How to prevent employees from taking advantage of unlimited PTO

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In the quest to attract and retain top talent, more companies are offering competitive benefits including unlimited paid time off and generous work from home policies. But what if you have workers who abuse the policy?

To prevent workers from taking advantage, it’s critical that companies set proper guidelines, says Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO and founder of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate company, which offers its staff unlimited personal time off. At his company, people were utilizing the policy from “all ends of the spectrum,” which led him to reassess how they monitored and encouraged time off.

“The war for talent is so strong right now, and when an employee is looking to make a decision, you don’t want to disqualify yourself because you don’t offer this benefit,” he says. “But people don’t use the amount of vacation days intended. You get some people who underutilize and over utilize. The bad spoils the good, and that's not the intent of unlimited policy.”

Unlimited paid time off is becoming a more popular benefit, especially in the tech space. According to Indeed, 65% of companies mentioned “unlimited PTO” in their job postings, and companies like General Electric and Kronos offer the benefit to employees.

While the standard time off has typically been two to four weeks, 55% of employees do not use all of their paid time off, according to the U.S. Travel Association. To level the playing field among his employees, Wasserstrum says he established guidelines that made unlimited PTO flexible, but still within reason.

“There are top performers who work a lot, and you don't want them to burn out. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who take advantage of policy,” he says. “We frame it as flexible and not unlimited. The intent is for everyone to use it as time away from the office — it helps you refresh — so we encourage you to take anywhere from two to four weeks.”

Paid time off has a multitude of benefits, including increased employee morale and a better sense of work-life balance. And today’s workforce is in desperate need of time away from the office. According to Deloitte, 77% of employees say they have experienced burnout, and 70% say their employer does not do enough to prevent or mitigate work stress.

“Work-life balance looks very different now than it used to,” Wasserstrum says. “If I'm on vacation 20 years ago, you really can't get in touch with me. Now, everyone is 24/7 on, so you have to set the boundaries as an employer.”

In addition to more paid time off, more people are also reaping the benefits of remote work. According to a Gallup poll, 43% of the workforce works remotely some or all of the time, but employers like IBM, Aetna and Yahoo have pulled back on those policies and required workers to be on site instead, according to the Society of Human Resource Managers.

"[Managers] may have realized how blind and invisible remote workers are and they don't know what's going on at the remote location — what work that person is doing or what distractions they may have to deal with,” Judith Olson, a distance-work expert and professor at the University of California Irvine, told SHRM.

With more employees weighing the benefits of workplace policies, time off is still the top benefit employees look for. Metlife found 72% named unlimited paid time off as their most desired benefit, ahead of wellness plans and retirement programs.

While it may put companies at an advantage, PTO and other flexible work policies are just one part of the overall picture of a company’s workplace culture, Wasserstrum says.

“If you're winning people based on benefits, they're coming to you for the wrong reasons,” he says. “But every company looks and feels different from the inside and has a company culture that shouldn’t be one size fits all. This works for us and the work-life balance experience we want people to have.”

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