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I've seen numerous posts on Stack Overflow Jobs or on-line in general where a company lists "Unlimited vacation days" as one of the company's benefits.

I see several issues with this "benefit" and I'm not sure what I should expect when applying for one of these job posts.

  • Are "unlimited" really unlimited? Or should I expect a fine print that says my maximum vacation days is 180 for example.
  • Would the employees feel comfortable taking more than the norm (25-30 days per year)? I mean if the contract states that I'm entitled to 90 vacation days per year then I would at some point request to exhaust my vacation credit before the end of the year. The same can't be done in case no specific number was stated.
  • Peer pressure. What if my colleagues decide to stick to the 25-30 days and I'm the only one going on holidays every 3 months? Would that lead to a toxic work environment where everyone is counting their peers vacation days.

The concept itself is very new to me, but I'm seeing more and more companies adding this perk to their packages and I wonder what my expectation should be and how to make it work effectively.

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    You never take a vacation. – Pete B. Nov 10 '16 at 14:10
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    Most companies with "unlimited vacation" will give you a role with a certain workload and expect you to fulfil that workload. The workload may be varying, and when it is high in certain years, you cannot go on vacation, and when the workload is low in other years and you decide to stretch the perk and take much vacation, they fire you. Since you don't have a fixed amount of vacation days, there are no vacation days they have to pay up when they fire you. – Alexander Nov 10 '16 at 14:30
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    The context is that this is what a lot of newer companies are offering but it's unclear how it really works. I dunno, context seems obvious / unneeded to me. – Michael Durrant Nov 13 '16 at 12:01
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    @MichaelDurrant: really? So you say the same answers apply to European nations, or to Japan, or to Russia? Have you really seen lot of newer companies from India offering Unlimited Vacations? – motoDrizzt Nov 14 '16 at 11:54
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    @AndreaLazzarotto if you're thinking to further research this, the word you want to use isn't 'motivation', it's 'cause'. For example: 'terminated with cause' – Jeutnarg Jan 17 '17 at 18:35
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This will depend on the specific company culture. Some companies will absolutely use "unlimited vacation" as a vehicle to get people to take less vacation, while others will use it in the spirit of the policy and be generous so long as performance is good. Some may even allow it to be systematically abused.

I think you may already know/suspect that and really want to ask: How do I know how this company handles unlimited vacation?

When applying for jobs, largely ignore anything about "unlimited vacation" (or vacation policy in general). It isn't relevant yet.

Once you've received an offer from one such company, you can ask about the vacation policy. For something like "unlimited" ask about averages (On average how many vacation days did your employees take last year?)

In interviews, ask about things that are tangentially related to vacation and still incredibly relevant to whether the company is a fit (expected overtime, work/life balance, project deadlines, delivery goals, etc.). [do not ask about vacation time during the interview, it is a bad sign when an interviewee is already thinking about the time they're not working for you - though the interviewer may bring it up if it's a point of pride/selling point]

Research on websites like glassdoor where employees have given insight into corporate culture.

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    This is right on. I currently work in a company with this policy, and its essentially all on your manager to approve your requests for time off. Its nice that I don't have to fill out vacation request forms and get signatures and turn into HR (like my last company). I can tell that most people don't abuse it, and my manager is pretty fair with allocations. – shenles Nov 10 '16 at 15:36
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    lol, ignore my last comment. I accidently hit "enter" instead of "ctrl"+"enter", and then it took me too long to finish typing my comment. "do not ask about vacation time during the interview" Interviews go both ways. The employer is trying to learn about you, but you are also trying to learn about the company. Vacation policies can tell you a lot about how much a company cares about the work/life balance of their employees. – industry7 Nov 10 '16 at 19:10
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    @industry7 agreed. You want to understand those as part of the process. Typically, asking about it during an interview is premature, though my company's recruiter sent me details on their benefits after scheduling the initial phone interview. Though that may have been a sales tactic because I was going from small company (weak benefits) to large company (pretty good benefits). – Chris G Nov 10 '16 at 20:10
  • @industry7 In the same nature, I see relevance to bring up the question if the applicant clearly present willingness to long term cooperation (intended choice of word). Unlimited vacation is a cloud expression, which is better to be cleared up. It can as much uncover poor recruiting startegy, as ill applicant work culture (the latter can change easier). – Sonic Nov 11 '16 at 12:24
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    @shenles is spot on from my experience. My company has no concept of pto, so it's all between employee and manager. Typically people have too much work to take more than 25 days (which was the policy prior to getting rid of pto). – Kyle Nov 11 '16 at 16:12
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Chris has a very good answer, but I would like to add my experence as working somewhere that made the transition from a traditional vacation policy to an unlimited one. Many people working through this transition had many of the same doubts you did.

Are "unlimited" really unlimited? Or should I expect a fine print that says my maximum vacation days is 180 for example.

You probably won't find fine print with a number of days specified. Your contract will probably say something like "If you plan on being gone for more than 2-3 days you will need manager approval." This should be no different than traditional. Basically you have to get your manager to let you go. For people with bad management this means that "unlimited" becomes no vacation. If you have a reasonable manager, they should let you take a reasonable amount of vacation. If you ask for a month off every quarter, expect them to say no. Guidance at my last company was that people should be taking 4-5 weeks.

Would the employees feel comfortable taking more than the norm (25-30 days per year)? I mean if the contract states that I'm entitled to 90 vacation days per year then I would at some point request to exhaust my vacation credit before the end of the year. The same can't be done in case no specific number was stated.

Depends on the employee/manager agreement. Everyone has different vacation needs. My current manager has 4 weeks of vacation and she talks about never using it (traditional scheme). I currently have 2 and have realized that I really REALLY want at least 3 and would use all of it up. You'll find in unlimited land people don't feel internal pressure to "use" up their vacation at the end of the year like my dad has done for years taking Fridays off in Nov and Dec just for the sake of not "losing" his vacation.

If you need more vacation to do your job better, you'll get the time off you need. But if you take soo much time off that you are not getting your work done, expect it to get denied.

Peer pressure. What if my colleagues decide to stick to the 25-30 days and I'm the only one going on holidays every 3 months? Would that lead to a toxic work environment where everyone is counting their peers vacation days.

This depends on the workplace. As Chris mentioned, asking about average vacation is a good idea. Maybe as you talk to the team, ask what their last vacation was to give you an idea of how your future coworkers view their vacation time.

Can I burn up vacation?

You didn't ask this, but it is implied. Many times people in traditional companies may try to burn up their vacation. Like my dad taking off every Friday for 2 months. Many people may bank up vacation to use around the birth of a child, or use it around when they are resigning. My experience is that this doesn't work this way. There is no days to "burn" so there would be no reason for the company to compensate someone leaving/being laid off with unused vacation days. Don't think that there will be a magical number of days you are entitled to.

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    Your comment about burn-up vacations is partially true. It depends where you live. In Canada for example, they have to compensate you at least 4% of the time you work as vacation days, even if leaving/laid off. That is exactly 2 weeks if you work 40h per week. – Carlos2W Nov 10 '16 at 19:02
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    @Carlos2W California also has regulations requiring employees to take a certain amount of vacation (fights against the, we'll give you lots of vacation but make it impossible or unpopular to use it). – Chris G Nov 10 '16 at 20:12
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    Many people I know who get unlimited end up with close to none. They normally get about one week vacation, then a few days off here and there. With a place with earned days and carryover, a person who took one day every week was seen as taking a lot of time, vs. a person who took two weeks in a row. So, always be careful. Individual managers and company (unwritten) policies are critical. – MikeP Nov 10 '16 at 21:28
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    What's wrong with pressure to use up your vacation? As a person who sometimes forgets to take the time I need, I think this pressure is great. I hope your dad enjoyed his long weekends. – Nathan Cooper Nov 10 '16 at 21:30
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    @Carlos2W Actually, it is two weeks no matter the amount of hours you work per week, as the amount of hours you WOULD have worked in those two weeks would have been less or more by the same ratio. – Weckar E. Nov 17 '16 at 9:49
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"Unlimited vacation" is horrible. It's not good for employees, but it's awesome for employers. The main problem is that despite the word "unlimited", it isn't unlimited. That's because there's still the concept of "what's a reasonable amount of vacation to take", which is a limit.

The only reason anyone would change a reasonable amount of vacation from an objective measure (x hours earned per pay period, for example) to a subjective one is so that those in control of the subjective definition can benefit.

You, as an employee, certainly have no power whatsoever to define or enforce what reasonable means. It comes down to the opinion of your employer—your boss, or his boss, or her boss. Or whether you take more than the other employees in your group (even if they're taking none and you're taking less than you used to). And if your boss likes you today, great, you can get more vacation. But if your boss doesn't like you tomorrow, well, now you've abused the system and are in trouble if you take that much vacation. Who's to argue one way or another? Think about it—your employer has no contractual obligation to let you have any vacation at all! Of course, you can take it, and then suffer the consequences.

So:

  1. When you leave the company and haven't taken all the vacation you wanted, you don't get it now—try telling your company you're leaving in 2 months and wish your final 6 weeks to be all vacation time—but could you take it as a lump sum, so you get paid now and don't have to come in again after 2 weeks from now? See how that works for you.

  2. If someone else plans badly or there's simply more work than a single person can do, so that through no fault of your own you don't have time to take vacation and meet certain unreasonable or unrealistic goals, this policy makes it your fault for taking vacation that you see as reasonable in its timing or length, but even just one person in power doesn't agree. In retrospect. When you couldn't have known at the time. Because how much vacation is reasonable is subjective and can be reassessed after the fact, at any time, for any reason, at the whim of the employer.

Frankly, and objectively speaking (with hard data available out there that will back this up), companies that switch to "unlimited vacation" always see the total amount of employee vacation taken go down. Anyone trying to sell you on the idea that it's better for employees is just selling you a bill of goods.

A better description than unlimited vacation is indeterminate vacation. You have no idea how much vacation you'll get, and whether it will hurt you to take any.

How would you like to go to work for "unlimited pay" where you choose your own pay rate week to week, but your employer decides if you are abusing the system—and if so, you're fired? Would you feel safe? Or would you ratchet back your pay just a bit to achieve that safety? So similarly, it would be an "indeterminate pay" system, which to me sounds like a horrible, horrible way to work. And if the company's fortunes turn, or they're bought by another company, who's to say that doing the same job to the same quality level next year as this year will warrant the same pay in the eyes of your employer?

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    How would you like to go to work for "unlimited pay" where you choose your own pay rate, but your employer decides if you are abusing the system—and if so, you're fired? Great comparison! +1 – Nathan Long Nov 11 '16 at 21:56
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    Erik, your answer reminds me of how much I hate "self evaluations." If your self evaluation is lower than what the boss had in mind, you just undermined yourself. If it's higher, now you're a problem employee because you're disputing the boss's judgment. CAN'T WIN. – catfood Nov 11 '16 at 22:01
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    Yeah. When I first saw ads boasting "unlimited vacation", my first thought was, So I can get a job with this company, work 1 day, and then tell the boss I'm taking the next 6 months off, and they'll pay me to not work for 6 months? I doubt it. I'm sure "unlimited" really means "what the company thinks is reasonable". In other words, it's not unlimited, they just refuse to tell you the number in advance. – Jay Feb 22 at 15:16
  • @catfood Yeah, different subject, but I've never met anyone who thought self-evaluations were of any value. If I put down that I think I'm doing great at X, but the boss thinks I'm not, is that going to change his opinion one iota? Does he care what I put at all? Why do they even bother to ask? I suppose that maybe, possibly, I might remind the boss of significant things I've accomplished lately that he forgot about. – Jay Feb 22 at 15:19
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In my company it works much like "Unlimited data" works for cell phone plans.

As long as you don't abuse it and use significantly more vacation than other people, there is no hard "limit".

Adequate notice needs to be given -- you can take a long weekend with a few days notice, but a 3 week vacation needs months of notice so the others in the company can prepare and make sure your work is covered.

Vacations here always require management approval, so you can't just decide on your own to go away for 6 months. But if you want to take off 4 weeks and have someone to cover your work, then it's generally approved. The only person I know who had his vacation request denied was someone that wanted to take 6 weeks to travel while completely off the grid and unreachable. Instead of 6 weeks of paid vacation, they gave him 3 weeks of paid vacation and 3 weeks of unpaid leave.

The biggest drawback to the employee (and benefit to the employer) is that with "unlimited" vacation, you don't accrue vacation days that then need to be paid out if you leave the company.

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    So it's not unlimited, it's intentionally left vague. – RemcoGerlich Nov 11 '16 at 9:39
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    And giving the person 3 weeks unpaid leave also does not strike me as fair given the fact that the policy is unlimited time-off. – Paul Hiemstra Nov 11 '16 at 14:34
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    I opened this question thinking "woah, that's a crazy/interesting benefit". It sounds less and less like a 'benefit' the more I read... – OJFord Nov 11 '16 at 18:31
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    @OllieFord - it depends what you're comparing it too - vacation time in the USA tends to be poor compared to some European countries.. The last place I worked at had 10 days of "PTO" which is combined sick + vacation time. If you're out for a week with the flu, then you only have 5 days of vacation left. But at this new job with "unlimited" vacation, I've taken 3+ weeks a year without any problem (one big vacation and smaller ones throughout the year) - and since sick days don't eat into your vacation days, you have less incentive to come to work while sick so you don't lose a PTO day. – Johnny Nov 11 '16 at 18:41
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    @Johnny I think that is where some of our discussion stems from. I'm from the Netherlands where 25-30 days off (sick days are separate) is the norm. Then for a company that says they provide unlimited time off to only give you half of 6 weeks feels strange. Either stick to the 'unlimited' or specify the limit. My feeling is that you can't have it both ways. – Paul Hiemstra Nov 14 '16 at 11:52
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I think the best way to understand how it works is to think it through.

You're being hired for a job. You get trained up. Your contribution is critical. You are a professional performing a job that requires a lot of education. You value the respect of your peers. We're not talking fast food service here. I've done fast food service when young btw so that is not meant to demean folks doing it in any way, just talking about the type of work being done and professional engagement.

So people in your team are counting on your contribution. Can you imagine how it will look to your company and your colleagues it you decide to go on a three month vacation.

If you think this is not a compelling argument please consider that I work in one of these 'unlimited vacation' companies and know people in many others. As probably obvious I work in the high-tech programming sector. So this is what I work with and yes, people don't abuse it, don't take months off or even try to.

The main exception to this however relates to longevity. One of the big factors behind the policy is the, usually understated, idea that after a year or two or three you really will want to take advantage of the policy and take a 4-6 week long vacation. This is actually ok with many companies and you are then so valuable that replacing you will take 3-6 months for the hire and then 6-12 months for the training. Compare that year or two to taking a month of two off and many companies are ok with that. Part of the professionalism is that you'll make sure and plan for coverage in your absence and in the process you'll also be confirming that generally you are avoiding the bus factor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_factor

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    How is 4-6 weeks taking advantage of "unlimited" vacation more than taking 2-3 weeks is? – user42272 Nov 11 '16 at 7:27
  • 2-3 weeks fits within the bounds of current policies. Most places are used to covering when an employee take a week or two, or in a few cases 3 weeks off. 4-6 weeks is different. A absence of what is effectively a month of two usually can't be covered in the same way and, on the human-side when someone is away for 6 weeks they're much more out of the picture and forgotten about then at 2-3 weeks. Hence in most places 4-6 weeks isn't even an option. With unlimited it is an option. – Michael Durrant Nov 11 '16 at 11:32
  • When you talk about 4-6 weeks, do you mean a single long vacation? Or about total yearly vacation? (As a German I'm used to 30 days of vacation per year, plus fixed holidays) – CodesInChaos Nov 11 '16 at 13:04
  • So you're saying avoid >4 weeks of consecutive vacation. – user42272 Nov 11 '16 at 13:59
  • Yes, consecutive. At my current situation of unlimited days we're also, informally, taking most of Christmas week off, the day after thanksgiving the office is also closed. This is partly led by founders and directors leading by leaving and having lives with frequent fridays off and other days as needed. It's really hard for new folks but eventually they see that we're one of the few companies that actually means measure by results not time served. It is surprisingly hard to adapt to! – Michael Durrant Nov 12 '16 at 16:28
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I'm seeing more and more companies adding this perk to their packages and I wonder what my expectation should be and how to make it work effectively.

With the holiday policy being vague, it may be abused by management e.g. creating a culture of stigmitising holidays to a point that you take fewer holidays than if you worked elsewhere.

I would advise everybody to be aware of relevant legal protection regarding minimum amounts of paid time off.

In the UK for example:

Almost all workers are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday per year (known as statutory leave entitlement or annual leave). An employer can include bank holidays as part of statutory annual leave.

Source: gov.uk

This doesn't constitute legal advice. It is simply an observation that some workers have legal rights in place regarding minimum paid holiday. These should act as a protection against unscrupulous employers abusing 'unlimited' holiday policies.

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    Note that 5.6 weeks sounds like a lot (even for the UK), but that includes bank holidays (which employers can require you to work). That's effectively "4 weeks + bank holidays". – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 11 '16 at 14:56

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