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By Darryl Stewart
The case for unlimited vacation days

The case for unlimited vacation days

I recently read the book Outrageous Empowerment: The Incredible Story of Giving Employees Their Brains Back by Ron Lovett. Lovett makes the case for empowering people at all levels of an organization to use their brains every day and become a real part of the organization they work for, rather than just put in time. Lovett is a creative and fearless entrepreneur, and he is completely open about the things that worked and those that did not as he grew his company to epic proportions with an extreme focus on employee engagement.

Lovett claims that one of his most successful innovations – one that really worked – is that he gave people unlimited vacation time. He says that if someone is committed to being a great team member and to performing at a high level – and if they know what is expected of them – they will self-regulate their use of vacation time. You can then skip all the cost and complexity around tracking vacation days. To be clear, this did not apply to the hourly billable staff in his 1,500-employee security company. It applied to the management team from coast to coast.

I was floored at first by this idea. At IBEX/The Inclusion System, we are generous with our vacation days and we spend a lot of energy encouraging people to take vacations and days off. We encourage people to not overwork and to live a balanced life. But unlimited vacations? The thought never crossed my mind.

As I think about this more, the logic starts to make more sense. A few insights:

  • When people don’t know what is expected of them, when goals are not clear and agreed, then we need to default to making sure people put in the right number of hours, rather than making sure that goals are achieved.
  • When we have mediocre people working for us – those who have not bought into what we are trying to do – they will simply want to put in hours and take as much vacation time as possible, so we need strong measurements. If we have all A players, they will default to wanting to get the job done. They will balance their work goals and personal goals, they will not think in hours, and they will not need hard and fast rules.
  • When we allow poor teamwork and communications, people won’t be able to figure out who gets to take vacation when and for what reasons. Yes, this can get tricky, but I have seen my team members work this out by themselves many, many times. Who wants to do what and when with their families and tend to personal interests seems to magically get worked out when people respect one another. This is so much better then needing a manager to apply arcane rules of seniority or to keep track of who asked first.
  • Great staff members care about the organization as much as the organization cares about them. If you have a caring organization, a system of unlimited vacations should work. If you don’t, the system will fail, and it will be as abused as your staff are abused. We have a caring organization, so this should work for us.

I am coming around to Lovett’s way of thinking. For unlimited vacations to work, you need to have a lot of great things in place. Once in place, the system will shine a light on where you have problems in terms of who is in what roles, how well expectations are understood and agreed, how leaders/coaches are treating their staff, and how well people are getting along. That’s all good. What would happen if you offered unlimited vacation time in your workplace?

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