The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

You’re Not Fooling Us …

Just before Christmas, I was asked to help a company understand what they were doing to stop attracting talent.

While I must admit I found this request a bit bizarre – especially as they have a huge HR division – I knew it would be fun.

The good news for them is they do a lot of things right.

However there were a few things that were fucking them up and one of the biggest was their inability to understand why any employee may be cynical to their actions and claims.

As I said to them, their surprise indicates either naivety, arrogance or utter privilege.

Probably a bit of all three.

Of course this situation is not unique to them, I wrote about it here … however there was one point that really shocked them and it was their unlimited vacation days policy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know when they instigated this a few years ago, it was for all the right reasons.

As a company, their original vacation policy was not the best and this was an attempt to put things right.

However, like many good intentions, the implications of that were either not considered or disregarded.

Because unlimited vacation is not an act of corporate generosity.

They may say it is.

They may have wanted it to be.

But right now, in most places offering it, it’s anything but.

Unlimited vacations benefit companies far more than employees.

There, I’ve said it.

There’s many reasons for this.

First is no one actually means ‘unlimited time off’.

If they did, you could take a year off and still get paid.

We all know that wouldn’t happen, just like we know if a company thinks we are taking too much time off – they’ll question if the role is still needed.

So the first issue is there’s no such thing as unlimited days … it just sounds good, especially when accompanied with some contrived public statement claiming to ‘our staff are our our greatest asset’.

Then there’s the fact that too many companies still think vacation days are a gift not a right.

So it doesn’t matter how many days you can take off in theory … if they don’t want you to have them, you’re buggered.

But what is the really devious thing about unlimited leave is employees end up being their own worst enemy.

You see when you’re told you can have any amount of days off, the value of taking them gets diluted. Of course you still want them, but you become more open with when you take them.

The urgency just isn’t there so we end up being more focused on ‘what is coming up’ versus ‘when will I go’ … and before you know it, we have taken even less vacation days than the times we had a limited number of fixed days.

Now you could argue this is our own fault – and it is – but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest this is a common, negative occurrence of unlimited leave … and yet even armed with this information, many companies stick with it.

And this is why so many employees don’t trust the companies they work for.

Because unlimited leave has a number of great commercial benefits for the company.

The first, as I just wrote, is the amount of people who take LESS time off rather than more.

The second is vacation times no longer have a commercial value attached to them.

If there is no limit to the number of days you take, there is no need to carry an value of them on your balance sheet.

No value on the balance sheet means no payout when you leave the company.

No value on the balance sheet means no payout if you are made redundant.

No value on the balance sheet boosts the value of the balance sheet – helping companies achieve greater profit without having to lift a finger, while being able to smile at their employees and claim ‘your wellbeing is our priority’.

And if you need more proof of this, then you just have to look at how many companies messed with their employees vacation days over COVID, trying to force them to use them up … even though they couldn’t go anywhere. While the good organisations were doing it for mental health reasons, a bunch were doing it because they didn’t want to carry that amount of ‘value’ into next years liabilities and then still had the nerve to dictate when – and how long – it could be used for.

Look I get it, money matters – especially in a pandemic – but it doesn’t feel right when you are bullied into doing something on someone else’s terms rather than your own … especially when it revolves around something that is your right to decide.

Now I am not suggesting this is why unlimited days were created.

Nor am I saying all companies who offer it, do it for bad reasons.

But what was originally claimed as empowering employees to have more time out of work has resulted in the absolute opposite.

There are alternatives.

Maybe the best is a minimum leave policy … where you HAVE TO take a certain amount of time off each year.

But even this has issues, given there are people who rely on the ‘value’ of their vacation days as a way to save [and if a company is paying you so little you need to use your holidays as savings, then there are bigger issues with that company] … but what is clear is companies can’t do something for good reasons and then stick their head in the sand when problems reveal themselves.

I know that’s the way many companies operate these days – exemplified by Boris Johnson and his inept government – but it is hardly surprising there is so much skepticism from employees when they see policies change without consultation and then enforced in a way where all the rhetoric of it being ‘a better way’ proves not to be.

Now of course companies don’t want to piss off their employees. Many try really hard to make them feel valued and secure. And I genuinely don’t believe any company sets out to be bad.

But distrust occurs when decisions are made – often without warning – that feel more for corporate PR than employee value.

Unlimited vacation days is a perfect example of this because whatever way you look at it, it’s simply not true.

If you want to build trust, practice honesty.

No hype. No populism. No contrived rhetoric. Honesty.

Listen to your people.
Communicate with your people.
Consult your ideas with your people.
And finally, do things with transparency, openness and a willingness to change if it doesn’t turn out as you hoped.

It’s not hard – especially that’s how you build all relationships – but it is seemingly rare.

21 Comments so far
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This is a brilliant take down. I particularly love where you correctly point out:

“No one actually means ‘unlimited time off’. If they did, you could take a year off and still get paid.”

Did the company you were helping understand? Surely their response to this would reveal their real intentions and attitude to their employees?

Comment by George

They did. Though the fact they even wanted to explore this issue – rather than send out some internal survey – hinted they had the right intentions.

Comment by Rob

This is good and all, but why would a company ask you to help with their HR issues when you’ve been an HR issue your whole career?

Comment by Bazza

I know. But then maybe that’s exactly why they asked me.

Comment by Rob

The enemy within?

Comment by Pete

the enemy would suffice.

Comment by andy@cynic

Is the gif from the presentation you gave the client? Subtle as usual.

Comment by Bazza

Yep. Hahaha.

Comment by Rob

All your clients are masochists.

Comment by Bazza

Thank you for this Robert.

Comment by Lee Hill

Corporate America has always had a problem with vacation days. It’s why they give so few and why Americans still don’t use them all up. I can easily imagine the reason companies here are switching to unlimited vacation day policies is for the reasons you say they shouldn’t.

Comment by Pete

I remember at Chiat wanting 2 weeks off and it took 4 months to be finally approved. And they brought it up every year.

Comment by DH

Looking forward to your follow up post “How to take a year off and still get paid.”

Comment by John

Correction. How to take a life off and still get paid.

Comment by DH

Good post Rob. Ending the week in a much better place than where you started it.

Comment by DH

not hard when the place he started was at the bottom of the shittiest barrel.

Comment by andy@cynic

you know what campbell. i like this post. I totally fucking get why a company would ask you because you can smell trouble better than a fucking bloodhound at a 1000 paces. basically because youre the fucking cause of it. i like this post and I like the way youre running into career suicide without a fucking care in the fucking world. but then when youre the jammiest fuck on the planet, you know that even if you alienate 99.9% of all fucking companies, youll still somehow have the best bastards or some billionaire bail you out. dont know how you do it but i almost ad more you for it. but its early for me so who the fuck knows what im talking about.

Comment by andy@cynic

Ok enough’s enough. Who are you and where have you stashed Andy this week?

Comment by John

maybe ive got covid. they say it makes you lose your fucking taste.

Comment by andy@cynic

Excellent commenting.

Comment by George

Maybe they should look at the Portuguese Labour Law:

22 days (working days) of paid vacation – in some cases more but never less.
The 22 days must be used and cannot carry for next year.
You get paid your normal salary except for the lunch “amount”.

Bonus: we get an extra 14th month of salary on December.

Our wages are still shit but at least social policies are good and the State dictates the rules so we don’t get dodgy policies.

Comment by Daniel

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