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Unlimited vacation policies don’t work

Good idea in theory? Sure – but there’s a reason the policy isn’t catching on with employers

By Todd Humber

With the weather finally warming up across Canada, the minds of many employees are drifting to thoughts of sun-soaked vacation days.

Over the years, we’ve written a number of stories about organizations that let employees decide how much paid vacation time they should have — you have a job to do, and as long as you’re getting it done, it doesn’t really matter how often you come into work.

Take two weeks’ vacation. Or take eight weeks. Whatever works for you, with the caveat that you are getting your job done — and it’s getting done properly. Netflix is famous for doing it. We wrote about Social Media Group, a Toronto-based marketing company, that dipped its toes in the unlimited vacation pool for its dozen or so employees.

But it’s more of a gimmick than anything else, and that’s why it hasn’t gone mainstream as a best human resources practice. There’s a reason you don’t have unlimited vacation, and there’s a reason why employers aren’t jumping on the bandwagon — after all, unlimited paid vacation would be the ultimate recruitment tool. So it’s safe to say, because employers aren’t doing it — even in an employee’s market like Alberta — it simply doesn’t work.

It’s easy to see why, for a couple of reasons. First is the concept of fairness.

If you have two workers doing essentially the same job, with similar tenures, how is the worker who takes two weeks’ vacation going to feel about her colleague that takes five weeks? There’s bound to be jealousy and resentment. A worker who is “in” with the manager might be more comfortable taking time off than someone who has a rocky relationship with the boss.

A person who takes more vacation than other may be more efficient and able to get the job done quicker. But it’s only natural that colleagues will look at that individual and say, “Clearly, he doesn’t have enough tasks on his plate if he’s able to take that much more time than I can.” That’s going to breed feelings of resentment.

Unlimited vacation policies could also start a race to the bottom. Employees may start to think it “looks bad” to be away from the office, and will shy away from taking any vacation. Employers may rub their hands with glee at this notion — but they shouldn’t. Every employee, at every level, needs to take some time off to relax and recharge. If employees are fearful of taking too much vacation, they’re going to burn out.

With the summer vacation season looming, HR professionals and employers should simply ignore the unlimited paid vacation gimmick. Instead, put the emphasis where it should be — and that’s encouraging employees to take the well-deserved time they have off.

It’s bad for morale and productivity (not to mention the books) to have employees going in to December who haven’t taken a single vacation day.

Coming off this winter, we don’t really need to be reminded how short summer in Canada can be — so let’s all get out there and enjoy it while we can.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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