A few years ago, I worked for a marketing and consulting firm that hired me as a Director to build a big book of business. Since it was a smaller firm, the cash compensation was on the lower end of the spectrum; however, they offered a competitive commission package and unlimited PTO.

I told my husband about the offer, and he said, “There’s no such thing as unlimited PTO, Laur. That means that you can’t get fired if you never come work.”

I said, “Why do you have to be like that?”

(True story. Marriage. Good grief.)

I took the job. In my first year, I took 21 days of paid-time-off (including sick days). That’s roughly four weeks, which is equivalent to a director-level position in a big corporation. Pretty much standard stuff. I took those days on demand and without apology because I’m a human resources lady by training, I know how this works, and those days are part of my total compensation package.

My colleagues didn’t enjoy nearly as many days off. It wasn’t as if the culture didn’t encourage a fun and a vibrant personal life. It’s just that everybody felt busy and pressured to perform. When you’re in a fishbowl of high performers and tight deadlines, the benefit of unlimited paid-time-off feels disloyal.

I am a big believer in results-based performance and development plans. Set goals. Measure outcomes. Do good work and get rewarded. Fail to do your job and get fired. I would also add that you should consider implementing a PTO that requires each employee to take a minimum number of days off.

“You must take X number of days, each year, or be held accountable.”

And leaders should fight against my cynical mindset that unlimited PTO is a lie. It doesn’t have to be a lie if executives, founders and supervisors adopt a more progressive mindset and model good behaviors, too.

5 Responses to Unlimited PTO is a Lie
  1. John

    One of my favorite lines about PTO came from a good friend & generalist. He said “The funny thing about PTO is that you never take it. You just watch the numbers roll up in your account. Now if I give you a two week “use it or lose it” policy, then you’ll take time off”.

  2. Kelly O

    The more frustrating thing is the “use it or lose it” in an environment that discourages using it, or makes it difficult to use it. I see more people losing a “benefit” of their job because every time they submit a request, it’s not a good time.

  3. SalesComp

    @John, Use or lose it doesn’t change the behavior for many employees. For the last 16 years, I have worked at places with use or lose it. Too many employees lost days.

    We always hear about how employees feel the pressure to perform so they decide not to take vacation days. However many times management puts actual restrictions on them. Employees are told vacation days cannot be taken at this time of the month or this time of year or during this project. Blacking out half of the calendar makes it hard for everyone to use all of their days.

    Also many jobs are structured to have duties the preclude using all of one’s vacation days. For example, another manager and I got into a fight over new lower-level exempt job. The other manager want the position responsible for 1,800 to 2,000 man-hours per year. These duty hours did not include any time for company holidays, vacation days, training, or regular occurring meetings.

    I said that people should not need to work OT to take a company holiday or vacation day off. The manager was so mad at my response that they just glared and quietly walked away.

  4. Gina

    Unlimited PTO is a big thing for startups to offer, especially since the compensation isn’t typically market rate. To your point, Laurie, it’s all about the culture! As a marketing consultant who frequently works with startups, I’ve seen a big difference in PTO usage and it comes down to how the founding teams or managers talk about time off, balance and life, and how they actually act.

  5. Vadim

    John’s right. I think studies have shown that people take more sick days, for example, at companies that limit the number of days than at organizations that do not. Perhaps unlimited PTO is an evil corporate ploy to overwork everyone.