Unlimited Vacation Days? No Thanks!

The hottest new job perk these days is unlimited vacation time (aka “discretionary time off”, or DTO). That’s right, UNLIMITED VACATION DAYS! (WOO HOO!). A growing host of companies have joined the unlimited vacation day trend. Immediately, you’ve probably entertained visions of sipping martinis on the beach – maybe for a month or longer – while your co-workers come and go as they please (when inspiration finds them and pulls them back). Want to extend that vacation another week? Sure. You have unlimited vacation days, after all.

Not so fast!

These corporate PR stunts may temporarily boost these megacorps up the “100 Best Companies to Work for” lists and even lure in a few new talented employees. I, on the other hand, will happily take my limited annual allotment of vacation days over your utopian unlimited days. If you’re a reader, you would be wise to do the same and not get baited by this wolf in a sheep’s clothing. Here’s why:

unlimited vacation days

Americans are taking only 51% of their paid vacation days. And 61% of those who do are working while they are on vacation. Think about that for a minute – even when we are given a “budget” of days to spend, we only spend half of it, on average. And you know how much Americans love spending their budget <winking at you, negative personal savings rate>.

Even when we do get and take the days off, we are still guilted in to working. The most commonly cited reasons for not taking vacation days are:

  • 33%: Afraid no one else at my company can do the work
  • 28%: Fear of getting behind
  • 22%: Complete dedication to company
  • 19%: Want a promotion
  • 19%: Feel like they can’t be disconnected
  • 18%: Want a pay raise
  • 17%: Afraid of not meeting goals
  • 17%: Fear of losing job
  • 16%: Believe working is better than not working
  • 13%: Want to outperform colleagues
  • 6%: Afraid of the boss

Only 3 of those 11 reasons are not based in fear. And even the three that aren’t (“complete dedication to company”, “want a promotion”, “want a pay raise”) probably have a deeper root cause that is based in fear (e.g. fear of not having enough money, status perception, or fear of getting fired).

Never has there been a time in modern history that we feel more indebted to give our employers more of our time than right now. You are fooling yourself if you think that everyone’s fear is going to magically disappear when 10, 15, or 20 days is changed to “unlimited” in your employee handbook.

In fact, with the onus on you to determine your own allotment, it might event become greater. If you have any doubt about the agenda here, check out the following commentary from Virgin and Tribune:

Tribune in an internal memo to employees:

It’s your responsibility to have an open discussion with your supervisor about your time off and its impact on your performance. As always, future career opportunities are assessed based on your performance and potential.

Branson (Virgin CEO) on the new benefit:

They are only going to do it when they feel a hundred percent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business — or, for that matter, their careers!

Congratulations Mr./Mrs employee – you now have to convince your boss and everyone else around you that you are not a selfish/lazy colleague for taking an afternoon off to take your kid to their soccer match or music recital. And then do it again every single other day off.

If you’ve ever worked in a corporate culture, you know very well that there is a herd mentality. Here’s a demonstration of how it works,

You (at the lunch table): “Hey Steve, how many days have you taken off with this new unlimited vacation time over the past year?”.

Steve: “Well, only about 7 or 8. You?”

You: “Oh, ahem, um, 6, I think.”

Steve: “What about you, Sarah?”

Sarah: “5! Just 5…”

Your Boss (in your annual review later that day): “Mmm… Yeahh… so we calibrated your performance as “slightly misses expectations” against your peers. One of the big things we looked at was effort and “love for the job and company”. It looks like you took 20 days off this past year, is that right? Yeahhh… so I’m going to need you to go ahead and bring that down to about 8 this coming year… mmmmkaaay?”

You (to your significant other later that night): “Hey hun, sooo… we’ll have 5 vacation days to use next year.”

You see, nobody wants to stand out as the outlier and be labeled a slacker. Why? You guessed it – fear. Once the herd standard has been established, good luck thriving or even surviving outside of it. Tribune and Virgin’s statements should erase any doubt about the type of pressure applied and subtle or direct actions taken against those who maliciously abuse the perk.

Furthermore, many employers with limited paid vacation days allow employees to “accrue” those days over time and then cash them in at a later time. With no more accruing, there is no long-term payback. 5 years from now, I’d love to see a study that looks at the average number of vacation days that employees working for “unlimited” employers took. I’d be willing to bet that it is far less than 20.

Americans are overworked and we need better balance. But unlimited vacation days is not the solution. It’s a step in the wrong direction. If you’re looking for a new employer, please avoid those offering that bait.

To anyone out there who has the direct ability to influence employee happiness and balance, if you truly and genuinely want your employees to work less hours and have better work life balance, offer the following perks instead:

  1. flexible work schedules – e.g. four 8 or 10-hour day weeks
  2. allow employees to work remotely, if their job realistically permits (most white collar jobs do)
  3. encourage paid or even unpaid sabbaticals after varying number of years of service, and guarantee their job back, upon return
  4. make vacation days mandatory for employees (e.g. you lose a day’s pay for each vacation day you don’t take)

Those are work/life balance perks that people can get excited about.

Readers: what work/life balance perk would you most want to see your company adopt?

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