Why Your Vacation Policy Sucks

All you want is an organization full talented people who work hard and are in it for the long haul. Is that too much to ask? Not if you’re taking care of them.

Your employees can’t be “on” all the time. And there’s this little thing called life that demands their attention on a regular basis. Giving your employees what they need to be successful includes giving them enough time off to manage the demands of work and life. But in far too many cases, this isn’t happening.

Sure, you have a vacation policy on the books. But is it equitable, reasonable, or sensible? Just because a policy exists doesn’t mean it’s good.

Too little

How much vacation do you give your employees? Do you start them off with a set amount or make them work an entire year before banking their first 5 paid days? Expecting someone to happily and effectively work for a year without vacation may seem reasonable to some employers, but ask any employee how they feel about that and you’re bound to get an earful.

Do you increase available vacation time the longer people stay or do you give everyone their two weeks when they start and continue that until the end of time? It’s nice to have a minimum standard, but as people move up in their careers, they expect to take on more responsibility. And they expect that additional responsibility to come with more trust, more flexibility, more money, and more time off. 

Is your sick time super generous but your vacation time fairly slim? Yes, there are employees who need more sick days, and they should be able to take them. But healthy, reliable employees shouldn’t feel like they are being penalized for always showing up. Knowing you have chunks of paid time off sitting around that you can’t actually use feels a bit punitive.

Too much

No such thing, you say? We beg to differ.

Do you have an unlimited vacation policy? Is it so vague and misunderstood that no one ends up taking any? This isn’t going to win you any points.

Is your vacation time based on seniority? Do your long-time employees have exponentially more vacation days? And are they snapping up all the coveted dates before anyone else even gets a shot?

Yes. Vacation in October is still vacation. And they say New England is lovely that time of year. But once your up-and-coming employees figure out they won’t be able to take time off over spring break or the 4th of July until their kids are out of college, this is going to be a problem.

Too late

You may think paid vacation is a small thing, an extra that your employees should be grateful to have at all. And if you’re comparing your vacation policy to what it was like for your great grandfather, you might be right.

But life is very different now. And so is work.

  • Many families are dual income, which means there isn’t anyone at home to just “take care of things” as they come up.
  • Working adults are often responsible for aging parents as well as young children.
  • With the cost of living continually rising, many people can’t afford to take unpaid time off.
  • Workplace stress is on the rise, and more and more individuals are struggling with mental health issues.

If your paid time off policy doesn’t give your staff the time they need to take care of business and themselves, they will become less satisfied, less productive, and less inclined to stay.

Fix it!

The nice thing about your company policies is that you have the power to change them.

Ask your employees what they like and don’t like about your current policy, and listen to their feedback. Little changes can go a long way toward making your team feel valued, appreciated and supported.

Not sure where to start? Here are some quick ideas:

  • Ditch the old sick day vs. vacation day mentality and move to a paid time off (PTO) system. Your employees need time away from the office. Period. Don’t make them get sick (or tell you they’re sick) in order to take it.
  • Give all new employees at least some usable PTO when they start. If they already have a trip planned when you hire them, honor their plans and their time. Don’t make anyone work for you for an entire year to prove they are “worthy” of a little rest and relaxation.
  • Create a vacation policy that rewards longevity with increases over time, but still gives less senior employees time off when they want and need it. Consider closing your office down for a week around Christmas, the 4th of July, or any other time of year that is particularly slow for your industry. Chances are good that many of your customers and clients are also out of the office. You could also consider incentives for people who work peak vacation times, a rotating holiday schedule, or even a lottery system. A little creativity can go a long way here.
  • If you decide to go with an unlimited vacation policy, make sure to spell out the process clearly for everyone. How much notice is required? Are there any blackout dates? Is there a maximum number of days? Better yet, is there a minimum? A common problem with an unlimited vacation policy is that many people are afraid to use it, either because it’s too undefined, or because they feel guilty about taking the time. They may also not know how to manage their workloads if they do use it. Put systems in place to support people who are out of the office and encourage them to take time off regularly. If you see employees going a year or more without taking vacation, meet with them to find out why.

Happy, productive employees don’t just magically happen. Employers who take the time to discover and deliver what they need will be the ones who come out on top. 


Photo by Juergen Faelchle

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