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Whenever I find out a company and job I’m interested in has unlimited PTO (Paid Time Off) I’m no longer interested.

As a software engineer I find there is always work that can be done. This makes me afraid of “You can take time off as long as the work is done.”

Am I wrong? Is unlimited PTO generally beneficial to employees?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    May 24 at 8:40

9 Answers 9

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Having worked for a company with "unlimited" PTO I can tell you that my experience was almost universally bad. People were always worried that if they took too much, that is more than other people, it would reflect badly on them. So I found, and most people I talked with agreed, that we took LESS PTO under the "unlimited" program than with a more traditional approach. I rarely took more than 2-3 weeks per year even though I had been eligible for more before they went to that plan.

The only time it worked in my favor was after I had decided to move on but had yet to put in my resignation. I took 3 weeks off, then came back and gave my 2 weeks notice. Note that you never have "unused" PTO so in those places where unused PTO must be paid out at termination, you will not get anything. My manager, however, was a great guy and got me into a "lay off" program and I received 6 weeks of severance pay.

I'm sure that there are other companies that are less toxic where it works out better. A lot depends on the company's attitude toward their employees.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – DarkCygnus
    May 23 at 19:12
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This makes me afraid of “You can take time off as long as the work is done.” Am I wrong…is unlimited PTO generally beneficial to employees?

You're not entirely wrong.

In states like California, companies do select such a policy because they don't want employees to accumulate PTO, nor do they want to pay out vacation time whenever an employee quits, or gets fired, or gets laid off. And yes, having such a policy does have a chilling effect on employees taking the PTO they're entitled to.

But at the same time, if you're applying to tech companies in California, it would really be foolish to avoid all companies that have such a policy because it's very common, plus for some companies, it's not always a negative for the employee.

If you want to see how the policy works in practice, ask your future colleagues (at your level) during the interview.

"How does this "unlimited PTO" policy translate in practice? During your first year, how many vacation days did you actually take?"

With that said, I understand if you don't want to ask too many questions related to PTO during the interview itself.

So definitely, talk to your friends/acquaintances, have informal coffee chats with current/former employees, use sites like Glassdoor, Blind, LinkedIn, and use Google (if the company is large enough). There is a lot of bad information you can uncover that way.

But definitely do not blacklist all employers that have such a policy. If you're applying to jobs in California, doing so would be sabotaging your own job search before it even gets started.

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    If they are thinking of turning down the job anyway there is less risk to asking potentially awkward questions in the interview. Maybe it is even a positive to ask, they want the job iff the company is ok with people taking time off, so the question itself acts as a filter.
    – Clumsy cat
    May 22 at 8:49
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    The points you bring up are very true about California and for the reasons you mention. I was in a universally known company from Silicon Valley when they changed from 20 days to unlimited PTO - for the reasons you gave. The result was I asked for less time off and all of a sudden felt self conscious about it anyways and also there was no accumulation of time off when I moved on. May 22 at 16:17
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    I worked as a senior software engineer for a well-known Silicon Valley company when they switched to the unlimited-PTO model around 2009. Before that, I got 20 days of PTO per year. I resolved to continue to take the same 20 days of PTO every year and always took most of it for a three-week vacation off the grid (unreachable by email, phone, etc) in late spring. I never got push-back from my managers, and it did not adversely affect my career; I retired from that company in 2014. FWIW, this company typically ranks quite high on "Best places to work" lists. Your mileage may vary.
    – njuffa
    May 23 at 2:21
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    I had never considered before that this policy existed to avoid paying out money for accrued vacation days. It seems like a somewhat perverse workaround that the law ought not permit; if you owe workers financial compensation for vacation they were entitled to but didn't take, how can nominally giving them a GREATER vacation entitlement reduce what you owe? The troll in me wants a court to rule that since workers at such companies accrue infinite vacation days on day one of the job, the moment they quit the job, no matter how soon after joining, their employer must pay them infinite money.
    – Mark Amery
    May 23 at 12:42
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    @User65535, Well, I haven't asked this particular question, but I've asked similar questions that couldn't easily be evaded with a vague answer, and yes, they do work. It's like you're conducting a behavioral interview but in reverse. Some other questions to consider are: "How did your company respond to the pandemic?", "When was the last time you had a project behind schedule?", (then a a follow up question) "How many hours did you work on that week?" And again, you have to ask your future colleagues, not HR, not your future manager, and preferably ask them when no one else is in the room. May 23 at 17:42
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TL;DR: It might be a "red flag" sometimes (maybe even often) but not always. Some companies have good intentions with such a policy but their employees might not feel comfortable taking enough time off.

I am a manager, and was also an engineer, at a company with an unlimited PTO policy. I can't speak for all companies, but I can say that in my experience, "Unlimited PTO" at the company I work for is as good or better than PTO policies I have seen elsewhere in my career.

When my team requests PTO, my criteria for accepting or requesting changes is as follows:

  1. Who else has PTO that week -- does this request mean too many people will be out, and we'll be unable to handle an issue? (We're an operations team, for context)
  2. Is there anything during that PTO that the requestor needs to attend -- presentations, commitments, meetings, etc. Can they be moved, recorded, or, can we find a replacement?
  3. Are there deadlines or team commitments that would be at risk if this person takes time off at this time?

If there's concerns based on those criteria, then I would ask my employee to reschedule, not outright reject the PTO. And it's a conversation, not an outright denial.

For what it's worth: in over a year in my management role I have never needed to ask for anyone to adjust their PTO requests, and I have never been denied or asked to change my own PTO requests.

Note that none of my criteria includes "how much time has this individual taken so far?" -- This is not even a metric I track, because it's not data I need. Instead, at performance review time, I sit down with each of my team members one-on-one, and look at how they are performing against the goals we set for them. If people aren't meeting their goals, we can look at reasons. (And "too much PTO" has never been one of those reasons)

This is just one datapoint to answer your question "Is avoiding companies with Unlimited PTO a bad idea?". I would be disappointed if you did not consider one of the positions I am hiring for simply because we have an unlimited PTO policy.

The other answers make some very good points, specifically with regard to accrued PTO that, at other companies, must be "paid out" when leaving. In this regard, Unlimited PTO does benefit the company more than the employee.

After reading other answers on this question, and discussing internally, I'm going to start tracking last time PTO was taken by my team, and reminding/encouraging people on my team to take PTO if they haven't done so recently, to ensure that people don't feel like they shouldn't be taking PTO.

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    So... In conclusion.... easier for managers.... Question, what was the average employee vacation days per year?
    – SeanJ
    May 23 at 0:16
  • Excellent question - What was the average number of PTO days/year based on experience/longevity with the company? Were people never turned down because they didn't ask for much? Were people taking 20-30 or more days per year or only 5-10 because they were self-conscious and self-monitoring.
    – FreeMan
    May 23 at 0:22
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    Difficult to say because of the pandemic — for example, I canceled a planned week vacation due to COVID. I took about 20 days off, which was 6 more than I got when I had tracked PTO. I would guess that average PTO is 20-30 days per year, but I don’t have hard data
    – Josh
    May 23 at 0:44
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    Spoke to one of my team members, and the feedback provided was "this is the first place I've worked where unlimited PTO does not feel like a trap", so, clearly it's not often good. But I hope that my experience shows that it's not always bad, either.
    – Josh
    May 23 at 13:37
  • Your answer has made me realize there is seemingly another "drawback" to unlimited PTO - a person just hired is theoretically getting the same amount of PTO as someone who has worked there for 10 or 20 years. Have you experienced any hard feelings among employees with such tenures about this?
    – Michael J.
    May 24 at 1:34
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No, not by itself.

For companies that have unlimited PTO policies, ask what the average number of PTO days taken are for the company. It’s a red flag if they don’t have that information.

My company averages 26 days a year and our recruiters will gladly say that. Additionally, my department leads insist on “at least” 20 and forecast December as a “slow” period.

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    Is it a red flag? I've worked startups that didn't have any central reporting -- PTO usage known only to each employee and their immediate manager -- and didn't perceive that as a problem. May 22 at 22:28
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    @CharlesDuffy I think the flag there would be no central reporting system. How hr gonna hr if hr can’t hr? Startup? Maybe it’s fine. For a +moderate size org? An issue.
    – coll
    May 23 at 2:13
  • @CharlesDuffy I worked for a company with "unlimited" PTO where my manager used their "discretion" to deny me more than the bare minimum while someone else was taking a week off once a month. Having a system that is so incredibly ripe for abuse is always a red flag, even if it doesn't end up being abused. May 23 at 14:37
  • @MatthewRead, the places I've seen it work well are small enough that everyone was in regular communication with every layer of management, up to and including the CEO and CFO (who were both people intent on maintaining a relationship with everyone on their staff that lasted past our first stint working together). The kind of overt favoritism you're discussing doesn't fly when there's enough communication to have it happening in the open. May 23 at 14:52
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There's no way that unlimited PTO can be honest. It's as simple as that.

If it was honestly unlimited, individuals could get hired and take 100% of their time off. Clearly the company cannot allow it.

From there, it logically follows that there exists some mechanism to limit PTO, which they are not telling you until you get hired. This can be pressure from fellow employees, the threat of getting laid-off, psychological manipulation. But there is something. So, beware. Unlimited PTO means: We're not fully honest with you during hiring.

Contrast that with a clear contract: 3 weeks PTO, manager can override it if project is late. Well, doesn't look as great, but clearly more to the point and honest.

Anecdote: I've worked at an unlimited PTO place to try it out. I was willing to work 11 days out of 14 and needed 3 days to fly back to hometown, during initial trial period. Told them during hiring. They say yes, sure. Guess what? They clearly expected 14 working days per two-week period. Lesson learned for me.

Also, one of the top answers, which is pretty good, lists:

>With that said, I understand if you don't want to ask too many questions related to PTO during the interview itself.

Just imagine how much of a crazy-house type of place you are are talking about when the discussion about hiring you is not appropriate to discuss terms of you working there. Mind-boggling red flags.

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    I realize I won't sway anyone, but no it wouldn't. If "as long as the work gets done?" was the target, the right move for the hiring company would be to contract out. It would also let the employee pick the amount of contract they want. Unlimited PTO fails basic economy. It's a scam to get extra work out of people who won't stand up for themselves by calling the obvious BS.
    – Jeffrey
    May 23 at 1:55
  • Isn't "PTO" in this context taken to include sick days? Because illnesses tend to have rather little respect for the opinion of managers.
    – MSalters
    May 23 at 11:27
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I don’t think that should be a single deciding issue, if only because so many good software engineering jobs will be in companies with such policies.

The important thing is to learn as much about PTO expectations as you can before you take the job. I recommend asking HR if they compile stats about PTO usage. That should tell you a lot, and a lack of data or an unwillingness to share can also be telling. You should try to learn about the approval process. If you find out who would be approving your PTO (for instance, your future manager) try to talk to them about how they personally manage the unlimited policy.

I was concerned about unlimited PTO at my current company when I interviewed. My concerns were put to rest when HR shared (without prompting) the full breakdown of average PTO usage, including holidays and sick days, and when my future manager expressed that he’s more of a “book the time and let me know” kind of person. I doubt most companies are as forthcoming, but you don’t know until you ask, or until they tell you.

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I worked for a company that converted from fixed max days off (sick and vacation) to unlimited PTO. The stated reason was that it would eliminate a liability category from the books for the parent company (accumulated days off x prorated salary). That should tell you enough right there.

However, in practice, it depended a lot on the individual manager and what their group did. Some groups were able to make it work well. Those tended to be developer groups where it was relatively easy to shift responsibilities. The ones where it didn't work well were those where the workload was already somewhat high and there tended to be individual experts. Our support organization tended to be in that category.

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It's not bad to have "unlimited" PTO. We all know there is a limit to it, but it's just not a static number published by HR.

The easy way to deal with it, and not feel bad or afraid you're abusing it, is to take off the general amount of time you might have had before at an organization with static PTO, given your years of experience in the industry -- not the years at that specific company.

For example, if you'd normally get 4 weeks of PTO, then just plan to take 4 weeks of "unlimited" PTO. You and your management will most likely have a common degree of comfort without ever having to discuss it.

Unlimited PTO can come in handy if something "special" comes up -- ie. the loss of a family member, COVID-like childcare scenarios, extended illness, etc. Companies and employees all know it's not really unlimited, it's just designed to be more flexible and eliminate PTO-payout liability from an accounting perspective.

Don't let the fear of this new trend scare you away. It wasn't that long ago when companies had sick time and vacation time and you couldn't mix them. This is just a further expansion of flexibility around taking time off.

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Although this has now been tagged as US, from the UK, I can see another way of looking at this. We generally have two buckets of time off, holiday, which is paid and sick days, which are also paid but possibly at a lower rate. That means we never have the question of burning a day of holiday because of illness. If we are sick it comes out of of sickness allowance, if we are on holiday, it comes out of holiday. We are also entitled to claim back holiday if we are sick. Sick days are, broadly speaking, unlimited but holiday usually is. This is all irrespective of emergency leave and compassionate leave etc.

The point I am making is this: from my perspective, unlimited PTO is not a red-flag but in some respects, the norm. If you consider that you no longer have to sacrifice a valuable day of holiday because you have a migraine or a child\dependent needs you then it is a very useful thing to have. Yes, it can be abused but so can any system.

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    Unlimited PTO is not unlimited sickleave, it’s unlimited holiday days as well, so it’s not comparable
    – eckes
    May 23 at 10:23
  • @eckes That's kind of my point. In my understanding, many American companies that give PTO, include sick leave in that time. If you are only given two weeks of PTO a year and take one day off because you're crippled with a migraine, the boss isn't going to approve your two weeks by the beach. In the UK, we don't, as rule, have to worry about that. If I'm off with a migraine, my two weeks by the beach is unaffected. The point I'm trying to make is that unlimited PTO doesn't have to be considered only as unlimited holiday but it gives the flexibility to have holiday and sickness.
    – BWFC
    May 23 at 10:36
  • Ok yes understood, true unless you get sick when you are needed and won’t get PTO easily.
    – eckes
    May 23 at 10:46
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    @eckes getting the time off approved is an entirely different story I grant you. Although it's hard to imagine a boss on this side of the pond refusing a two week holiday in August because of a migraine in January.
    – BWFC
    May 23 at 10:52

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