Uncharted Waters

Jul 6 2015   9:10AM GMT

The Limits Of Unlimited PTO

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman


I’ve noticed a few trends over time for companies that consider themselves to be on the leading edge. A while back it was open floor plans, there were a few companies that added novelties like table tennis or beer refrigerator,  and now we have policies that claim unlimited paid time off for employees.

On the surface, unlimited PTO seems great. Who wouldn’t want to take off all the time they want? But, there is also something smelly about it that I want to explore for a minute.

A pretty normal part of negotiating a new job, or even an old one, is the number of paid days off you can get each year. For me, it feels like drudgery and even more than that, it feels like begging to get just a little more out of the deal. Once you’re in though, you know what you have to work with through the year. And even though that number is probably on you permanent record somewhere in the HR file system, most reasonable managers (in software at least) are more than willing to work with you.

Need to leave early on Friday to go see your kid in a school play? No problem.

Need to be home between 10am and 8pm because your internet service is out again and that was the only available time for service? Sure.


Treating people like adults means trusting them to do the right thing. It also means being upfront with them about expectations.

But, How About Unlimited?

Unlimited PTO is really a vague agreement between a person in charge and the people that work for that person.

I have heard from more than one person, that unlimited PTO means that “we don’t track time off, and have no desire to”  But in practice, there is a time off calendar where each person documents when they will be out, and a whole slew of unspoken rules about when it is appropriate to take off. Those rules are built into the culture of each team, and will vary a little bit depending on where you are in the company.

The Social Contract

Let’s say I want to take tomorrow off because my cat needs to go see the veterinarian. In either case, unlimited or not, I mention it to my boss or anyone that might care and just do it. No big deal.

Now, how about if I started taking 5 days off every month? Or maybe I start taking every release day off.

At this point, aside from the fact that your time off is probably documented on a team calendar somewhere, your team is noticing and your manager is probably on the verge of having a conversation that isn’t very fun.

The statement that unlimited PTO companies aren’t tracking that time is silly. Time is always tracked, but in companies that claim unlimited PTO it is being tracked in a very informal way. My problem with this is that the rules are tacit, they aren’t written down and no one talks about what they really are until you have stepped over a line.

My guess is that most people don’t end up taking too much time off and that these conversations never happen and that the rules are rarely if ever made explicit. Not because people are inherently good and because they are just so dedicated to the company and their work that they don’t want to be away (which probably isn’t a good thing either). People stop taking time off because they are nervous about discovering a new rule in the time off system that no one bothered to think through and explain.

Even though having to ask for days off and get it scheduled are a pain, I much prefer not having to wonder about the social consequences later. Explicit time off agreements between companies and their employees that have a little flex built in have always been the most pleasant for me.

4  Comments on this Post

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  • Anotherusername
    Methinks the premise is wrong. The focus should be on completing the job—the tasks—in a satisfactory manner. Who cares which hours you worked or not as long as you do your job well?
    10 pointsBadges:
  • FTClark
    This "unlimited" problem you describe reminds me of a marketing ploy. It is similar to the marketing lie of hosting companies that say "unlimited" storage and bandwidth. You know there is a limit but they are not upfront about what it is. I tested it once with a nice little website of 1TB of storage that grew quickly to 1TB/month of bandwidth before tapering off. My customers loved it. I was surprised that it took two years for the hosting company to put a stop to it. They still wouldn't admit there was a limit but said I didn't have a legitimate website. Excuse me? I didn't fight it because I knew I was abusing their marketing lie but I was annoyed.
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  • ncberns
    The job here is to get the job down, whether it's done onsite of off. No one here ever has to ask for time off. They do, however, have to deliver jobs on time and on schedule. That's the only concern.

    There are times, of course, when group members have to interact as a single unit, a team. Except for rare times when conference calls are the only option, most team meetings are done face to face. Here or at some other place. That's simply part of getting the job done.
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  • pluralsightgreg

    I submit your argument is a bit short-sighted, and represents exactly what the "unlimited PTO" concept is trying to eliminate.  I work for a company that offers such a benefit, and the social contract you describe is in many ways exactly our experience.

    However, that said, there's a point you're missing in that the unlimited PTO concept and its "informal rules" of which you refer are designed to discourage exactly that sense of entitlement some individuals have regarding time off. 

    In its place is a much greater sense of employee empowerment and most importantly...trust.  That's trust not only among employees as it is between employer and employee.

    By structuring the time off system like we do, my peers at my company organically communicate better with each other.  We do a better job of communicating our time away (and, conversely, our time there) with each other, and we work harder to cover each other when we need time off -- because at some point all of us will need the time off ourselves and someone to return the favor.

    Moreover, our unlimited PTO experiment has been regarded all but universally as positive benefit of employment.  Empirically, we aren't experiencing the kinds of gaming of the system your argument insinuates; nor are we seeing the presence of some vague, meta-system of unspoken rules that you suggest are known only at the company's highest levels.

    Rather, again, we just sort of trust each other to do the right thing.  And (yes, surprisingly, even to us at first), it works.

    Most importantly, our company is nearing some 500 employees, which further lends credence that the concept can work even in large group situations.  It isn't merely a unique solution that can only in small team scenarios.

    In fact, I'd encourage you to come visit us sometime.  My company. www.pluralsight.com is hiring, and/or we'd be happy to introduce you to any of our people who'd be willing to share their experiences.

    10 pointsBadges:

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