The Minimum Vacation Policy

October 25, 2014

Cameron Moll:

When I hired my first full-time employee two years ago, we immediately began an unlimited vacation policy. In addition to the 12 days per year that we observe for national holidays, each of us was free to take off as much time as desired, so long as the work that needed to get done got done.

What I’ve turned my attention to recently is a “minimum vacation policy” for lack of a better phrase. In lieu of unlimited vacation, and in contrast to traditional vacation policies which focus on maximum days off, I’m intrigued by idea of requiring employees to expend a minimum number of vacation days each year to ensure their working (and personal) health remains strong.

Vacation policies are surprisingly difficult to design. I’ve long been a fan of the so-called “unlimited vacation” policy, but have also seen many issues with it in practice. Some, although very few, people take advantage and take entirely too much time off in relation to their workload. This is easily fixed with a conversation, as typically the person’s actions were not intentional and certainly not a result of malice.

The larger issue I’ve seen is the same as Moll: the best people and top performers in the company do not take nearly enough time off. They do fantastic work, but they work too much. They enjoy contributing at a high-level and see vacation time as a weakness of sorts. (I don’t agree.) You’ll often hear them say “I just don’t like being away from the office” or “I’ll take some time off after X.”

We’ve tried strongly encouraging vacations, and even tried flat out forcing someone to leave for a few weeks after a big project or milestone. Every time they come back refreshed and better than when they left.

There is also an interesting psychology with limited vacation time: If someone feels like they are going to “lose” the time by not taking it, they seem to be more willing to take that time off even when they don’t think they need the time for fear of leaving something on the table. (You’ve probably heard people saying in December: “I need to take Friday off or I’ll lose the time.”) With the unlimited vacation policy, there isn’t a lingering “expiration” of this time so it becomes forgotten and ignored.

I like the idea of a Minimum Vacation Policy. It certainly could be an interesting way to solve some of the common issues with vacation time. I’ll be curious to see how it works out for Cameron.