I don’t want your unlimited vacation policy

Having recently (and unexpectedly) found myself on the job market, I’ve been thinking a bit about the relationship between employers and employees. There’s always this question at the end of an interview in which you’re asked, “Do you have any questions for me?” In the past, I’ve answered rather meekly, not wanting to ask anything for fear I’d come across as a “demanding prospect” and that would take me out of the potential pool of applicants.

Seasoned professionals would argue, “No, of course you should ask! If they see you as demanding, you shouldn’t work for them.” That’s a position that works if you come from one of privilege. I’ve seen a lot of white, male, cis, straight people give this sort of advice. I’ve seen white cis women give it less often. The rest of us tend to be, “You will find the threat of homelessness and starvation most compelling.” Funny how that works.

Lately, however, I *have* asked some questions: What is your device policy? Do you provide hardware or a purchase stipend? You know I participate in a lot of events, how could your company support me, if at all? I care for someone with executive function issues, is this position flexible enough to allow for me to work odd hours or at odd locations? And so so on. I usually don’t have the courage (or sense of privilege) to ask directly about pay. I have been thinking about asking one more question.

“What is your vacation policy?”

It’s a pretty banal question, and usually one I consider something that will resolve itself if I ever get the job. Lately, however, it’s become trendy in the tech field to have “unlimited” vacation policies. These are often advertised as “take it if you need it”. They sound great on the surface, but they become more and more a red flag the more I think about them.

So-called unlimited vacation policies are rarely unlimited in practice. They can’t be, as the calculus of capitalism would eventually land in favor a layoff. When you read the fine print, you often discover that the practical limits are usually 80 to 120 hours a year without the approval of senior personnel, sometimes the company's VP. So why do we have these? Why are they still called “unlimited”?

The effect of these policies is to give the impression that the position is more generous and flexible to the applicant. Wow! Unlimited time off! Take it when you need it! I’ll apply right way! In practice, however, it’s easy to see how these policies can be manipulated to the employee’s detriment. Without a hard number, it frees management from responsibility for employees that do not take enough time off. If an employee doesn’t take any time off, the logic goes, they obviously don’t need it. It exchanges a concrete value set by policy with one that can be dismissed using social pressure.

How successful an unlimited vacation policy is depends entirely on the company’s culture, and the employee’s direct management to advocate for mandatory time off. If a company’s culture is heavily focused on meeting income and throughput goals at all levels, there is considerable social pressure for employees at the coalface to not take vacation. There is nothing wrong with this on occasion. There’s always a place for “crunch time”. The problem is that many software companies -- particularly those that rely on agile methodologies -- are vulnerable to the creation of a never-ending crunch time where promises of time off are always delayed until the next sprint. When the next sprint happens, however, the possibility for workload to be too high for it to be practical for the employee to take time off is there once more. Often, employees will just give up, and start to never take time off.

What happens when an employee never takes time off? Studies have shown that fatigue is more debilitating than being drunk at your desk. With the constant influx of new technologies, languages, and techniques software developers encounter, mentally burning out is a huge risk. Depending on the priorities set by management, an employee who has a drop in productivity or quality might be construed as lazy or irresponsible given the state of never-ending crunch time. It becomes psychologically and monetarily easy to justify a layoff, rather than approach the employee and ask, “What’s going on? Do you need some time off?”

So what question should I be asking employers? It’s difficult, because it can be a loaded question, and there’s always the “you will find the threat of homelessness and starvation most persuasive” thing. It might be best to frame it as a hypothetical:

“It’s nearing the end of the quarter or year, and management discovers an employee hasn’t taken any time off. What is the policy for dealing with this situation?”

If the answer is dead silence, followed by assurances that employees can take any time off they need, that’s a huge red flag. There’s no managerial responsibility there, and instead it’s deflected back to the employee; an employee who is already under social pressure to not take any time off at all. What I’d rather hear is, “That’s not good. We’d need to talk to the employee, see what tasks we can delegate or deprioritize so they can get some time off.” Bonus points if they show concern for potential burnout.

Note that this question might not even prevent issues from arising when the job is taken. It needs to be a concern of management at all levels, particularly those who manage those at the coalface. If direct managers cannot advocate for well-being of their team, no one will.

I really don’t want “unlimited” vacation. An ideal vacation policy to me has more checks and balances. There’s a set number of days per period (quarter or year) available without question. Half of those can be rolled over to the following period, but management is answerable for every individual who has rolled over hours. A policy must be written out, open to all, and enforced, as enforcement is what “unlimited” policies lack.