Unlimited vacation and other forms of guilt-based management

the copour

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

We’re a modern company and we’re blowing everything up. We don’t care how many hours your butt is in a seat, we care that your work gets done. Our policy is that every employee has unlimited vacation because we trust you not to abuse it.

It’s 2017 and still, this line gets passed around from company to company. Maybe your company uses something like it. Maybe you’re thinking about moving to this approach. I get it.

But I think it’s a terrible idea.

It’s not without merit, of course. Your employees and prospective employees will be pretty positive about it. It sounds amazing to people grinding it out in less progressive companies. You get to feel like a revolutionary. In 2008, when you’d have been among the first companies to try this, my hat would be off to you. But it’s 2017. We know better now.

When these policies started coming out, the question was always framed in terms of whether it was wise to give people unlimited vacation, whether employees could be trusted not to overindulge in an honour system. History has suggested that yes, we can trust our employees. Anyone who manages great people for a living already knew that. It’s the wrong question to ask.

The right question to ask, about vacation or any other policy is: does it encourage the kind of behaviours we want in our organization? If the goal of unlimited vacation is to encourage people to take care of themselves, and to take the time they need, we should ask “does it achieve that goal?” The answer is: no.

That’s why Kickstarter walked away from it. Tribune Publishing dropped it after one week. The jury’s still out on whether it results in people taking more or less vacation in other shops, but a consistent trend emerges nonetheless: your employees don’t know what’s okay anymore.

The people who advocate for unlimited vacation aren’t mean-spirited. Measure the things you care about, and be willing to admit that some things sound better than they really are.

Because no one actually means “unlimited.” If I joined up and booked myself 15 years off, I’d get a swift reality check even at such a modern employer. Even taking six months would net me a long conversation about whether that was appropriate. Instead of having an allotment they can spend largely as they see fit, your employees now have a complex tribal negotiation about how their requests stack against others, whether they’re dedicated enough, and how it will reflect on them. That’s complex no matter who you are, but imagine how that feels if you’re a minority hire, or a woman in a male-dominated team, or in any other way not a part of the in-group at the company.

What these programs do is move your company from process-based management to guilt-based management. Vacation decisions always involve respecting your colleagues and ensuring your time away doesn’t cause undue hardship, but when you take away a fixed pool, you invite new comparisons and competition among your people. That leads to martyrdom, burnout, and turnover. It can poison a culture.

Though I’ve worked with companies that offer them, and I’ve used them myself, I feel largely the same about rollover allowances, where unused vacation can carry over from one year to the next. It’s easier to pressure someone not to take their planned vacation if the days aren’t “lost.” I haven’t seen the effect be as pernicious, since there’s still a fixed amount and usually a cap on rollover. But anything that invites guilt into your employee’s vacation planning process is worth scrutiny.

If you run a company with unlimited vacation, benchmark how employees use it, and pay special attention to outliers.

I believe there’s a lot of exciting potential out there for more creative, respectful vacation policies. Hubspot has a mandatory minimum vacation, and lets people reduce their sales quotas twice a year to make time. The RAND corporation pays an annual bonus to employees who take all their vacation. Even just planned closures (as many companies do at the end of the year) give your employees down time they can count on, and take guilt-free.

The people who advocate for unlimited vacation aren’t mean-spirited. I don’t think they’re doing it as a culture hack to push people towards martyrdom. And I’m not asking you to give up on creative policy change, or modern organizational design. I’m asking you to measure the things you care about, and to be willing to admit that some things sound better than they really are.

If you’re interviewing at a company with unlimited vacation, ask them how requests are evaluated and what the average time taken is. If you run a company with unlimited vacation, benchmark how your employees are using it, and pay special attention to outliers. My prediction is that you won’t find many at the “far too much vacation” end of the spectrum, but you may find quite a worrying cluster in the “far too little vacation” bucket. I’d love to be wrong about that, I hope you’ll let me know if I am.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour


Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. He is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Johnathan has built and operated organizations from 2 people to 250. He was the Vice President of Firefox for Mozilla during a period of intense turmoil inside Mozilla and in the web at large, helped build and launch the first Firefox offerings on Android and iOS, and still cheers every time the open web wins. After Mozilla he joined Hubba as their Chief Product Officer, and helped that team triple in size while improving their diversity stats instead of watching them slide. He is proud to sit on the board of Creative Commons, and is a big believer in the power of mission-based organizations. He has strong opinions about your coffee infrastructure.

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