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Wanted: Employees Willing to Accept Unlimited Vacation Plans

Leon Kaye | Monday August 16th, 2010 | 3 Comments

Various studies peg American’s average paid vacation time at 10 to 15 days a year.  Two weeks’ paid vacation is the norm, with 15 days for more tenured employees.  Add the 7 to 10 paid holidays (for many Americans, the first paid holiday of the year is Memorial Day), and the US ranks toward the bottom of industrialized countries when it comes to the total amount of annual paid vacation.

Some companies are creative when it comes to the benefits that they offer employees.  Tech companies during the dot-com era took all kinds of liberties, from free lunches to foosball tables . . . massages and onsite saunas have made the perk list, too.  Concierge services, from car washes to dry cleaning delivery, make sense for offices full of workers burning the midnight oil.

So how would you react if your boss walked into a meeting one day and announced that all employees would have unlimited vacation time?


Rosemary and Ted O’Neill, owner of the Seattle-based social media company Social Strata, announced earlier this year that its employees could start taking unlimited paid leave.  Workers at first greeted the news with disbelief.  The O’Neills, however, reconsidered their policy after one of their employees struggled to take care of a seriously injured spouse while keeping pace with her work.  They decided to extend the policy to everyone at their 10-person company, with the idea that unlimited time off would be for more than long road trips or escaping to Hawaii.  The O’Neills wanted Social Strata’s employees to feel they could attend one of their children’s school events or look out for a sick relative, and trusted that employees would still stay productive and get their work completed.

If you assume this is kooky Left Coast thinking, take a step back.  The human resources group WorldAtWork has surveyed employee benefits since 2002, and announced this year that this year, the percentage of American businesses that offered unlimited leave to their employees reached 1% for the first time ever.  As Rosemary O’Neill explained in her blog at the time Social Strata announced this benefit:

. . . If we have the “right people on the bus,” i.e., people who are passionate about what they’re doing, we don’t need to set artificial limits on the amount of time they can take off, or why they can take time off.  Disciplined people will ensure that their responsibilities are handled, and still be able to recharge their batteries with time off.  Undisciplined people who take advantage of the system will reveal themselves and be naturally sorted out.

Some will say this could never happen in the real world; then again, most businesses in the US are small and family-owned businesses, so if unlimited paid leave works for Social Strata and Netflix, surely it could succeed elsewhere.  The announcement of such a policy is a startling change, but at a higher level, most people just want to be treated like responsible adults, and this shift would be a great way to test employee’s accountability.  Perhaps this would not work in sectors like manufacturing or for functions that must provide quarterly reporting with tight deadlines–then again, most of us know plenty of people who do not work the traditional 9 to 5 job.  Many studies have demonstrated that flexible work schedules keep employee productivity and engagement high; unlimited leave offer the strongest challenge to such a thesis.

If you are in management, would you support such a policy?  And to individual contributors, how would you respond to such a change?


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  • Ed Stammel

    Having the right people on the bus is the key for sure. But study after study underscore the need to recharge and have quality time away from the demands of the work place. The US needs to catch up with the rest of the world in PTO, but not at the expense of productivity. This policy would make great sense if properly monitored.

  • http://www.triplepundit.com/author/leon-kaye/ Leon Kaye

    Thank you, Ed, for reading, and please come back. It’s an interesting approach, and puts the onus on employees to be accountable. I think some companies are a better fit than others, but it could certainly build trust and rapport within an organization.

  • Mac

    I love this idea and have found that a few of our clients (we are an HRO) have an “un-written” rule on vacation and time off. The books say two or three weeks, but lots of time-off is given under the table.

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