Can We Fix Talent Attraction and Burnout with PTO?

Full Transcript Below

[ANNOUNCER]: Breaking down everyday workplace issues and diagnosing the hidden sickness not just the obvious symptom, our hosts James and Coby.

[COBY]: Did we lose a patient?

[JAMES]: No that’s just my lunch.

[COBY]: Hey thanks for joining us. I’m Coby, he’s James. Let’s get started with a question. Can we fix talent attraction and burnout with PTO, or paid time off?

[JAMES]: No, and we’re done. But seriously, no. With the way that we currently talk about paid time off, or the way that we currently Implement, especially things like unlimited PTO policies, which are becoming a lot more common. There seems to be a lot of chatter about them especially, you know, post COVID, the war for talent is kind of brutal in a lot of industries. No we just, we get it wrong. So we need to really look at what the intent of these programs are. And kind of the thesis statement of all of our podcasts are, “these things can work if you have the right company culture”. So those are the things that I want to talk about today is; what is the type of culture that needs to exist to make these things work? To address burnout, and talent attraction and retention, and you know what is the intent that we’re actually, when we’re trying to implement these types of policies, what is our intent? So I kind of want to start with that intent piece because I think that’s important to discuss right off the bat and there are some absolute benefits to unlimited, or to paid time off policies, or robust paid time off policies, or even unlimited PTO. You know when we’re looking at implementing these types of solutions we’re looking at them as this is a huge incentive or big perk that our employees get to take advantage of, that sets us apart from the competition. So from a talent attraction standpoint it’s a very persuasive perk because it sounds amazing. “I get an unlimited amount of paid time off? All I need to do is make sure that the work is getting done, and then I can take as much time as I need?” That’s a very attractive offer. If you don’t dig too deep into how it actually plays out in the workplace. You know, you can Google search and find all kinds of articles that are written about, you know, being… Yes, having sufficient time off can lead to people providing increased productivity, you know that, you don’t really have to worry about, you know, unused or accrued vacation days. Because that’s kind of wrapped up in that PTO. You know it’s a really attractive perk that will draw more people to your business. And employees gain freedom and it builds mutual trust. Well that’s all well and good until you actually start examining how companies are using PTO policies.

[COBY]: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really nice sales pitch. That’s the nice brand that’s the topical catch, our Competitive Edge as you said. But I think what you’re really kind of really saying is that, like we talked about in our one of our previous podcasts about hybrid work and work from home, it’s a tool. Its a tool, and it can be a very powerful tool, but a tool is only as good as how it’s used. And when we, you know, promote that we have this tool, but we don’t really use it properly, then we’re really not  meeting it’s full potential, or we’re not giving the people that are drawn to us because of PTO, or because of work from home, we’re not giving them what they expect. Which ultimately sets up them to fail, and sets up ourselves to fail.

[JAMES]: It does, and this is at the Crux of why I said no. It’s not going to fix your problem. Because it’s just used, the tool is used poorly.

And it’s really it’s a shame because, unlimited PTO or the philosophy behind unlimited PTO really can make a huge difference depending… Now it’s very contextual to the type of work, right? It only these types of solutions really only work in specific types of environments, right? You’re not going to be able to provide an unlimited PTO benefit in like a retail environment or in a food service…

[COBY]: This is for desk workers really. Like both, kind of, work from home primarily around what we call desk workers and non-desk.

[JAMES]: Knowledge work, it’s kind of the, one of the buzzwordy terms. I mean, it works in a certain type of environment and it only works if you really have a focus on a result oriented workplace. That, you know, the result, that you’re measuring people’s results not their time. And we’ve talked many times about, you know, the difference between being busy and being productive. And it really, you know, this is one of those rules that really helps to empower productivity.

[COBY]: Yeah and I mean, because, like you’re right. There are some work environments, like say retail, where you have people on the floor. Or production work or somewhere you need to be responsive and the time that they’re in a certain place is just, is really, really important. So those time-based jobs, having people that can come and go as they please, it may not be there, is not necessarily the best tool for that environment. But I think what’s also important is that, when we have the time-based work that’s operationally time based. But then we also kind of have this middle, and then we have task-based work that’s more of that knowledge work, that like you know as long as you achieve X by Y date, then you’re good. You know there’s some of that. But then there’s this kind of middle ground where you have really, that task-based work, but the expectations from the workplace and management, is that it needs to be done during a certain time. Something like you’re putting time-based restrictions on task-based work. And that’s probably where a lot of this misuse of the tool of PTO kind of lives, because…

[JAMES]: I want to jump on that, because where I’ve seen the misuse is, yes it’s in those environments, but I want to be more specific than that. Because where you go wrong with unlimited PTO is by putting restrictions on it.

[COBY]: Yeah

[JAMES]: Right? As soon as you, yes there will be, you know, operational requirements, there will be managerial approval, there will be certain things that have to go into any policy. But… I, well okay, it’s no secret that I spend more time than I should on Reddit.

[COBY]: That’s true.

[JAMES]: Yeah I love it. It’s a great time suck. I’ll call it research for our podcast, then I can justify my time. Just go with it. But this is something that I’ve seen come up very frequently, actually, especially over the last two to three weeks. Almost daily I’ve been seeing questions about, you know, “As a manager how do I deal with unlimited PTO?” “I’ve got this unlimited PTO request, how do I deal with this?” there was one just a couple days ago that kind of stood out to me. Because, you know, they were asking how to, you know, how should they respond to a unlimited PTO request for three weeks off, right? And they kind of laid out some of the key points in their policy and the problem is, their policy said that, you know, had to be man, there had to be managerial approval, fine. But they’re Unlimited Paid Time Off policy said that you can’t take an excessive amount of time off. So what’s excessive in Unlimited? So I understand the intent, on the why that would go in there, and it makes sense, right? You do not want people to take advantage of, you don’t want people to misuse the policy, right? We want people to take advantage of the advantages that we give them, right? We don’t want people to misuse or abuse the policies, so we put these restrictions in place with the best of intentions, but the problem becomes you have been promising people, in your policy, that they have an unlimited amount of paid time off. So your policy, your practice, needs to match your policy.

[COBY]: Otherwise you’re giving a kind of a bait and switch, right?

[JAMES]: You are giving a bait and switch. Which does not help your recruitment efforts. Which does not help your retention efforts. Which does not help your burnout mitigation. Which does not accomplish all of the things that you want to accomplish by instituting these types of policies.

[COBY]: Yeah it’s kind of like, if I to compare to something, it’s almost like going to an All You Can Eat Buffet, and there’s a big sign on the window, and then when get inside, there’s a little sign by the table that says; you’re limited to two plates an hour, it’s not during lunch time or dinner time, the offer is only value or only only there between say 6 pm and 7 P.M every other Sunday or something. And you’re like, well that’s not All You Can Eat. I walked in here because of what I was offered, and then when I get there, this unlimited All You Can Eat is just a matter of, like you know, it’s just a very restricted thing. It’s not what it promised. Bait and Switch, right?

[JAMES]: Yeah and that’s, I mean, you lose trust and credibility with your employees very, very quickly when even with the best of intentions, and I do believe that these policies are implemented with the absolute best of intentions, that we want to provide people what they need, we want to provide them with the flexibility that they need, with the time off that they need, so that they can rest and recharge and that they can give their best to us. We will give our best to them. That, I truly believe, that is the intent 99% of the time. But the problem is, and I just want to continue with the best comment that I saw on that Reddit post. It really spoke to what I think is the most important. I agree with it entirely and it’s kind of where my mind goes with these types of policies. And that’s the only question you should really be asking with a paid time off policy, or a unlimited PTO request is, “Do you have a plan for the work, for how the work is going to be covered while you’re away?”. Yes or no. If the answer is yes, the time off is approved. If the answer is no, then the time off is not approved, until they have that plan in place. Now if that doesn’t happen, if work gets dropped, then you have a performance issue. You enter into your regular disciplinary procedures, or Performance Management procedures, right? If you have an unlimited paid time off policy, you really, and I think this is the heart of it is that, when we talk about unlimited pay time off, we actually focus on the time off. Which is the wrong place to put our focus. Rather than putting our focus on the results, the work. As long as the work is being done I don’t care how much time you take off because we need the results of your efforts.

[COBY]: Okay, so I guess, I guess you can kind of say, almost like, one of the fundamental problems with how we try to implement and use PTO is we’re kind of thinking of it like, almost backwards. We’re focusing on restricting or putting a box around how people use their time off, and then assuming that when they’re not off, they’re being productive. But maybe what you’re kind of saying, is that we should be focusing on putting the box around how to be the most productive, and then anything beyond that is kind of their time, to do with as they feel is right, is that kind of what you’re saying?

[JAMES]” That’s what I’m saying. Like the way that we operate with our company, is that there’s work that needs to be done. We are very focused on, you know, that we have a number of projects that are ongoing we have, you know, different levels of responsibility, we’ve got  different things that need to be done.


But ultimately as long as the work’s being done, I don’t care if you need to take a day off, to go to the… Like that’s neither here nor there. It could be a day to go shopping, I don’t care. The work needs to be done, and as long as the work is being done, or you have a plan to make sure that clients are not being dropped. Because, well I mean in our business client relationship, client management is essential, it’s as it is in every business. We need to make sure there are certain things, that to keep our business running, and to keep people employed, we need to have clients who are happy and willing to pay us. We have to have projects that are moving forward, we have…

[COBY]: Timelines that are being met.

[JAMES]: Our obligations to our clients, to our partners, to all of these things. So we put measurements in place. We put structure in place, and we use tools that allow us to collaborate effectively. But they don’t measure people’s time, I don’t measure your time, you don’t measure mine. We don’t measure…

[COBY]: The time of those we work with, yeah.

[JAMES]: Right. As long as work is being done, I don’t care if you do it at eight o’clock in the morning, or eight o’clock at night. I don’t care if it, if the deadline is next Friday, then I’ll check in with you to make sure that we’re on track. Or that we have a plan for how that work is going to get done. But the work, as long as the work is done on time, you know, and is to the quality standards that we set. The rest of the time is yours. You can be professional. We have hired you as a professional to do certain work, and I think this is how, if I could wave a magic wand and say this is how companies need to use unlimited PTO. It would be, you’ve hired professionals who have, who are highly skilled and have a professional mindset. Set the measurements of what needs to be accomplished, create the boundaries around um what they can’t do, And then give them the freedom to do everything else.

[COBY]: Right you know, and I think this is a great time for us to bring up something that we talk about a lot in our training programs, and in some of our coaching and consulting work. Its kind of like a big part of this is, we talk about maybe they’re thinking about PTO backwards, is that sometimes in what you’re talking about it’s kind of the philosophy of how to create rules and structure in your workplace. And something we talk about in like our Autonomy Freeway program, and things like that, is things around the difference between Rules that Restrict and Rules that Empower. So Rules that Restrict, tell you what you CAN do. It limits, which sounds, you know like a supportive thing, but it’s actually about limiting the options that you have. And it puts restrictions on your actions and your judgments. You can only do these things. Success can only happen if it looks like this. Whereas Rules that Empower tell you what you CAN’T do. Kind of like what you just said, it eliminates certain options because you can’t, you know, let clients drop, and you can’t miss deadlines, but as long as you do all the things that you know, like, as long as you’re not doing the things you can’t do, everything else is on the table. Use your professional judgment, do what you know you be you, you know, make it happen. And the idea of, I think that if we had to really kind of put a summary on what is the is the point and best use of PTO? Its to say, if you’re using PTO as a rule that restricts, and you’re putting the focus on limiting people, how people use their time off, then again it’s a rule that restricts, and  you’re limiting what they can do. But if you focus on Rules that Empower, and PTO is kind of the the side effect of what happens when someone is focused on the results and getting the work done. Then you’re creating those Rules that Empower. And that’s probably the fundamental philosophy that people really need to shift their mind to if they really want to get the best use out of a tool like unlimited PTO.

[JAMES]: Yeah and I mean, I want to follow up on the Rules that Empower, because we actually use Rules that Empower most frequently the higher up in the food chain you go in an organization. Organizational governance usually is framed from executive limitations. It’s a very common, very well used framework for how an organization governs. Especially if they have a board of directors. You know the board will set out the executive limitations, that says the CEO can do, as long as the CEO does not do this, this, and this. They have the freedom to use their professional judgment. All we’re saying is that the highly successful, very effective model of providing Rules that Empower to your CEO, can be applied throughout your organization. And we lose things in as we, like we use this very effectively in one respect, and then we, as we, I hate the illustration that I’m using right now. As we go down the ladder, or as we go down the authority levels,

we become more and more restrictive. Saying that it’s not, you know, it’s not “Here’s the box and you can do anything you want as long as you’re not going outside of that framework”. We start pinpointing very specifically, saying this is what you’re allowed to do. This is not what you’re allowed to do, or this is the only way to be successful. And I think we we need to provide some examples of Rules that Restrict. Because talking about it in an abstract sense, I don’t know would be as effective as an actual example.

[COBY]: Well I mean,  going back to the whole idea of PTO,  you can have PTO, or they have Unlimited Paid Time Off, but it can’t be you know, it can’t be any more than this. And it can’t be during, you know, when everyone else, during peak vacation period. And it can’t be doing this, can’t be doing that. That’s putting the restrictions that say, you know, you can, the only way you can use PTO, use Unlimited PTO, like this. That is a Rule that Restricts. Whereas, as we said before, Rule that Empower is; okay so as long as you’re putting the box around those clients not being dropped, deadlines are being met, you know, budgets are being maintained, then when and where you work, and how often you work, is up to you. That’s a Rule that Empowers. So, I mean like that’s one good example.

[JAMES]: It is, and I want to be clear that not all rules that restrict are bad. Oftentimes our safety policies will be intentionally designed to restrict, because we need to restrict what people do. So equipment use is typically framed from a; this is the only way that this is, this is how you are successfully using the equipment use policy. You know safety procedures are very frequently restrictive.

[COBY]: Necessarily.

[JAMES]: For very good reason. So I want to be clear that Rules that Restrict have a very defined purpose and place. But we tend to default to the restrictions, and defining what success looks like, rather than defining what we…

[COBY]: The parameters.

[JAMES]: Behaviors that we don’t want, and allowing people the freedom, so long as they are not violating those restrictions.

[COBY]: Yeah and so I think we should kind of get back to the, we talked about the question we asked the beginning about talent attraction and burnout. How PTO can affect that. Because I think that now that we’ve kind of clarified the idea of the intent, and the Rules that Restrict versus Rules that Empower, I think that when it comes to, let’s say burnout first. I really do think that when you have the culture that supports Rules that Empower you can have a major reduction in the way that,  in burnout. Because you can provide people more flexibility, more freedom, more opportunity to, kind of, use their adjustment, build their own schedule. But when you use, but PTO cannot fix burnout, if you’re in a culture that that leans into the Rules that Restrict, because then you’re actually putting more layers of pressure of, you know, of the expectation that they have. You only use it in a certain way, and you’re, kind of layering, on the pressure, and the restrictions and limitations on people. Which can actually increase burnout. Especially if they came there going; “I can only do this job, or this job’s going to be really effective for me, if I have a unlimited PTO”. “Then I realize I actually don’t have it, it’s just called that, but it really isn’t that”. Then almost like, you’ve almost amplified burnout. [JAMES]: Well yeah and I think it can, so jumping on that, it can really make matters worse. Providing a bad PTO policy, or unlimited PTO policy, can cause far more harm. And one of the common concerns or complaints that I hear is how,

it’s almost implemented, the perception at least is that, it’s implemented as a way of saying: “we provide you with an unlimited amount of PTO, or paid time off, so we just, we’re going to keep dumping more and more work on you, because you can just take the time off to recharge as you see fit. It’s kind of almost thought of…

[COBY]: Its you’re fault if you burn out.

[JAMES]: Well yeah. I mean, but if your company culture does not allow people to actually take the time off. And this is the complaint that I hear is that,

the culture, you have a paid time off policy, but the workplace, the organization dumps so much on your plate, that you are almost, you have the time, you have the ability to take the time, but you’re not encouraged to take the time. That it’s almost seen as a, it’s almost seen in a negative light to take advantage of a policy that you have full right to access, right? So it’s this really weird dynamic between what companies say their values are, and what companies reinforce that their values are. [COBY]: Yeah well it’s kind of like saying we provide free lunch in our cafeteria to every employee every day. But then you go to the cafeteria and the door is always locked, and then there’s almost like, you know, like people look down on you if you try and access the free lunch. You know, but like you say “we have this, we have this, we have this”. And then if you’re hungry that’s on you, we have this. And it’s kind of, it’s like, we want the benefit of being able to say we have it, without the actual responsibility of actually providing it.

[JAMES]: Yeah it’s, I mean there are so many traps that we fall into with these types of programs, and I don’t…

[COBY]: Like, I said before, I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think that we’re trying to do the bait and switch. I think it’s almost like we implement, or companies implement, these kinds of things and they don’t see the full picture or they’re using the wrong mindset when they plan it out. So they have to almost like, rules that kind of happen after the fact. I don’t believe the reacting, like reactive rules, to try and scale it back because it didn’t work how they planned it. Because honestly they didn’t plan it out properly or they had the wrong and mindset going in. [JAMES]: That’s the problem, is that it’s not intentional. That’s the problem. Like they it’s not, they don’t intentionally screw over their employees by offering this, and then yanking it from under them. They don’t put the intention behind the policy in the first place .They don’t define what they actually mean, and how they actually wanted to use it. They hear like, there’s so many gurus and experts who will say, you know, “Implement paid time off, unlimited PTO will solve your problems, and here’s all the benefits”. Well no, it’s not going to solve your problems if you just implement a policy without thinking it through. It’s not going to solve your problems if you implement a policy in a work culture that doesn’t allow for it to actually operate properly. Like if you are, like just be honest about what your intentions are, and that’s the best advice that I can give, is to actually define what do you want to accomplish with this and how is this going to play out in reality.

[COBY]: Right, and what is the almost the fundamental philosophy behind how you design your policies and rules? Are they to restrict and tell people what they can do? Or are they to empower and putting a box around people what people can’t do? And I think that’s a great. Like if you take one thing away from this talk. I think that perspective of, you know, are we telling people what they can do or telling people what they can’t do, is kind of a good thing to kind of have a bit of a reflection on how you operate. Whether those rules are official policies, or the unspoken expectations, that can actually be very telling about a lot of the ways that you use tools like unlimited PTO, and work from home, and all those other kind of things. Let’s also talk about how Talent attraction, how PTO can’t really fix a talent attraction.

[JAMES]: Well again, it comes down to how it’s being used. right? Your best, the absolute best thing you can do for your talent attraction efforts is to remove job dissatisfaction, Bar None. The best thing that you can do to fix Talent Attraction is to remove job dissatisfaction, because when people, when your employees are happy, when they are satisfied in their jobs, when they are content, when they are productive, when they feel like they are actually valued and apart of the team, they can become ambassadors for your organization. And there’s, Coby you’ve written articles, and talked at conferences about the Ambassador Effect, many times.

[COBY]: Yeah, I think we’ll do a podcast coming up in the near future about that too. Because that’s a great topic, you’re right.

[JAMES]: Yeah. Like there’s, I don’t want to… Yeah we’ll save a lot of it for that that podcast. But very briefly, you know when we’re talking about Talent Attraction, your main, your recruitment efforts. We need to actually apply some of the Psychology of Marketing around what’s your Push and your Pull. Your push is the, in recruitment, is the traditional way that we think about recruitment. It’s your job postings, it’s a recruiter contacting people, it’s the outward messaging, the way that you push your the information on people. And that is effective, to a point. But what’s more effective than that, and it’s more of a long-term strategy, because you need to have the right culture in place that pulls talent to you. And that’s only going to happen if you don’t have people who are willing to say “Yeah these guys don’t suck!”.

[COBY]: Yeah, yeah and I think that the… Because like the idea of… Like to me, there’s a bit of a humorous perspective. You talk about using Unlimited PTO as kind of, part of your Talent Attraction piece to draw people to you. It’s almost like, “We’re such a great company that we, that one of our best qualities is when you don’t have to be here.” Like, you know, what I mean? Where, so it’s always like, “Yes a job that I don’t have to go to as often, is almost like that’s what’s drawing me there.” That’s kind of a weird thing to think about. Its kind of a weird draw, but the idea though is, I think, that when it comes to Talent Attraction, you know having the perks and benefits are important, but if it’s more about, again those that were results focused. “We’re about giving you, empowering you to do the best job you can, and then what you do, you know, after you’ve checked your, once you’ve met all your obligations, and managed all your work, and meet all your timelines, that’s up to you. And I think that you know that type of culture speaks better, is actually more transparent and more authentic; than just we have we have a great Unlimited PTO policy. And one of the best reasons to work here is when you don’t have to be here. And so I do think that, you know, that again, PTO sounds nice, but as you kind of said, at the very beginning. It’s not necessarily what, you know, it’s a nice branding, it’s a nice sales pitch. But when you dig into it there’s actually you know it’s actually might not be what you’re looking for.

[JAMES]: It only will work if you allow people to take the time. If you don’t pile so much work on people that they feel guilty or feel like they can’t take the time. Or if you penalize people. If you penalize people for taking advantage of a policy that you have written you’re screwed. [COBY]” You’re  doing it wrong.

[JAMES]: You’re wrong. And it’s going to… Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. It makes me so…

[COBY]: Yeah and I think, kind of one of the final things to, kind of maybe leave people with is the idea of, if what you really want is to improve the results of the work that you do. Is to meet your results and provide the best work, then make achieving those results, achieving the work, the focus of your policies and your philosophies. And how you attract people to you. But if you want to sound like you’re progressive, and you want to, actually you know, make it seem like you’re offering great benefits, and but you’re really about kind of putting limits on those benefits, then maybe, then that’s what happens when you focus, when your focus is on the leaves. So it really is kind of where do you want, what’s important to you? And then messaging that accordingly in both how, to your employees, around ensuring that you can reduce burnout and to potential future employees, and how you attract Talent.

[JAMES]: Yeah I think that’s a good summary.

[COBY]: All right so let’s actually, so let’s just tie all this up. So one of the things that, you know, is really important with Unlimited PTO, and paid time off, is that it really is a tool that can only be effectively used in a culture that that embraces its full intent. That its really is kind of a double-edged sword, depending on how you’re designing and using your policies. That if you put a lot of restrictions on your unlimited PTO, was kind of like going to a buffet where you limit the number of plates you can eat, when you can eat it, and you know and it’s only available sometimes. Really a lot of the stuff needs to be framed from a perspective of Rules that Restrict, and that create, what they tell people what they CAN do, and limits what their options within those things that they can do. And Rules that Empower tells you what you CANNOT do, but puts, but then provides freedom to everything else that’s not on that cannot do list. Rules that Empower are actually going to be the results that you’re looking for, and will actually give you the opportunity to improve productivity in how you work, because the work is what’s important, and the time off is just kind of the side effect. If you want, PTO cannot really improve burnout in a culture that promotes their time off, but doesn’t really empower people to use it. And PTO is not the Silver Bullet for improving Talent Attraction, if it’s not done, again, in the culture that empowers people to get their best work done. So I think that pretty much summarizes…

[JAMES] There’s just two things that I want to add. If you are using PTO, or unlimited PTO policy, then the only question that you really need to be asking is “Is there a plan for how the work is going to not get dropped during the time off?” And if you’re using unlimited PTO you need to focus on the results of the workplace not on the time. If you focus on time you’re going to fall into the trap and not gain any of the advantages that we’ve talked about.

[COBY]: All right so that about does it for us. So For a full archive of our podcasts and access to the video version hosted on our YouTube channel visit our website at Thanks for joining us.

[JAMES]: Thanks everyone.

[ANNOUNCER]: For more information on topics like these don’t forget to visit us at Side effects of this podcast may include improved retention, high productivity, increased market share, employees breaking out in spontaneous dance, dry mouth, aversion to the sound of James’s voice, desire to find a better podcast…

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