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Minimum days off and establishing a culture of trust

David Horowitz

( cross-posted from )

Traditional Leave Policies Can Be Disrespectful

Sometime late last year, before I had decided to quit my job and co-found Retrium, I started thinking about my then-employer’s leave policy. It was a pretty standard leave policy for the corporate world: we accrued roughly 2 “personal days” every month which we could use as we wish. The more I thought about it, the more I found this policy, along with all “maximum days off” leave policies, to be moderately disrespectful to the employee. That’s because an employment contract to me is, or rather should be, an agreement that relies on mutual trust — on the employer’s side, trust in the employee to get the job done; on the employee’s side, trust in the employer to be able to pay.

By limiting the number of days off an employee can take, the employer is implicitly telling the employee: “I don’t trust you to take off a reasonable number of days each year, therefore I’ll arbitrarily set a contractual limit.” It’s as if you, in the eyes of your employer, were a young child eating too many candy bars. “But Mommy, can’t I have just one more!?!?”

But are Unlimited Vacation Days the Answer?

I’m not alone in feeling this way. Over the past decade, there’s been a trend emanating from Silicon Valley towards a policy of granting unlimited leave to employees. Take as much as you want! We trust you! Upon first glance, this seems to be an optimal solution: the employer is demonstrating its trust in the employee to do the right thing. It makes the employment contract a contract based on trust and respect, at it should be.

But there’s a catch. Without a guaranteed number of vacation days each year, employees no longer have control over their ability to take leave in the first place. Employees who work under traditional leave policies accrue days off; in other words, taking a day off is an employee’s right. With unlimited leave, a bad boss can actively prevent an employee from taking a day off because days off are not the employee’s, per say.

As a result, unlimited leave gives the employer even more control than it had with a traditional maximum days off policy. “You already took a few days off last month, Jon. Don’t you think that’s enough?” Or, even worse, “Sorry, Bethany, if you take more vacation this year you might not get that promotion we were talking about.” Think that’s unrealistic? Possibly, but the “fairness” of unlimited leave policies is entirely dependent on good corporate culture. And it also relies, scarily, on the whims of your particular boss.

Is There a Better Solution?

So, are we eternally caught between the traditional annual leave world, in which employers demonstrate a lack of trust in their employees, and the new, hip unlimited vacation day world, in which employees place an incredible amount of trust in their employer to treat them decently? I don’t think so.

Here’s my suggestion: why not give employees a minimum number of days off each year that employees have the right to use, while at the same time establishing no maximum? (Note: after doing some research, I also realized that I’m not the first to think of this. Credit where credit is due.)

What excites me most about a minimum leave policy is that it combines the best features of traditional and unlimited leave policies into one. By establishing a minimum number of vacation days that an employee must take each year, it solves the problem with unlimited leave policies: employees now have the right to take vacation every year and don’t need to trust that their employer will allow them to take time off. At the same time, by not establishing a maximum number of days an employee is allowed to take, it fixes the problem with traditional leave policies by placing trust at the core of the relationship between the employer and employee.

In essence, the employer that offers a minimum day off policy is saying to its employees:

I trust you to take an appropriate number of vacation days each year and therefore I am not setting a maximum. How many days you take is up to you. Just get the job done. At the same time, I want you to know that you have the right to take time off and therefore I am establishing a minimum number of days which are yours to take as you wish.

Because I eat my own dog food, a minimum day off policy is one of Retrium’s core values from day one. What do you think?

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