Unlimited PTO Only Works If You Get Time Off

Every time I see Grant Thornton trying a new, earth shattering initiative, I curl in a ball under my desk, fighting off the flood of memories threatening to break down the thin wall between sanity and madness.

The latest foolhardy attempt by Grant Thornton to fight their way into the Big 4 is by offering Unlimited PTO.

I’m sure there’s some research group out there that’ll claim offering your employees unlimited paid time off is a great motivator for your team. It’s a carrot, they likely say, that’ll make a great treat if your employees work just a bit harder. That extra effort will lead to your work getting finished earlier, which means you can hit the mountains before the weekend rush without deducting from your precious PTO balance.

Yes, to the mountains. In case you doubted I lived in Colorado.

Yes, to the mountains. In case you doubted that I lived in Colorado.

It really sounds great. But let me tell you a story. My Grant Thornton office tried a new flex day initiative several years ago. The idea behind it was that during the less busy times of the year, you could put in four 10 hour days, then take one day off to try to catch up on your life. It was hailed with great fanfare, and became a huge boasting point with our campus recruiters.

The flex day benefit, though, came with a few caveats. Clients comes first, so you need to be able to answer any client questions, even if you were Flexing it out of the office. Management came second, and if you failed to respond to them within 10 minutes of their e-mails being sent out, they’d give you dirty looks the next day in the office.

Guess how often clients or management went looking for you on a flex day? In my experience, it was nearly every single time. So even if you theoretically could take the day off, you couldn’t actually leave the house for fear of missing an e-mail whose importance would be trumped up during the next employee review.

It took less than a year for the Flex Day idea to fall apart. For all I know, it still remains in the office handbook so the recruiters can tout it to all the wide eyed college seniors, but whether it is or isn’t, the program was all but dead by the time I left.

Flex Days and Unlimited PTO aren’t exactly the same. They both, however, suffer from the same problem. I’m not sure how Public Accounting was before the days of ubiquitous smart phones, but these days you are basically required to be at the clients’ and top brass’ beck and call, whether it’s 2 pm on a Tuesday afternoon and you’re in the office, or it’s Saturday afternoon and your taking time off and lying out on the beaches of Monaco.

By all accounts, the higher up you get in the firm, the worse it gets.

I’d like to believe it was just my office that expected people to work on their time off, but I’ve read enough Going Concern to know it’s standard business practice in the Public Accounting world. It’s also standard business practice for Company HQ to disseminate that they really need their local offices to allow people to take their time off. Those memos, as far as I’ve seen, are automatically filtered into Outlook’s spam folder, are printed with transparent ink  on 5lb bond paper (which is essentially single ply toilet paper), consolidated into a Mt. Ebert sized stack, and fed to Cthulhu’s pet Chihuahua.

I know this is a hard concept for some to grasp, but Unlimited PTO doesn’t do much good when you’re not allowed to take time off.

In fact, accumulated PTO came in handy as a bargaining chip while I was there. He was a pretty typical exchange:

Employee: “Hey, Mr. Manager, my accumulated PTO is about to expire. Doesn’t that go on some report to HR if that happens?”

Mr. Manager: “Yeah, you better take a few days off to get that balance down.”

I can’t think of a single time I was actually denied PTO explicitly. There was always a bit of a threat hanging in the air, though, that if you take PTO and you’re not there when you’re needed, it will reflect very poorly on your work.

As for that carrot I mentioned earlier of getting your work done a little faster, that’s not how things work in the Public Accounting world. While it is important to get out a good product, one of the biggest performance measurements is hours worked, not projects completed. So compressing 10 hours of work down to 6 hours just means you’ll have to find 4 more hours of work to fill in that remaining gap in your time sheet. But that, as they say, is a whole different issue.

Oh, and another note on the accumulated PTO side. Your balance of time off was paid out when you left the company. I’m sure nobody is allowed to bring that up in the planning session, since that might be seen as an implicit acknowledgement that you’re leaving at some point and will hurt your future performance ratings, but it’s a pretty big issue. I haven’t actually read the details for the Unlimited PTO policy, but I’m assuming they’re not paying out unlimited amounts of money when you leave. So instead of getting those 3 weeks of pay for the time you weren’t allowed to take off, you get. . .well, I’m not 100% sure, but I’d guess nothing.

If my assumption is wrong on that point, any GTers reading this post, please let me know.

Unlimited PTO could end up being a good move for Grant Thornton. They get a great recruiting talking point while actually offering less PTO to their employees and not having to pay out any accumulated balances. For the employees, though, it seems like a total losing proposition.

Alright, then. Time to get back under the desk.