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Is That Unlimited PTO Perk Too Good to Be True?

unlimited pto

Employers know that job seekers often look for that golden phrase “unlimited paid time off (PTO)” in the benefits list. But studies show that workers with unlimited PTO often take much less time off than those with traditional plans.

“Unlimited PTO has become a catch-phrase for job seekers, but the claim itself can be misleading if the work culture doesn’t support it,” says The HT Group Account Executive Nicholas Duncan.

How can you determine if the claim is as good as it sounds? Let’s take a look.

Addicted To Work

The folks at MyPerfectResume compiled evidence that points to a demoralizing truth. An overwhelming majority of employees check in with work while on vacation. Among them:

  • 82% work while on vacation. 
  • 87% answer questions from coworkers. 
  • 87% check work emails and messages. 
  • 78% answer at least one phone call from their boss.
  • 70% pick up calls from clients and colleagues. 

Employees taking sick days are guilty of working through them, too. About 40% of workers can’t manage to log off and rest while on sick leave. The saddest part? About 21% of employees admit they call in sick to catch up on work outside of the office, while another 21% who were genuinely ill reported that their condition worsened due to working while out. 

Read Between The Lines

At its best, unlimited PTO is an excellent way for employers to provide work-life balance. At its worst,

it can be merely a recruitment ploy or even a way for some employers with workers in states like California or Colorado to avoid paying out accrued time off at the end of employment.

Where does your potential employer stand? Look for clues on why and how they offer PTO. Austin branding agency McGarrrah Jessee (McJ) switched to unlimited PTO during the pandemic, knowing it needed to do more than put those words on paper for the concept to be meaningful. Instead of leaving the unlimited PTO policy entirely open-ended, it requires employees to take at least three weeks of PTO annually.

“That’s a great start, but the next step is to ensure that those taking time off are truly able to unplug while away,” Duncan recommends.

Look For Clues

Check out Glassdoor reviews and ask current employees about how management treats PTO at the ground level. Are employees indeed encouraged to take time off and to unplug entirely during that time? Do the executives and managers take advantage of time off as well, or is it a culture of workaholism in which those who work the longest days (and forgo the most PTO) are rewarded?

Don’t get into the weeds directly asking about PTO until you have a job offer. You should, however, use the interview process to gather clues about the company’s work-life priorities. Consider asking the following questions to the hiring manager, who can make or break the culture surrounding claims of unlimited PTO:

  • How do you measure success? Glassdoor points out this question can root out micromanagers who are sure to overstep PTO boundaries.
  • Can you give me a sense of a typical work schedule in this department? This question from consultant Lisa Durante can cut to the heart of the team’s work style and expectations.
  • What type of person would thrive in this role/on your team? Another question from Durante that offers a chance to sniff out whether the culture blindly rewards overworking.
  • What do you like best about your job? What sets the company apart? These types of questions give the interviewer direct permission to brag about the company’s cultural highlights.

And, finally, consider relaxing your requirement of unlimited PTO when job seeking.

“Some of the top companies in Austin don’t have unlimited PTO on paper, but you wouldn’t guess it because they offer generous plans and encourage employees to take personal time when they need it,” Duncan adds.

Austin-based YETI generally offers 20 days of annual PTO, with employees saying that it’s more PTO than they’ve ever used, that the policies that go along with it are flexible, and that management encourages taking time off.

“Sometimes unlimited PTO is just a matter of administrative efficiencies and not how much the company cares for its employees,” Duncan concludes. Dig deeper to find out how the culture truly values time off for its employees. If you don’t, you could find yourself with unlimited time off with no freedom to use it.”


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