- Wise Words -
Treat Unlimited Vacation Like
You Should Free Soda
by rob deichert
So you've taken a job at a company with unlimited vacation. Great, super terrific! You now have fantasies of traveling to Fantasy Island and all is well. I hate to burst your bubble, but I will.
Unlimited vacation in the US has become a popular way for companies to manage their unpaid vacation liabilities. What does this mean for you as an Early Stage Professional (ESP)? When you work at a company that doesn’t have unlimited vacation or unlimited PTO (paid time off), you accrue vacation days as you work. If you don't take them before you leave, the company has to pay them out. As an example at a past employer, I saw a few people leave with multiple month’s worth of vacation that had to be paid out. I won’t get into the lack of tracking and the validity of these accruals.
Whether your vacation is unlimited or limited, you need to take accountability for using it to recharge and refresh and ensuring it doesn’t affect your work or your manager’s success.
Nothing is free in this world. You might have unlimited soda in the snack room, but drinking an unlimited amount would be unwise from a health perspective. You can drink ten cans of sugary soda a day, but you might not like the results. If the soda costs outpace profits and revenue growth you’ll see them go away or be rationed. Same applies for unlimited vacation.
The Manager's Perspective
Before I address unlimited vacation, let's cover how I look at vacation from a manager’s perspective. It’s a real cost to the company so I want to make sure it’s used in the proper way. I’m going to pay for it either by someone taking vacation or when they leave.
Engaged, happy, healthy employees need to recharge. It’s critical. Full stop. I find it hard to believe that a happy and engaged employee never needs to take a break.
When I ran some of my largest organizations I actively tracked vacation usage. I wanted to know from each of my leaders how much vacation was used vs accrued. For example, if 10 days were accrued and only 5 were taken, we were running at 50%. This was critical for me because I didn’t want to get into a situation in Q4, our peak quarter, and become the grinch and tell people they couldn’t take vacation because it would impact our customers in a negative way. Worse case I would have to grant them an extension into next year creating a never ending cycle.
The worst situation in my mind is a top performer who doesn’t think they can take vacation. There can be a variety of root causes, but none of them are good. I want to stress test the organization by ensuring people take their vacation.
Now back to you and your problems.
Managing Your Unlimited Vacation
You’ve taken a job at a company with unlimited vacation, so how should you handle it?
First, talk to some peers who can give you the lowdown on the pace of the business. When are the busiest times of the year? Those are usually not the best to take vacation, especially as a new employee. When are the slowest? I was at a company that had unlimited vacation but also had the entire company take off 4th of July week and the time between Christmas and New Year’s. This was smart, those were slow times and it took away the anxiety of seeing you inbox fill up with emails from people who weren’t on vacation. It’s important to talk to your manager to validate their view. (See my other Wise Words).
Note: If you have a vacation planned before joining a company with unlimited vacation, tell them upfront. Don’t just assume you can take it, there could be training or other things.
Second, figure out what constitutes a reasonable amount of vacation. Taking off 6 months for example should clearly cause some issues. Other than not getting your work done, it could also be a red flag that your manager is incompetent and isn’t stretching you enough. Or that nobody is paying attention and you’re getting away with murder. Or, if you are really that amazing that a six month absence wouldn’t be noticed, then you are the extreme outlier and probably should be working somewhere else.
I’m going to assume that you are a hard charger (because you took the time to read this column) who wants to maximize your contribution to your employer in order to maximize your achievement and compensation. If this is the case then you need to make sure those prior scenarios don’t apply to you. Fergus’s Early Stage Professional book has some great guidance on how to take vacation.
The key takeaway with unlimited vacation is understanding the politics around vacation in your company, your role, and how you make sure you don’t damage your internal reputation, while still managing some time off to recharge.
For more on Vacation Management see "Should I take vacation?" and "Checklist for Checking Out".