A Culture Problem / Unlimited PTO

I was once the HR manager at a small, early stage start-up and we had an unlimited PTO policy. And we had a culture problem. These were not my words; the CEO said them.

One of my colleagues, let’s call her Susan, called out sick two days in a row – once was to go to the doctor. Since we had an unlimited PTO policy, we supposedly trusted our employees to take the time they needed as long as their job was getting done. And we didn’t require a doctor’s note to be presented. Because we’re all adults, right? And sometimes adults get sick and need to take a day or two off.

But she came back and emailed the CEO and myself a doctor’s note. The CEO turned to me and said, “We have a culture problem if she feels like she needs to do that.” I agreed and asked when he’d like to address this. Apparently the answer to that question was “never” because he never addressed it and the culture problem got worse.

To all the baby boomers out there, “unlimited PTO” sounds amazing. But it’s really just a way to avoid paying out your employees for vacation time if they’re laid off or resign. It’s been studied and the studies show that people with unlimited PTO policies take less vacations. I mean, hey, they’re not going to lose anything if they don’t take them, and they could lose their job if they take too many, so why risk it?!?!

At the company where I worked, “unlimited” meant probably 15 days. But don’t abuse it or otherwise you’re going to get dressed down like a child because you’re actually not an adult, but a child who needs to be told that they’re taking too much time off.

Susan stayed fearful that the CEO hated her, asking me multiple times, and that she was always on the chopping block. Not only that, but a new manager for Susan was hired and he blatantly disliked Susan and would straight-up ignore her when she had questions. This manager also threw a fit when she would WFH, which she only did because she had a young child. I sat down for a meeting with him and the executives and it was determined that there would be no WFH allowed. Except for the executives and that manager. We had a WFH policy that made no sense for a start-up and the managers and executives ignored it.

The culture problem at the company was never addressed, it became worse, and people who were important to the success of the company left. The vibe of the office was unbearable by the time I left.

Look, if you have an unlimited PTO policy, make your employees use it and don’t then try to micromanage them when they do use it. And if you realize the company has a culture problem, try to find the root and please, for the love of your company, do something about it.