Is Your Unlimited PTO For Real?

I’m part of the 2 percent. I work for the tiny fraction of U.S. companies that offer unlimited paid time off (PTO). That’s right, I get to watch The Price Is Right live as much as I want! Or something like that.

Are you jealous? Don’t be. You’re probably taking more vacation than I am, because workers under traditional use-it-or-lose-it policies usually take off more time than we 2 percenters.

At every organization, regardless of PTO policy, people feel reluctant to take days off. One study showed that 41% of Americans don’t take any vacation days at all. At.All.

Is that you? Are you someone who thinks your company is overpaying you so you choose to reject part of your compensation? (That’s what PTO is, after all.) Or do you fear that work will build up? (Don’t worry. Your plate will be full no matter what you can’t accomplish today, tomorrow, and many tomorrows after.) Or maybe you think your department will collapse if you’re not there for a few weeks? (The whole company, probably. Maybe even the country. The planet.) Or do you simply agonize over the optics of potentially taking off too many days? (Whatever “too many” means.)

The last concern is especially relevant under an unlimited PTO plan. At my company, I’m told that, really, no really, no but for real, really, people may take as much PTO as they wish. That’s why, after starting my job this past June, I’ll be taking the next six months off.

No I won’t. Because I can’t. (Can I? Boss, you reading this?) Obviously, truly unlimited is truly impossible, but that’s beside the point — because this has nothing to do with policy and everything do with branding.

A corporate culture in disguise

Unlimited PTO is a corporate cultural value disguised as a benefit. It’s less about giving people freedom to take vacation days and more about branding an employer as progressive and humane. It’s a stance that implicitly conveys that the business treats adults like adults by empowering people to balance work and life. It’s a marketing ploy to attract candidates.

Does that sound crass? Cynical?

Maybe, but there’s nothing wrong with using a perk to brand yourself as an employer of choice. There is, however, something wrong when a policy is on paper only. So if you’re going to offer unlimited PTO, here’s the LiberGuide to doing it right:

1. Do not track

Don’t calculate how many days your people take off. I know, I know, you think you need these details, but for what? Don’t you have enough big data that you don’t know how to or plan to use?

Information is only important as you make it. Choosing not to measure PTO tells workers that you’re not judging your people based on time they take off. It also helps cut down on paranoia by discouraging people from benchmarking their PTO against their colleagues’.

2. Be reasonable

OK, but what if people abuse your policy?

Except, what does it mean to abuse unlimited PTO? I’ll tell you what it does not mean: taking off too many days. Companies should judge people against meeting reasonable quality and quantity of work expectations, particularly since we all know that showing up for work doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing any.

The key word above is reasonable. If workload demands or cultural expectations necessarily prevent employees from taking PTO, then you best believe your employees will let everyone know on Glassdoor. (So much for your branding trick.)

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3. Minimum PTO

Finally, and most importantly, force people to stay away from work by creating a minimum PTO policy. Tell your people that they must take two or three weeks off per year, and make sure they do it. (This is your only excuse for breaking the do-not-track rule, and even then, you needn’t keep tabs beyond the minimum days.)

A minimum PTO policy is a great way to let your people know that you want them to relax and recharge and have a life outside of work. (And, by the way, you don’t need unlimited PTO to have minimum PTO.)

All that said, I’m not naive. I know that unlimited PTO is a lie at many organizations. But it doesn’t have to be.

This originally appeared on Vadim Liberman’s ’s blog at VadimLiberman.com.

Vadim Liberman

Vadim Liberman is a talent strategist, pundit, and advocate—a chief renegade officer advancing how we think, work, and live. With an expansive background in employee engagement, internal communications, and business journalism, Vadim mixes skepticism and hope to challenge conventions and create better workplaces. Check out his blog, vadimliberman.com.

Currently, Vadim is a practice leader at The Starr Conspiracy, a marketing agency that embraces humanity in business to build emotional resonance with enterprise software and services brands. Prior, Vadim managed talent engagement at Prudential, where he often battled bureaucracy and sometimes even won. Before that, he was senior editor at TCB Review, the thought-leader magazine of The Conference Board, where he explored ideas and opinions related to business management and the myriad ways that leaders fail their organizations.

Vadim also co-organizes and speaks regularly at DisruptHR events, where he has injected Madonna, cats, and ’80s television characters into presentations to inform and energize HR and other business executives. Contact him at vadimsviews@gmail.com .