When Your Boss Doesn’t Let You Go on Vacation

Yesterday, Brenda Neckvatal and I talked about vacation and PTO usage on The Real HR Show. And we got this comment:

My company offers unlimited time off, but I don’t feel like I can take advantage because of the boss who flat out says “if you can be out for more than 2 weeks, we need to seriously consider if we can do without you for longer – or forever.”

This is precisely why I hate unlimited time off and why this person should never be a manager.

The idea of unlimited time off is a magical one–do your work and leave whenever you want! We trust you! Yay!

But, in practice, people take fewer vacation days because they are concerned about not appearing dedicated enough. And what is dedicated enough? This is a difficult question, especially in a small business. The owner is willing to sacrifice his or her entire life for the business and sometimes makes employees feel like slackers if they aren’t willing to sacrifice their entire lives for the business.

But, as someone who has laid off literally thousands of people, let me assure you that you should never sacrifice your life for a business, because when you aren’t of value to them any more, they will kick you to the curb. You have to build a life outside of work.

This isn’t to say you don’t need to work. Of course you do! But, you should be able to take a vacation, which brings us back to the original comment.

Most Americans aren’t taking more than two weeks of vacation at any given time anyway, so this type of restriction isn’t as big of a deal as it would be in Europe (where one of our doctors is currently on a six week vacation to Portugal). But, saying “you have unlimited vacation!” to employees and then saying, “but wait, don’t use it like that!” is bad and confusing.

A better policy would be “You have unlimited vacation, but don’t use more than two weeks at a time.”

Or even better, “You have four weeks of vacation, plus sick days.”

Why is four weeks better than unlimited? Because people won’t feel guilty about using four weeks of vacation when that’s what they are allotted. And managers shouldn’t be as terrible about allowing people to take time when they know that they have a limited amount.

So, if your boss says that to you, push back. “Are you saying we don’t have unlimited vacation, then?” The boss will sputter that of course you do. “Then why can’t I take three weeks in the summer to go do nothing because COVID means I can’t go anywhere?” (Okay, that’s not a good way to phrase it, but I’m supposed to be in the US this summer and I can’t go, so I’m annoyed.)

But get clarification from your boss about what unlimited vacation really means. Does it mean that it’s okay if you leave early once a week or so, but not okay to work from the beach? Does it mean that no one will hassle you about a week long absence, but otherwise, you’ll be treated poorly?

Again, this is why I love clear vacation boundaries. Everyone knows what a set number of days means.

Oh, and by the way, California employers. I see you thinking you’re cheating people with unlimited vacation offerings. California considers vacation earned income and you have to pay out unused vacation when someone quits, but if you have unlimited vacation, you essentially have no vacation, so no payout. It’s not sneaky. We’re on to you.

So, if you’re a manager who has ever said anything like this, stop it. If you’re an employee in this situation, get clarity around what unlimited vacation really means to your boss. It’s probably not what you think.

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2 thoughts on “When Your Boss Doesn’t Let You Go on Vacation

  1. When you have these conversations point out that this vacation time is part of your compensation package and ask what the company’s rules are for using your vacation days.

    I hate this “unlimited vacation” nonsense and I bet that most employees in companies using that system get less vacation time than those working at companies who give a set number of days.

  2. Unlimited vacation days is a boon to people who are religious have holiday observances. For example, Jews who observe all the Jewish holidays. In any given year, it’s anywhere from 9 – 13 days that someone needs off, depending on whether the holidays fall on weekends or weekdays. While companies must allow people these days off, people usually have to use up their very limited vacation time in order to get paid. That said, I agree that if a company offers unlimited vacation time, they should have clear a policy about consecutive time off.

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