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During an HR interview for a software engineer role (first tier above new grad) with a prominent international software company with over 500 employees, I was told:

Our company offers new US employees 15 days of PTO, plus national holidays. Employees are asked to use 5 of those PTO days during the company's annual Christmas holiday closure.

Many destinations and services are busier and/or more expensive during the holidays, reducing the value of that time off. Even if that were not the case, this is an unfamiliar restriction on what is generally a freely scheduled benefit in the US.

Anecdotally, fifteen days feels like a bit of a lowball offer in this field. (Less-experienced friends have all started with 15-25 days) More importantly, the holiday policy feels like a potential red flag. Can I trust a company that offers "15 days PTO", but asks me upfront to restrict when those days are used?

  1. How does this PTO offer actually compare to US software industry norms?
  2. Is it a red flag that the company "asks" that five of those days be taken during an annual company holiday closure?

This company is a global employer, and I'm particularly interested in global perspectives on the second question. Maybe this is standard practice in the country you're from, and I'm only concerned because it is unfamiliar?

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    ...and if I don't have 5 PTO days available when the office is closed, then what? Do I get paid to come sit in the cold outside the office's locked doors?
    – Seth R
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 19:29
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    I would ask for clarification. Ask directly, "Why do I get 15 days PTO and have to use 5 of them when the office is closed?"
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 19:31
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    The right question to ask here is: "The company asks that I take five days during the closure, but what happens if I say I don't want to?". Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 20:23
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    In the manufacturing industry it is normal to have shutdowns in which you must take PTO, and to be given "extra" PTO days to use at those times. At GM Canada they are called Special Paid Absence (or Spa) days. That in itself is not a thing. The thing is, if you ignore those, it's only 10 "real" days. Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 20:39
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    I can't believe how stupid companies are. If they just said 10 days PTO and 5 more holidays, nobody would bat an eye. Doing it this way is just weird and unnecessary.
    – Issel
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:29

7 Answers 7

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You've got a couple of good answers relating to the norms in the USA, which seems to be where you are, but seeing as you asked specifically for global perspectives, I'll add mine.

Where I am, 23-25 days plus public holidays is the normal starting point for vacation time (with sick leave a separate thing), but it is normal that an employer can direct some of that time to be taken during certain periods rather than chosen freely. For me, it's 5 days over Christmas, but I know of other places where there's an expectation that everyone takes the same time off for a week or two in the summer because the company finds it's better to shut down for that time than to go through all of July and August short-handed while people take time off separately. (Manufacturing is an obvious example, but anything with a team-based work element potentially benefits from this).

I've also known of employers who customarily offer their staff a deal that if they take x days off over Christmas/New Year, the employer offers y extra days to allow them to shut the office rather than open it for a handful of people who'd rather not be there anyway.

Some places also restrict what proportion of your time off you can take at popular times, and/or expect you to arrange with peers that you will stagger time off so there's always someone within a skill group who can cover the others. (Anything with a public-facing role, particularly, but not exclusively).

TL;DR: where I am, the normal number of days is more than in the US, but all sorts of restrictions (or none at all) can also be normal, depending on industry and employer.

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    I think it's work adding that organized time off is more popular when it is something which requires coordination of multiple people - like physical production, whether directly or in support of it. It is less common to have organized time off in purely R&D roles like software engineering.
    – jaskij
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 23:02
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    Note that in the US, PTO afaik means sick days + vacation days, while the 23-25 days you mention are likely only vacation days (most countries add a mandatory minimum of 5-30+ paid sick days); for a nice overview of mandatory minimum vacation days see here.
    – tim
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 7:29
  • Thanks for the comments - incorporated into the answer along with some edits suggested by another user.
    – Saes
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 8:35
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    When I worked in manufacturing, we closed for 2 weeks during the Christmas - New Years holidays. 6 of those days were paid, the other 4 required you to take PTO, if you didn't have sufficient leave left, then your alternative was LWOP.
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 15:50
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    Situation in Germany is also very similar to this. The employer has to take into account the wishes of the employee, and has to grant 3 weeks off in a block, but employees also have to accept if there are good reasons for the employer to demand certain coordination between employees (like the answer says, e.g. completely closing, or making sure the business stays in working shape) Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 0:42
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No, it is not a "red flag". A red flag isn't just any aspect of a situation that you don't like. It's a specific clue that there are other, harder to investigate aspects of the situation that will be much, much worse. Say a romantic partner who insists on knowing your phone password and regularly looks through your texts. You might not mind that, but friends might warn you that only abusers demand that kind of access.

This PTO policy is just a typically American PTO policy. You basically get two weeks vacation. Plus you get the week of Xmas off, and if you want that off, cool, you don't have to use up one of your two weeks on that. Yes, your friends in Europe probably get up to 5 weeks. Most Canadian office jobs start at 3 weeks. There are lots of places to work that will give you more than two real weeks and the third one you do probably want off as well. Is it an unfair, miserly, or otherwise bad PTO policy? It would be for me. If this is insufficient paid holiday for you, don't take the job. But don't assume it means that they are likely to demand unpaid overtime, make you do business travel on the weekends with no compensation, or in some other important way be a horrible employer. It's just a PTO policy, not a red flag.

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    Thank you for saying this. Just because you don't like it doesn't make it negative, suspect, faulty, etc.
    – joeqwerty
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 20:18
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    Most IT jobs I've had started with 2 weeks (10 days) PTO - it's pretty normal miserly US PTO policies. (But it's way better than the service sector, who often start with 5 or less days, down to 0.) Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 20:21
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    If the position were advertised as 10 days of PTO, holidays, and a 5-day winter break, I would not have asked the question. Advertising 15 days, with HR "asking" employees to abide by a restriction on five felt borderline dishonest to me, and dishonesty would be a red flag. IMO, whether this is a red flag really hinges on whether this approach is an honest and equitable way of communicating compensation to prospective employees. In other words, is this in alignment with industry standard definitions of PTO? Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 20:39
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    I would say "strongly suggesting" when you should take PTO is a red flag. If they're going to be closed for that time and want to pay their employees their salary, then they should offer 10 days and just say you also get paid the week we're closed.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 3:45
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    I don't see "borderline dishonesty" (so no red flag) in the situation as described because the policy was explained ahead of signing a contract and from other answers here it seems it's not a completely unheard of concept, even in the US tech. sector. To my western European eyes, that's not much time off, which is one of the reasons I don't cross the Atlantic and double my salary. Joining a global employer might give the OP the chance to experience different work cultures of that is of interest to them.
    – Saes
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 9:38
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Personal Experience

I actually worked for an employer in the US with the same policy. They would shut down the offices between Xmas and New years and wind them down and/or do maintenance work on the facilities.

Overall that worked fine and I never heard anyone complaining about it.

The key question here is what to do if you are out of PTO. In my case, you could also just take unpaid time off, which many people did.

I do agree that 15 days of PTO with that holiday looks stingy. If you budget one week for sick/personal days, one week for Christmas office closure you are only left with 1 week of actual vacation time.

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    With far more days to start with, most places I've worked in the UK have had a shutdown (normally "up to 5 days" depending on how the public holidays fall. The shutdown days are deducted from the leave allowance at the start of the leave year, so you never even really see them and can't overbook on the system. I can't recall how they handle people starting close to the shutdown, because I've always started much earlier in the year.
    – Chris H
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 10:25
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    @ChrisH Exactly, I was just talking about this with my wife (also works in UK). She insisted that she only gets 22 days of annual leave and that's what it says on the system. I said that people here usually get 25 per year. Turns out, she had 3 days of Christmas break pre-booked on the system. So yeah in the case of OP, my guess is he would simply start with 10 days of PTO on the system.
    – Justin
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:34
  • I had the exact same experience. The main reason they "ask" us to use PTO is because taking unpaid time off was a lot more hassle and paperwork for your manager and payroll. If it's a true shutdown then coming in and working isn't an option, it's either paid or unpaid vacation.
    – bta
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 0:34
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I wouldn't say this is a red flag for a US company, paid leave policies here vary a lot in terms of actual rules. One thing that I've noticed at every company I've worked at so far, especially for people in technical positions is that it's hard to take time off in the middle of the year. My last company had to mandate that people take time off earlier in the year so that they wouldn't be short staffed during the last 5 weeks of the year when people felt compelled to use their PTO that wouldn't roll over to the next year.

Also, 15 days is very likely a starting negotiating position. If you ask for 20 they will likely either give it to you, tell you that you'll automatically get more days after being with the company for a year as per policy, or withdraw the offer. If they do withdraw the offer, that would be a red flag indicating that you shouldn't have taken the job anyway. Companies that aren't willing to negotiate on minor benefits like PTO or at least provide a path to getting more may also expect you to work free overtime and just aren't saying it.

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    A lot of things are negotiable, but I would be very surprised if a company negotiated on amount of paid leave, particular for a fairly junior position. People tend to track time off fanatically, and for an employee with a couple of years of seniority to hear that a new employee was getting more time off would be a serious problem.
    – DaveG
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 16:29
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The concept of mandating a period of when leave can be taken is no unusual in general, there are many industries that have similar mandates, especially the education sector. In many cases it is practical to entirely shut down rather than attempt to operate at a reduced load. This can benefit both staff and the employer, staff benefit from not having to compensate workloads (this can significantly increase workplace stress) as well as the employer being able to predict, plan for and budget around this closure.

Many construction and manufacturing industries also follow this pattern, if suppliers are shutting down, then it is too risky to continue cinstruction/manufacture during this time frame as you may run out of supplies.

I wouldn't consider it a Red Flag, it is up to you to decide if the employer has offered enough remuneration to make this worth your while, for instance many industries where this practice is normal will offer more holidays. Again the education sector often gets a few additional weeks off, but the trade off is that all of them are in the peak periods.

The reverse scenario can be more painful, IT firms who service industries that traditionally shut down may experience higher work demand during these periods, as this is the optimal time to rollout mainframe or mass workstation or software upgrades when there are no bums on seats to get in our way. In this scenario you may be informed that you cannot take the time off over the Christmas/new year break, or you might to required to work every second year during this period.

The bottom line is that in this case the employer is being up-front about this, so ask what to procedure is when you want to take a mid-year break and what policies they have in place around accruing leave over multiple years, can you for instance take additional days this year in-lieu of some days next year.

Even though you are forced to use some of your leave, you should still be able to arrange enough time off in the non-peak seasons on the occasions that you want to, it just takes some negotiation and planning to get the approval.

Many destinations and services are busier and/or more expensive during the holidays, reducing the value of that time off

It is true that it is less economical to vacation abroad (or even domestically) during the traditional holiday seasons, but it is still more common for people to do so during this time for many other practical reasons, like the fact that schools and many offices are closed. This is why it is more expensive, the demand is higher. So statistically more staff in general would prefer to take that time period off, it is usually an easy sell from the employer's point of view.

Remember that the recruitment process works both ways, they are selecting you, but you are also selecting them, it is up to you to decide if the terms that they set work for your personal situation. If they do not, then be looking for a higher salary then you would otherwise be willing to accept.

Your base salary expectation + X weeks to cover worst case scenario that you have to take the time off without pay ;) multiply X a bit until it IS worth your while

$expected x (X weeks + 52)/52 = $ask

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Is this PTO policy a red flag?

It is a red flag.

If the office is closed, there is no legitimate reason for any employee to use their PTO during that period. This is no different than weekends, where offices are usually closed.

Unless you are OK with only 10 days of PTO ( which is in reality what you will get ), I would move on to a different opportunity and drop this company from consideration.

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    Exactly. You have 10 days PTO and they are closed Dec25-Jan1 (or whatever).
    – Damila
    Commented Mar 10, 2022 at 21:03
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    Well, you don't get paid for Sundays. You seem to get paid for the days the location closes in this offer. So it literally is "paid time off". If you'd get only ten days PTO, you would not get paid for the Christmas break.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 6:45
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    I would agree, except that I do work for a legitimate fortune 500 company with the same policy. The office is "closed" twice a year and you either waste PTO on the break or you take unpaid leave. (When I first started, we weren't even given the extra days to cover the first break so if you didn't have enough PTO, well then you were unpaid.) It's clearly a garbage policy, but it's totally legit and the entire global workforce follows it. So maybe a red flag in terms of "yeah that PTO isn't as sweet as you thought" but it's not an indicator of a non-legit employer. Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:12
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas - "the entire global workforce follows it. " - wouldn't that be illegal in countries that have decent employment laws, like the UK? Here, workers who work a 5-day week must receive at least 28 days’ paid annual leave a year. The employer can choose to include Bank Holidays (8 per year) in the statutory leave. Part-timers pro-rata. Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 18:54
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    @MichaelHarvey ~ I couldn't say, I'm not in HR or legal. :) It's just about guaranteed that PTO accrual and rules varies by location in multi-national corporations. But they could give 28 days' paid leave and simultaneously have a shutdown as described -- either use your time off on these days and get paid, or take unpaid time and bank your hours. Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 19:34
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American programmer with 10+ years experience - 4 of which is at the bank I currently work for.

I was hired with 25 days of PTO in addition to federal holidays (humble brag) and no restrictions on when to use them.

At none of my previous jobs has it been requested that I take PTO off during the holidays. It's normal for most of the office to take Thanksgiving, Christmas or some combination of time in that area but I've persononaly not experienced "you need to take THIS week off".

Of the places I've worked (Chemical factory, Hospital, State Agency, Bank) the only one that would have remotely "closed" during slow times of the year was the factory - and even that one didn't fully close. They had websites running and what not and required minimal presence of "support" staff so someone was there if 9 of 10 decided to take that time off.

Personally? I think 3 weeks of vacation time is an okay starting point and depending on what the company does, them closing for that week might not be out of the ordinary. I do wonder what happens if you use your PTO beforehand and have 0? Does -5 carry over into the new year? Do you not get paid? Do you go into the office by yourself or "work from home" for a week?

Why is it closed (Factory closed?) and what happens if you decide to work that week are two questions that would determine if it's a negative or just business as normal for them.

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  • I think I've got you beat. Also American in the IT field. My employer offers 24 PTO days per year, and we get the time between Christmas and New Years off in addition. Oh, and paid holidays and sick days on top of that. But this is a very unusual set of benefits. One benefit that seems to get more popular in the IT field is "unlimited PTO". Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 8:30
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    @KevinKeane unlimited* (*limited ability to use it)
    – WernerCD
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 14:25

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