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Workplace Culture

Why unlimited vacation isn’t all it seems

Meghan McCarty Carino Jul 31, 2019
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Palm trees are silhouetted before the sunset sky at Waikiki beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Unlimited vacation policies have been popping up more and more in the tech world and other competitive industries. Instead of accruing a certain number of vacation days a year, employees can take off as much as they want. Companies like Netflix and LinkedIn tout this as a great benefit to attract top workers in a tight labor market — but what sounds like a dream come true can sometimes be more of an illusion.

When software engineer Ron Buencamino joined a small tech startup with an unlimited vacation policy several years ago, his imagination went wild.

“I was jazzed actually,” he said. “I figured I can continue to do a lot of traveling, or I would be able to go out and see friends or live the kind of life that I wanted to live.”

But pretty early into the new gig, reality came crashing down. In the year and a half he spent with the company, he took no big vacations — just a day off here and there. With unrelenting deadlines and no one to fill in for him, he just didn’t feel comfortable asking for time off.

“You don’t want to go and take your break and come back and feel like you’ve rubbed people the wrong way,” he said.

Buencamino’s experience is pretty common, said Dan Schawbel, of the HR advisory firm Future Workplace.

“An unlimited vacation day policy creates more guilt around going on vacation because if you take too many days and your teammates don’t, you feel like they have the upper hand when it comes to career advancement,” he said.

A study from HR software company Namely found that employees with unlimited vacation actually took fewer days off. And the companies aren’t responsible for paying out that untaken time when a worker leaves the company.

Jeanne Schad with RiseSmart, an outplacement and career transition services provider, said that the policies can be a benefit for employees, but it really depends on the culture of the company.

“Every company has what’s written in their manual, and then there’s the unwritten manual of what people actually do. And that tends to be what employees follow,” she said.

Jonathan Wasserstrum, who’s worked in the startup world, knows all about that.

“It’s cool to say you haven’t taken a vacation in three years as a badge of courage,” he said. “But it’s not healthy.”

So when he became CEO of commercial real estate company SquareFoot he wanted to do things differently. He offers employees unlimited vacation but they have to take at least two weeks. Wasserstrum said he takes much more than that himself.

“The goal for me is so that the rest of my leadership team sees that. And then the goal for leadership team is that the managers see that. And the goal for the managers is that the entry level people see that,” he said.

Meanwhile, software engineer Buencamino has moved to a different job —one with a less glamorous-sounding limited vacation policy.

“Once you accrue vacation you’re able to quantify it a bit more,” he said. “It makes you more cognizant of the fact that you should be taking this vacation because you did earn it.”

And take it he has. He just returned from a whole nine days off in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

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