"Unlimited" vacation

November 17, 2018

In San Francisco, everything from sexuality to product strategy is treated as a giant experiment. That experimentation spilled into HR practices starting around 2011-2012, and we got everything from remote work to catered food…the so-called "talent war".

Then things changed. A bunch of factors—#MeToo, a few wild parties that got too much press—forced a rethink around 2015-2016. The sentiment seemed to be, "Maybe a more traditional approach to HR isn't so bad". I started noticing fewer ping-pong tables and kegerators, more paid parental leave and non-gender binary bathrooms.

One thing that seems to have held on is the so-called "unlimited vacation policy", which is a shame, because I wish it would die. Thus the state of tech HR today: eight weeks paid parental leave (thanks), no vacation days.

I'm fairly libertarian overall but this is an area where I'm firmly on the side of the employees.

Some review: paid time off (PTO) is a privilege given to employees by employers. Not everyone gets it, but if they do, it is subject to a large body of law intended to protect employeess, such as the right to take time off you've been promised (read your employee handbook), and "encashment", the right to be "cashed out" for unused time off when you leave a job.

Unlimited vacation never quite feels like it's yours, because it isn't: it's not encashable, and there's no guarantee you'll get it. Asking for it feels like asking for a favor.

Asking for a favor isn't how it feels when you use something you've earned. And if you ask HR people, they'll tell you people in these "unlimited vacation" offices actually end up taking less time off, not more.

The whole mentality is different.

Granted, one never fully goes on vacation from a software job (especially with 24/7 cloud services), but unlimited vacation is a sloppy agreement, like "friends with benefits": you never know what you're getting into because neither side agrees to the terms, until one does something the other doesn't think is acceptable and then there's a big fight.

Employees don't win fights with their employers.

Giving PTO is the traditional, responsible thing to do.

I don't mean to pile on with the office parties. Most tech offices where I've worked have had the most polite, respectful people with whom I've ever worked. I'm tired of NYT hatchet-jobs on the "evils of tech".