✍🏽 Does an unlimited PTO policy really work? Any recommendations or guidelines for making its use more equitable? When should a request not be approved?

Small, hybrid nonprofit. No requests are being denied, and 1 employee took off 21 days in Q1! Work is getting done, but the policy was meant to support wellness and freedom from random limits rather than to be a license to work as little as possible. And the people with the greatest loads (leadership) use it the least.

πŸ“£ Sondra Norris:

My experience with unlimited PTO are not great, I think for two main reasons:

1. The uneven amount of “time off” that people take usually leads to some kind of feelings of inequity.
2. It creates squishiness in what is perceived as “safe” behavior – which spreads to other areas.

One of the prevailing philosophies behind PTO is something along the lines of, “We want to treat and trust people like adults.” Which may be fine in an organic relationship, with no inherent power structure, and where performance (or perception of performance) isn’t tied to the potential for greater financial reward.

When it comes to groups of people in an organization, consistent rules of engagement that are protected and disallowed from being violated provide employees with the structure they need to feel minimum levels of trust and consistency in their collective relationship with management and the organization.

Inconsistency makes people wonder, “Why does that person get to take so much time off? My job must fundamentally have more expectations than theirs,” and/or “That person is not pulling their weight,” and/or “Yes, the company says unlimited, but that’s taking advantage,” and/or “Why doesn’t the company make the rules clearer?” and/or “They say unlimited, but no can really do that – the company doesn’t mean it, it’s a disingenuous attempt that the company doesn’t make practically possible.”

All of which put mutual and reciprocal trust at risk, or make them impossible.

Obstacles include:
– untrained managers who are unable to use discretion, unable to have the required conversations that maintain the trust of the whole team when some people avail themselves more than others of an unlimited policy.
– perceptions of unequal contribution and performance.
– most companies just aren’t any good at setting irrefutable performance goals.
– the trailing effects of some people taking more PTO than others, of some jobs making it impossible to take PTO, of some people simply taking more than others are the waters that get into the cracks, freeze, and ultimately fracture the original intention: to be able to trust people as adults.

As usual, unlimited PTO is another attempt by companies to force employees to commit, to stay, to give everything they have to the company’s agenda.

While missing the actual plot: employees (aka “humans”) are searching for something, anything that PROVES this relationship is worth being in and worth committing unique capabilities that can help the company succeed (after minimum compensation needs are met).

Transactional solutions will get transactional responses from the employees: the company gives me this, so I’ll give that – until I want something else.

Invested solutions are the only long- and deep-term ways to gain and sustain the human reactions of trust and commitment.

Leaders and companies have to declare, “Here is what we stand for, believe in, protect, and promise.” And then every action or stated word thereafter must be tied to that declaration.

Anything less buys the company less.

At its simplest, if we were better at setting performance goals with due dates and milestones, we could simply stop paying attention to how many hours of work it took to get there and rid ourselves of that archaic construct.

Here is the deliverable and its measurability. Was it done or not? Why or why not? Was it done within our principles of performance? Why or why not?

End of story.

πŸ“£ Alex Clermont, Director of People and Operations at TDC:

Sondra gives a great response. The only thing I’d add (unless I missed it) is that it’s not even always meant to be a benefit, at the end of the day. It’s meant to keep PTO overages off the balance sheet.

All evidence is that employees, on average, take less PTO with unlimited PTO. It creates a lot of tension around unwritten rules and gives managers far too much power over something that is meant to be part of an employee’s compensation. It also leads to both direct and indirect equity issues very frequently.

I don’t think it works, and for a small nonprofit I know first hand it usually doesn’t. If it works it works at large companies where there’s enough redundancy to cover staff shortages. Even then – I can’t advocate for it.

πŸ“£ Stephanie Lemek, Founder & CEO of The Wounded Workforce:

I think the biggest problem with “Unlimited” PTO is that it lacks clarity for most teams. I’m a big believer that ‘clarity is kindness’ and that not giving more specific guardrails around any unlimited policy is bound to cause challenges for your team- whether it’s folks feeling like the can’t take the time or folks taking far too much.

πŸ“£ Kait Lagalante, Employee Comms & Experience at Axionus:
I recommend if you have an Unlimited policy, incorporate more clarity on the average amount of hours folks take, or institute a minimum PTO requirement. Importantly- track time off and make sure folks are actually taking breaks and time away.

I’m a big proponent, but I’d call it “flexible PTO” rather than unlimited. Similar to the others that posted, I also think clarity is key. Put some restrictions in place (no more than X consecutive days, PTO must be approved in advance by your manager, etc.)

✍🏽 What are some strategies to help make sure newer hires feel included by their peers on a smallish team? The old guard at my organization is very tight knit, which is often nice (everyone gets along!), but it can lead to somewhat of an “us vs. them” mentality when new folks join the fold.

20-person staff in a public sector org; the split mainly boils down to staff hired by new leadership vs. those who were there before a pretty big transition.

πŸ“£ Rachel Ackerman, Director of People Ops at Barstool Sports:

Something that my last org did was assigned a new hire “buddy” or mentor (call it whatever makes sense) to the new hire for the first 30 days of their onboarding. This person would connect with them once a week for a coffee chat to discuss the onboarding, questions they had, just get to know each other, etc. This person was also the new hires primary person to reach out to for help with any org related questions and also introduced them to others throughout the org.

We also used the Donut bot in Slack which paired new hires up with random folks in the org for coffee chats every other week.

πŸ“£ Lisa Van LennerVP of Operations, People & Culture at Mythical:

We do a Newbie Lunch every couple months to introduce new members of the team to each other. It helps create bonds between employees in different departments who wouldn’t normally interact. We suggest a location and hand over a company credit card and let it go! We also invite 3-4 “vets” so that they can ask questions about history and culture and where the best snacks are hidden πŸ™‚

πŸ“£ Sondra Norris:


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“New” leadership team has to get their s*it together and work hard to show up as an aligned and collective leadership body.

New leaders need to work hard to get integrated and start quickly on building trust and demonstrating themselves as:
1. Capable
2. Competent
3. People of their word – who clearly stand for and against certain things

The dynamic of “everyone else” has to have this new aligned leadership visible, literal, and obvious. Anything else provides the opening for people to start inserting their biased perception and to start spreading that to both factions in the culture.

Create a “culture committee” who are the keepers of the flame – the ones responsible for reinforcing the values and principles of the leadership team and the company. They can talk about why we are the way we are, the roads we’ve traveled that have led us to here – what they believe should be retained, what they believe should be changed.

You can provide development opportunities for this committee, and populate it with new and tenured employees – working on specific business and performance improvement projects in the particular way your company needs to be functioning to get to where it’s going. These development opportunities would be around:

1. Organizational lifecycle
2. How company culture works, and how your company is committed to making its culture work
3. Designing (if necessary) and implementing the desired ways of working

Current and past members of the culture committee can own this agenda, which takes it out of HR’s hands.

But first, leadership’s gotta do their thing.

Hebba Youssef
Hebba Youssef

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