Pitfalls of Unlimited Vacations

hr vacation 7 comments suggest edit

Vacation, All I ever wanted
Vacation, Had to get away
Vacation, Meant to be spent alone
Lyrics by The Go Go’s

Beatnik Beach CC BY-SA 2.0 Photo by Ocad123

When I joined GitHub four years ago, I adored its unlimited paid time off benefit. It’s not that I planned to take a six month trek across Nepal (or the more plausible scenario of playing X-Box in my pajamas for six months), but I liked the message it sent.

It told me this company valued its employees, wanted them to not burn out, and trusted them to behave like stakeholders in the company and be responsible about their vacation.

And for me, it’s worked out well. This, in tandem with our flexible work hours, helps me arrange my work schedule so that I can be a better spouse and parent. I walk my son to the bus stop in the mornings. I chaperone every field trip I can. I take the day off when my kids have no school. It’s great!

I also believe it’s a tool to help recruit great people.

For example, in their famous Culture Deck, Netflix notes that…

Responsible People Thrive on Freedom and are Worthy of Freedom

They go on…

Our model is to increase employee freedom as we grow, rather than limit it, to continue to attract and nourish innovative people, so we have a better chance of sustained success

In one slide they note that “Process-focus Drives More Talent Out”

The most talented people have the least tolerance for processes that serve to curtail their freedom to do their best work. They’d rather be judged by the impact of their work than when and how much they worked.

This is why Netflix also has a policy that there is no vacation policy. They do not track vacation in the same way they do not track hours worked per day or week.


As you might expect, there are some subtle pitfalls to such a policy or lack thereof. I believe such policies that rely on the good judgment of individuals are well intentioned, but often ignore the very real psychological and sociological factors that come into play with such policies.

Only the pathologically naïve employee would believe they can go on a world tour for twelve months and expect no repercussions when they return to work.

In the absence of an explicit policy, there’s an implicit policy. But it’s an implicit policy that in practice becomes a big game of Calvinball where nobody understands the rules.

But unlike Calvinball where you make the rules as you go, the rules of vacationing are driven by subtle social cues from managers and co-workers. And the rules might even be different from team to team even in a small company because of different unspoken expectations.

At GitHub, this confusion comes into sharp relief when you look at our generous parental policy. GitHub provides four months of paid time off for either parent when a new child enters the family through birth or adoption. I love how family friendly this policy is, but it raises the question, why is it necessary when we already have unlimited paid time?

Well, one benefit of this policy, even if it seems redundant, is that it sets the right expectations of what is deemed reasonable and acceptable.

Travis CI (the company) realized this issue in 2014.

When everyone keeps track of their own vacation days, two things can happen. They either forget about them completely, or they’re uncertain about how much is really okay to use as vacation days.

They also noted that people at companies with unlimited time off tend to take less time off or work here and there during their vacations.

A short-sighted management team might look at this as a plus, but it’s a recipe for burnout among their most committed employees. Humans need to take a break from time to time to recharge.

Travis CI took the unusual step of instituting a minimum vacation policy. It sets a shared understanding of what is considered an acceptable amount of time to take.

In talking about this with a my friend Drew Miller, he had an astute observation. He noted that while such a policy is a good start, it doesn’t address the root cause. A company with no vacation policy where people don’t take vacation should take a deep look at its culture and ask itself, “What about our culture causes people to feel they can’t take time off?”

For example, and the Travis-CI post notes this, leaders at a company have to model good behavior. If the founders, executives, managers, take very little vacation, they unconsciously communicate to others that going on vacation is not valued or important at this company.

His words struck me. While I like the idea of a minimum vacation to help people feel more comfortable taking vacation, I feel such a move has to be in tandem with a concerted effort to practice what we preach.

Ever since then, as a manager, I’ve tried to model good responsible vacation behavior. Before I take off, I communicate to those who need to know and perform the necessary hand-offs. And more importantly, while on vacation, I disconnect and stay away from work. I do this even though I sometimes want to check work email because I enjoy reading about work. I abstain because I want the people on my team to feel free to do the same when they are on vacation.

Apparently I’ve done a good job of vacationing because somebody at GitHub noticed. We have an internal site called Team that’s sort of like an internal Twitter and then some. One fun feature is that anybody at GitHub can change your team status. At one point, I returned from vacation and noticed my status was…

I can live with that!

It’s since been changed to “Supreme Vice President.” It’s a long story.

Found a typo or error? Suggest an edit! If accepted, your contribution is listed automatically here.



7 responses

  1. Avatar for Mark Avenius
    Mark Avenius February 18th, 2016

    Spot-on with my experience. I work for a small company (under 10 devs) and when I started 6 years ago, there was no written policy. Thankfully, this has changed, because I now take more time off, and I don't feel guilty for doing so. In all, having a set number of days has helped me avoid burn out.

  2. Avatar for Abhinaba Basu
    Abhinaba Basu February 18th, 2016

    Whenever there are such subtle policies in place, I have seen that

    1. The best case is much better than the best case of a rigid policy system.
    2. Mostly the average case is better than the average case of a rigid policy implementation
    3. However, the worst case is far far far worse than the rigid policy system.

    Now every most new orgs likes to believe that they will not ever fall into the worse case system but unfortunately some do. That is when true leadership needs to emerge to handle that. This is from my personal experience of flat-orgs system in Microsoft :)

  3. Avatar for Andrew Murphy
    Andrew Murphy February 20th, 2016

    The problem with introducing a minimum is you have to have some way to track the mininum...

  4. Avatar for acl123
    acl123 February 21st, 2016

    For sure, freedom suits some people, but not all. Sure we have people who can take extended vacations on their own terms - but we employ them as contractors and pay them hourly rates. There is an agreement that that working model suits their lives better. But we have valuable people working for us, who in an environment without rules would do themselves and those around them a lot of harm. If you've ever worked closely with a highly-addictive personality you will know what I'm talking about. One year they will be working flatout until they are a hollow shell; the next year you will never see them in the office whilst they are out on long binges of drinking and gambling. A little of bit of structure and enforcement of expectations goes a long way to help these type of people (who are often brilliant, when they are under control).

    I think companies in the early stages think that they simply won't hire people who don't fit their narrow cultural expectations, but inevitably the inability to hire diversely becomes an obstacle for growth.

    Having rules and guidelines is vitally important to the human condition. Of course it is also important to know when to be flexible and allow rules to be broken.

  5. Avatar for jdogg13
    jdogg13 February 22nd, 2016

    Having an "unlimited" vacation policy means not having to pay out unused vacation days when an employee leaves the company.

  6. Avatar for Big D
    Big D September 22nd, 2016

    those bastards!

  7. Avatar for WhoNeedsHolidays
    WhoNeedsHolidays September 22nd, 2016

    "... but we employ them as contractors...There is an agreement that that working model suits their lives better..."

    Sounds like that might be a one way agreement