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The smoke and mirrors of unlimited paid time off

The smoke and mirrors of unlimited paid time off 

Granting unlimited paid holiday doesn’t make these problems go away – in fact, it can make them worse. With UPTO, workers are not technically owed any vacation days, since there’s no fixed number, and everything must be cleared by the boss on a case-by-case basis. For workers, establishing what the ‘right’ amount of paid time off to ask for often depends on observing the behaviour of colleagues and bosses. If colleagues are only taking 10 days per year, asking for more could feel inappropriate.

Companies that adopt UPTO, says Cappelli, have “moved from a model where you accrue it – so you’re actually owed the vacation – to one where you kind of [have to] ask. And there’s nothing stopping your boss from yelling at you if you want to take additional time off – or punishing you if you do”.

Plus, UPTO removes the safeguards that protect workers’ interests if they can’t take time off – there are no leftover days workers are legally required to take by year’s end, or carry over to the next year. There’s also nothing for workers to cash out if they quit and have days left over, which Cappelli says saves companies money.

Change is slow

All this means that it’s crucial for a company to have a work culture that promotes balance if it tries to roll out unlimited holiday – something that Goldman Sachs, like other companies in the finance industry, has not traditionally been known for.

“If a company introduces unlimited PTO but the culture still thrives on overwork, putting a new policy in place isn’t going to change that overnight. The company has to encourage downtime – and the managers must model it in their own lives,” says Taylor, of Shrm.

That could take time, though, considering most senior staff at many big Wall Street firms cut their teeth on the exhausting, long-hours finance culture. Plus, many executives still work while on holiday, so it’s unclear how realistic it is that bosses will actually take time off, and model that behaviour for junior employees.

But it’s also significant that, for those lower-level staffers, Goldman Sachs has given them more set PTO days, and has also mandated staff to take at least one cluster of five days off in a row each year.

Such moves could be “sincere” ones to address Goldman’s work culture issues, even though it may not exactly be the type of flexibility some of those junior workers want, says Sonia Marciano, clinical professor of management and organisations at Stern Business School, New York University. She says the firm is “going to get lower quality, fresh-out-of-business-school [candidates] if other attractive employers figure out how to hybrid their day”.

While additional leave benefits, like UPTO, are a start, experts caveat that the conversation of how to change gruelling work cultures is far from over.

“This is a story about work-life balance,” says Alec Levenson, senior research scientist at Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, US. “Throwing some additional benefits at people without addressing some of the fundamental issues around how hard and long people have to work … doesn’t change the situation.”

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