Under the wrong manager, you can get screwed
Unlimited vacation isn’t simply about vacation days. As a policy it calls in complex questions of trust and company culture. Those features of a workplace are established by leadership, said David Burkus, the author of Under New Management and an associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University.
“If it’s cutthroat, and employees are working hard and skipping vacations to put in more hours and outperform their colleagues, this policy won’t work,” Burkus said. “If it’s a culture where you already trust employees to do what’s in their and your best interest and give them a lot of freedom, then it should work really well.”
It’s a passive perk, said Renee Pepmiller, 33, who got unlimited vacation in her past job at Zirtual. “It’s one of those things that’s easy to offer on paper,” she said. “But unless it’s properly encouraged and utilized by leadership, it falls by the wayside and in practice is generally underused.”
Ferguson, an expert in conflict management, believes unlimited vacation is set up for inequality and puts the burden on the employee. “The basic assumption is that you’re going to get your work done,” which might be the case for some people, he said. “But when you’re an employee who does some kind of day-to-day work, every day of vacation you take is putting more stress on the other members of your team.”
The GE engineer said that when unlimited vacation rolled out, there was initial wariness of peer pressure or manager pressure to take less vacation. But when you have a manager who is “very relaxed and hands off,” it works. “In my case, the permissive vacation policy is working out very well, but I do feel there is potential for abuse by bad managers or groups with a different culture than mine,” the engineer added.
Of her own experience with unlimited vacation, Pepmiller pointed to the importance of how leadership sets an example -- good or bad.
“You see supervisors, managers, CEOs, etc. generally not taking that time off, or going somewhere but working through their vacations,” she said. “That mindset trickles down to everyone else, so people either don’t take time, or don’t take as much as they need, or feel obligated to work through vacations and constantly be available.”
And if you don’t take that vacation? “The company owes you nothing,” Ferguson said.