Unlimited Vacation Policies: Pro or Con?
A place I once worked offered two weeks of annual paid vacation for the first ten years of employment, after which time three weeks of vacation kicked in. Ten years? No way I'd have stayed there that long. And because I often used my two weeks for a ski trip, I had to wait almost a full year for my next vacation. So when I heard that some companies have an unlimited vacation policy, I thought, “Wow, what a great benefit!”
But then I realized that as an employee, I'd have felt uncomfortable taking a lot of time off when I was on a project that counted on me. And as a manager, I'd have been faced with trying to be fair to employees who wanted time off while not sabotaging projects that required their presence.
In practice, though, unlimited vacation policies aren't as casual as I had imagined. In general, you can take as much time as you want, whenever you want, as long as you get your job done. That means you have to take into account both your work responsibilities and the time-off needs of your colleagues.
Furthermore, you usually have to give a certain amount of advance notice before taking time off; announcing "See you in a week" as you're halfway out the door is unlikely to be allowed. And there's bound to be some upper limit on how much time you can take. Unlimited may be a misnomer in this context.
The idea behind the policy seems to be to build trust by giving salaried employees flexibility about time off and a greater chance of achieving a good work-life balance than might be possible otherwise. But it's too soon to say whether such a policy actually works.
As it is, many employees take less vacation time than they're entitled to due to workloads, “workaholism,” fear of losing their jobs, or threats by management about taking time off. Furthermore, people who don't want to be seen as taking more days off than their coworkers may end up taking fewer than they would have with a limited vacation policy. If employees already take less time than they're entitled to, is it likely they'll take more with a take-all-you-want policy?
Still, when the policy works, it can work well, enabling employees to take time off for doctor's appointments or to extend a three-day weekend by a day or two. With the right people and a supportive culture, unlimited vacation isn't a path to missed deadlines. And a possibly overlooked benefit: Vacation flexibility can help employees catch up on much needed sleep.
Perhaps some companies could take a hint from those few that guard against employees taking too little vacation time by explicitly expecting them to take at least two weeks off. In some companies, managers even encourage employees to take at least three weeks off. Where was that kind of policy all the years I was limited to two weeks?