

The catch in my organization is exactly what I described above: The organization’s goals and the individual goals have to be exceeded.

The current team has to be able to execute on your things while you’re out (we don’t hire freelancers so a person can be out).

But, more than anything, we don’t track against any time off.

When you work with grown-ups—and you treat them that way—and you’ve created a culture of accountability, they are responsible with their time off.

It does not mean someone can take six months of paid maternity or paternity leave.

It does not mean someone can take a paid year-long sabbatical.

It does not mean someone can be gone for weeks or months on end.

What it does mean is one can have reasonable time off within a year’s time.

It means if you have a series of doctor’s appointments or want to go to your kid’s summer picnic, no one is watching the clock to make sure you’re putting in the time.

It means if you want to exercise in the middle of the day, no one cares.

It means if you want to take a nap every day, no one is counting that.

It means you can actually take a vacation—and unplug, recharge, and relax—without expecting to have to do any (and I mean any) work.

Poor Managers Ruin Unlimited Vacation Time

The short-sightedness of asking people to work while they’re on vacation makes me roll my eyes so hard they may actually stick in the back of my head.

Not only is it harder—from an HR perspective—to track everyone’s time off, even if it’s just an hour or two in the middle of the day, it subliminally tells your team you don’t trust them.

Not only does it tell people that you don’t trust them, you’ve now created a sense of non-loyalty.

But, worse, it doesn’t allow them to recharge, which hurts you in the long-run.

If you offer an unlimited vacation time policy, make it truly that: Time off without any strings attached.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Definitely a progressive way of handling things. It does intensively rely on hiring the right people (who won’t abuse the system) and it says a great deal that you track it and make them take it (even if it does mean wrestling with buffer while they’re out 😉 ). // The nap/exercise example is certainly true for me. To be able to take a walk/run at 10 am (or whenever) without having to get forms signed in triplicate and to be able to not have to take my whole bathroom with me in order to shower at work is BIG (ditto for the naps — a 10 min power nap every afternoon makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE for me and those can be hard to pull off in a traditional work environment).

    • Gini Dietrich

      Oh wait until you see what day two of no Corina brings.

  • LOVE this. I’ve worked in an unlimited vacation environment where the catch was your manager had to approve all time off. And because of the bias towards butts-in-seats, it was incredibly difficult to get approval to be out. Treating your employees like the responsible, smart grown-ups you hired in the first place is a wonderful policy!

    • I can see having your manager approve time off. We do that, too…but because we are small and have to plan to take over the person’s work while they are out. Of course, butts in seats isn’t an issue for us, seeing as we’re not all in an office together.

  • So true Gini! We require everyone to take two weeks off every year, whether they want to or not. And that time is supposed to be as unplugged as possible.

    Another consideration….when we first implemented our unlimited policy, the first public responses were “oh, this is just a ploy to get out of paying people for their vacation time!” We also pay out up to two weeks if someone leaves us.

    • Oh, man! As my mom would say, “Some people’s children.” Shaking my head!

  • Love this.

  • The term Poor Managers is the big sticking point with any brilliant workplace program. Of course you have to manage coverage so you don’t get caught with a new last minute pitch or business that shows up out of nowhere.

    My personal experience with vacation time came from long before the “Unlimited Vacation Policy” I found even after booking time off well in advance once I’m a week out from time away from the office, I would get almost passive-agressive resentment from my manager.

    • Gini Dietrich

      You’re right: That’s a bad manager. I imagine he or she wouldn’t like it if they were treated the same way.

  • Dawn Buford

    Gini is right! Now more than ever, people need to disconnect from their work at regular intervals throughout the year in order to recharge and refresh. You are of no use to anyone if your brain is fried and you’re always cranky! Take some time off and enjoy yourself….and throw your phone in the lake if your boss won’t leave you alone. ; )

  • We added an unlimited days off policy about 2 years ago for our roughly 60 employees, and we’d seen the research that shows that vacation use actually drops with that policy.

    That wasn’t what we were going for, so we wrote into the policy that each employee is required to take 5 consecutive business days off each year. We wanted to make sure people disconnected at least once in a year.

    I don’t think it’s a panacea, but we had a “use it or lose it” policy prior to that. That made December (often our busiest month of the year for client work) a mess as people were conflicted between losing days and wanting to get the work done.

    Unlimited is much better, butI could see how it could open the door to management pressures to not take time off. We do our best to avoid that.

    • We do the same…and I force people to take time off if they haven’t yet. I”m not very nice about it, either. I threaten to shut off their access to email and Slack (and have done it once!) if they don’t truly unplug. We DO have a problem with people not taking time off, but like you, we try to avoid it.

  • Do I need to even mention how I feel about the importance of unplugged vacation time? 😉

    • It truly helps your brain. I want people relaxed and refreshed. It makes them better teammates!

  • That’s it! Brilliant strategy! I always dreamt about going for a really long journey. But having limits for vacation is making me think of leaving instead. I am sure that such practice will bring only benefits to both sides!

  • Unlimited vacation is horrible, there will always be competition to see who took the least. What would be better is mandatory 6 weeks per year ,like Europe, 4 in summer and 2 at Christmas or around another holiday. People are just productive and happier. I’ve worked in Europe, the US and Latin America and the US ,by far, has the most unhealthy attitude towards vacation

    • I totally agree with you about the U.S., which is why I’m trying to change it for my own company. We always close the office between Christmas and New Year’s, so people get mandatory time off. But that’s not included in what would be “normal” paid time off. It’s just paid time off that isn’t counted toward a number of allotted days. Perhaps the unlimited vacation is up to better leadership and not the idea itself?

  • 1) How’d I miss this? 2) Deleting story of poor leaders, bad cultures to just type WORD.

    This is sort of the matched set to the ‘work from home’ debate. If you hire good people and have smart management backed by a strong culture, then quality productive work will happen. Alas HR is often stuck in the stone age, and most companies – aka TPTB – don’t think this way. And FWIW thanks for including working remotely or a ‘workation’ in this.

    • We’ve had really, really good luck with it. It certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but I’m really happy with how it works here.