The Myth of Unlimited Vacation Days

Post inspired from: Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

Job Perks:

  • Unlimited Vacation Days

Is that not something all of us want to see when applying for jobs? Unlimited Vacation Days - it sure does sound perfect. But what if I told you that oftentimes that in the companies that implement the unlimited vacation day policy, employees actually take less vacation time. Sounds impossible right? How could that be?

Blame it on Game Theory.

Now I can’t say that all people are like this, many people I know are so I think it applies well, but when we are working at a job what is one of the main goals? Besides delivering good work and pleasing your boss, most people I know have a larger goal in mind: getting a promotion and moving up. We all want to move up, right? More pay, more benefits, more responsibility.

As we, individually, are trying to move up in our positions and work towards that next promotion, well, so are your coworkers. Your coworkers also want that promotion, they also want more responsibility.

Well that’s where the problem with Unlimited Vacation Days comes into view. When you have unlimited vacation days, what do you want to do? Well, if you are gunning for that promotion, you are trying to seem “better” than your coworkers. You want your boss to know you are working harder, spending more time, contributing more, and encompassing yourself more with work more than your coworkers. Not a lot more, just a little more to have that edge. Say your coworker takes a 14 day vacation - well, to prove you are “harder working”, you may one up it a little and just take a 12 day vacation. “I’m working harder and giving more to the company” you may think. You have that edge. …But then flip it for your coworkers. Your coworker also wants that edge - so when they see you taking a 12 day vacation, well they just might only take a 10 day vacation. And then you see your coworker taking a 10 day vacation and think “shoot, they are doing better than me, I need to work harder”, so you take less vacation. When you take less vacation that means that your coworkers take less vacation…

In the end, there is the problem. No one is taking enough vacation. Since everyone is vying to get that promotion, to get better, to “climb the ladder”, the Unlimited Vacation Days are not being used. You don’t want to come off as a slacker or not putting in your time, and, in doing so, everyone ends up taking less time off.

What’s the solution? I don’t have it - maybe a required minimum to start. Otherwise, those 2-week policies aren’t looking too bad anymore.