Nobody’s Laughing, But Unlimited Vacation Policies Are a Complete Joke

Well, it had to happen — unlimited vacation policies have jumped the shark!

Billionaire Richard Branson recently announced that his company, Virgin Group, would begin offering unlimited vacation to all corporate employees. Here’s a statement from a CNN interview with Richard:

Take a holiday whenever you want. Take as much holiday as you want. We’re not going to keep a check on how much holiday you take. Treat people as human beings, give them that flexibility and I don’t think they’ll abuse it. And they’ll get the job done.”

People are taking less time off, not more

Here’s what Richard Branson knows: It’s been proven time and again, study after study, that companies that implement unlimited vacation policies actually show a decrease in vacation time used, not an increase! He’s not making a decision based on people, he’s making a decision based on business. That’s how you become a billionaire, and not a thousandaire!

One other issue I have with the announcement is him saying “we’re not going to be checking.”

Really? You aren’t going to have anyone checking how much vacation is being used and who is using it? What if you have some employees not using any vacation at all? Isn’t that a problem? Shouldn’t someone be “checking” on this?

Let’s face it — unlimited vacation policies were garbage the moment companies discovered that the psychology of these policies was causing their employees to actually take less time off, not more.

123RF Stock Photo
123RF Stock Photo

We all write and design policies we think will have benefit to our employees and the organization. It’s a balancing act. As soon as you come out publicly with a policy and state it’s a “benefit” to your employees, when you know it isn’t a “benefit” to your employees, you lose credibility.

Designed to be a trap

The design of unlimited vacation policies was broken to begin with, but we got sucked into the dream of taking every Friday off and a three-week holiday in the summer to some island.

Then reality kicked us in the teeth and we realized what would actually happen if we tried doing something like that. It’s hard enough to use the time you had given to you previously, and your leadership team made your employees feel like crap when they did try to use it.

Unlimited time off was designed to be trap — let’s see which poor sucker will actually try to use it, and then we know which person is least engaged and not fully on the bus! No one will say this, because the companies using these policies think they’re saving the world one stupid app at a time.

The reality of most work environments is that you are hired to do a specific job. When you are not there, that job doesn’t get done, or at the very least, gets put on hold for the period of time you’re gone.

So, taking off all this wonderful vacation time only means your job really doesn’t get done. This becomes a performance issue, and/or a resource issue, since now we have to hire someone else to pick up your slack while you’re out on “holiday.”

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Is there a better alternative?

How long do you think you’ll keep your wonderful job, with unlimited vacation, when your organization is having to bring in other people to do the job you are supposed to be doing?

Yep. Not long.

What’s a better alternative?

Design the amount of time off around business needs. I’m in the Midwest, and most companies here are a ghost town between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2 or so, depending on the calendar. They are also empty Thanksgiving weekend. Throw in a few days around July 4th, and a week for spring break, and you have almost three (3) full weeks of vacation time.

Your employees also have sick time, doctors and dentists appointments, a day here or there for personal business (banking, family, etc.), so there goes another week. How about a real vacation? You know, the kind where you sit at home with a list of a thousand things to do but spend four days watching Netflix? Now, we’re at five (5) weeks.

How about 5 weeks off instead?

Five weeks of total time off probably works for about 99 percent of people in the world.

Any more than that and it’s hard to actually do your job.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


9 Comments on “Nobody’s Laughing, But Unlimited Vacation Policies Are a Complete Joke

  1. Wow. I suppose, if you start with the premise that all companies’ management does is think up ways to screw over employees, this column makes sense. Having been part of the management teams of several companies in my career, I can categorically state that that was not the intent of *any* of the leaders I’ve worked with. Not one. What an incredibly negative and condescending piece. Unlimited vacation can and does work. Good managers ensure people take some time off. Good managers ensure that people aren’t punished for taking time off. Well-led companies ensure that managers aren’t allowing people to take seven weeks off if their jobs require less time off. Add to that the fact that we are all tethered to our jobs even when we’re on vacation, and it’s clear that this can work.

  2. I’ve heard a lot about this recently and I completely understand why it would cause employees to take less time off. In fact, in the past we’ve switched from unlimited to a set amount of vacation days employees have to take because before they were taking so little (think a couple days a year). I think your five week reasoning makes sense, but I wonder if setting a minimum vacation you have to take within unlimited is also an option. So employees can take what they need, but also get time off if they’re prone to working all the time.

    1. I’ve heard of a couple of companies around here in Silicon Valley enforcing a minimum 2 weeks off per year. If you aren’t taking the time off, you get pestered by management until you do go home and in some extreme cases they even had to block access to work email so that the individual employee wouldn’t work from home (or the beach or wherever they went).

      I think an ideal would be “unlimited” with it really being 2 – 6 weeks with a normal distribution somewhere around 3 – 4 weeks. Not everyone wants to take off so much time or need it to be engaged and productive, others will.

  3. Forget unlimited time off…I just want to work somewhere that gives you 5 weeks a year! That would be a sweet deal, but it isn’t all that common here in the great white north.

    I wouldn’t say that unlimited days off is a “complete” joke, but it certainly will never play out like most poor suckers think it will. It is a safe perk for companies to give employees, making them look all hip and cool and concerned for the well-being of their staff, when in fact they are just playing the odds and relying on human nature to regulate it for them. The problem isn’t that the policy is a joke…it is that people simply refuse to take care of themselves. A better policy for employees would be to mandate 3 or 4 weeks in a row off, forcing people to unwind and refresh (see most of Europe for how that plays out). Of course, businesses are more concerned with the bottom line than they are about the ongoing health of staff, so I doubt we’ll see much of that kind of policy here…

  4. It doesn’t matter how much time off you’re given, if the culture doesn’t allow you to actually take that time, it might as well be unlimited.

    I’d rather have four or five weeks I can actually use without guilt than unlimited time I can never use, or that I’m constantly badgered about, or interrupted the whole time I’m gone.

    1. I agree with Kelly O. Perhaps companies should a) let companies leave when it makes business sense on an anytime/daily basis (e.g. if you work until midnight tonight, and tomorrow is slow, leave at 1 p.m.) and b) provide a certain amount of vacation (two weeks?) annually during which the company helps provide a backup so that the employee can actually take a vacation.

  5. Yep, agree totally. Have unlimited holidays – however if you actually take any… Just reminds me of “Kick the ball Charlie Brown. I won’t pull it away this time.” My CEO had a sign in her office – “Beatings will continue until morale improves.” At least she was honest.

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