Thoughts on unlimited PTO

The idea of unlimited paid time off (PTO) has been around for a while. I wrote about it in 2015 shortly after my then-employer changed from a traditional PTO policy. But unlike many practices in the tech sector, unlimited PTO has not become ubiquitous. It’s still a matter of debate, especially since it can result in pressure to take less time off because there’s no signal about the appropriate amount.

The joys of unlimited PTO

My old company was small, engineering-focused, and fully-remote. Everyone wore a lot of hats and there wasn’t a lot of redundancy to go around. But the unlimited PTO model worked for us. Employees that were there a full year before and after the switch used, on average, about half a day more of PTO in the unlimited model.

We had a minimum policy: you had to take at least two one-week periods off each year. This helped make sure people did take time off and established that “unlimited” wasn’t a way of saying “don’t actually take time off, we just don’t want to carry this liability on our balance sheets”.

For me individually, I didn’t take much more time off than I had previously (I’m pretty bad at taking PTO to begin with). What I really liked about it wasn’t the lack of a limit, but the lack of having to think about it. Need to take a day off? Just do it. There’s no “hm. Well, should I only take half a day so that I can make sure I have some at the end of the year if I need it?”

After Microsoft acquired our company in 2017, we were back to a traditional model. We received about the same number of days off as I had been taking under the unlimited policy. But now I had to think about it. At Red Hat, we also have something like the traditional model. And I’m bad at taking it. In part because I tend to flex my work time in order to attend off-hours community events. In part because I’m just bad at it. I long for the day when I can just take time off and not worry about whether or not there will be any left for me at the end of the year.

To track or not to track?

Over the weekend, Alyss asked about tracking unlimited PTO:

I can understand the hesitancy. If your manager can reject PTO requests arbitrarily, then you don’t actually have an unlimited PTO policy. But the request/approval process can be useful for coordination. You don’t want to show up one morning to find a dozen people in your team have decided to take off for two weeks. In that sense, what’s needed more is acknowledgement than approval.

Tracking can also be abused, but I think it’s good on the whole. As a manager, if you can see that someone isn’t taking PTO, you can kick them out of the office for a week. (Not really, of course. But you can encourage them to find some time to not be at work.)

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on unlimited PTO

  1. As an employee, under “unlimited” PTO I like not having to track, or to worry that I’ve got just 2 PTO days left and it’s August and what if I get really sick before year’s end?

    But there’s no such thing as truly unlimited PTO. Here’s how you know it’s not unlimited: ask your boss for Q4 off. Even in the most generous company, that ain’t happening.

    As a manager, I despise “unlimited” PTO because there really *is* a limit. One of the engineers in my org found it recently when he booked three days that brought him to 4 total weeks of PTO so far this year. I got a Slack from the Director of HR saying he’d hit his limit. I referred her to the employee handbook where it says “we do not set limits for PTO other than being reasonable.” So 4 weeks is where it starts to become unreasonable? Why can’t we just tell the company that so people know how to behave?

  2. “As a manager, I despise “unlimited” PTO because there really *is* a limit.”

    That’s a great point. “Unlimited” is a shorter way of saying “take what you need, but not so much that we can’t justify continuing to pay you” which is a horribly ambiguous policy. I wonder if the reasoning behind that is accounting-related. if you put an actual number on it, then people will expect it to accrue and pay out if they leave.

    One solution would be to make the number very big (say 60 days/year) but have it expire each year. Would that lead people to take as close to 60 days as they can? Maybe. I feel like in most cases, if you hire someone, you should trust them to do the job. If the work is of the quality and quantity you need, then the amount of time they take off doesn’t matter. If they’re abusing the PTO policy, they’re probably not doing the kind of work that makes you want to keep them around. I suspect that’s how Netflix handles it, since they’re pretty notorious for letting go of anyone who isn’t an A student.

    So what’s the right answer? I’m not sure.

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