The Unlimited PTO Policy Conundrum: How Much Vacation Should You Take When You Can Take All the Vacation You Want?


Just joined a company that boasts an unlimited PTO policy? It’s likely that such freedom and flexibility were major draws at first.

But now that you’re an official employee, chances are you’re not so sure how to handle unlimited vacation time. Should you take full advantage and book a month’s holiday in Portugal? Should you play it safe and stick to the traditional two or three weeks a year? Will your boss judge you if you skip work for a few weeks? Will your coworkers resent you?

As unlimited PTO grows increasingly popular, more and more employees will run into this conundrum. Below, we offer some advice to help you navigate limitless vacation time without damaging your reputation or frustrating your colleagues.

1. Allocate Yourself a Minimum Number of Annual Vacation Days

That’s right — minimum. Experts say employees of companies that offer unlimited leave often wind up taking less time off, not more. It’s a matter of competition: Workers are wary of taking full advantage of permissive PTO policies because they don’t want to appear to be the slackers in the org. Instead, employees might end up trying to signal their dedication by taking the least amount of time off.

Yet studies show that time away from the office is essential for good health and high productivity. Don’t let the absence of structure cajole you into overworking. Decide on a minimum number of annual vacation days that you feel is reasonable and acceptable (more on this below), and hold yourself to that commitment.

2. Gauge Norms and Expectations

Even if your employer calls it an “unlimited” PTO policy, there are bound to be a few unspoken expectations surrounding how employees will use the policy. Company leaders likely have an idea of the amount of annual PTO they feel it is “appropriate” to take, even if they never say so explicitly.

Assess the company’s norms by discussing the matter with colleagues you trust, or schedule a meeting with your manager to have a frank conversation about what is considered acceptable. If the business hasn’t always offered unlimited vacation time, you could use the number of vacation days available to employees under the older, more rigid policy as a baseline.

Even if your employer’s PTO plan is flexible, there may be fairly strict procedures in place governing how staff members should request leave. Don’t make any assumptions: Find out whether you need approval to take a vacation (you almost certainly do) and what the standard procedure is.

3. Prepare Your Manager and Coworkers for Your Absence

If you don’t want it to look like you’re abusing the freedom afforded to you, you must be responsible about how you schedule your vacations. Your time away from the office will, inevitably, impact your boss and coworkers. Be sure to give them fair warning so they can plan for your absence and put appropriate measures in place. You should also take time to adequately equip whomever will be covering for you while you’re gone, whether you’re away for one day or five weeks.

In general, it’s also best practice not to take lengthy periods of time off during busy business seasons, nor should you skip work too regularly. You may be allowed to do so under an unlimited PTO policy, but it’s still not a particularly professional or courteous route to take.

4. Maintain a High Level of Performance

By giving you the option to take off as much time as you want, your employer is implicitly saying they trust you to balance your needs with what is best for the company. Prove to your employer that you are worthy of that trust by continuing to produce great results, no matter how much time you take off. Meet all your deadlines, deliver on all your duties, and identify ways to add value to your role. Never take PTO time that will compromise your high standard of performance.

Ultimately, responsible use of unlimited PTO is a matter of productivity. As long as you consistently deliver great results, you’ll feel comfortable taking full advantage of the wonderful perk that is infinite PTO.

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