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Unlimited Vacation: Blessing or Curse?

Posted in best practices, business, vacation by commorancy on July 23, 2018

I don’t usually get into discussing workplace stuff because it’s relatively boring. However, Unlimited Vacation is one perk that is really, really needs discussion. Let’s explore.

Perks and Jobs

I get it. I understand why companies offer perks. They have to offer perks for talent acquisition reasons such as:

  1. Companies must keep up with competition — If a company doesn’t keep up with what other companies are offering, they lose talent during recruiting
  2. Companies must offer perks that seem inviting — Again, this is a talent acquisition feather-in-the-cap sort of thing. It’s something the HR team can cross off the checklist of things to entice candidates
  3. Companies must offer perks that are inexpensive — Companies don’t want to give away the farm to offer a specific perk

What kinds of perks can you typically find in tech companies? You find perks like the following:

  1. A stocked kitchen — This includes soda, coffee, tea, milk / cream and then for food, this can include fruit, nuts, chips and cereal
  2. Bagel Friday — This perk includes donuts and bagels on Friday
  3. Lunches — Some companies offer subsidized and/or free lunches one or several days of the week

Those are all food related, however, other perks include:

  1. Day Care or reimbursement
  2. Commute expenses
  3. Free parking
  4. Tuition Reimbursement (job related)
  5. Training / certifications (job related)
  6. Paid sick days
  7. Paid vacation
  8. 401k
  9. ESPP (if public company)
  10. Company holidays

These are the HR type of benefits that many companies offer. Many of these have a real dollar based cost to the business. However, there’s a new perk that seems great, but really isn’t for several reasons. That perk is ….

Unlimited Vacation

This ‘perk’ (and I use this term loosely) is now becoming popular in businesses. Why? Because it doesn’t cost the business anything to implement and may actually save the company some money (or so companies think). On paper, the idea seems enticing, in reality it’s a pointless benefit to employees and actually encourages more employees to take vacation which may hinder productivity and deadlines.

Why is this benefit so bad? This benefit is pointless because there is no way any employee can actually use it in its unlimited capacity. If you were to try, you’d be fired and walked from the building. I don’t know of any business that doesn’t require approval for vacation from a manager. Even if you could request excessive amounts of vacation, it’s unlikely your manager would approve it. But, within reason, you can request time off and here’s where it begins to break down for employers.

The only people who can even use this benefit as unlimited are those who are in management positions, who don’t have to report their own vacation usage. In other words, subordinates won’t be able to use it, but managers will (and they will use it frequently).

This is one of those perks that will be abused by those in charge. Those not in charge will be penalized whenever they attempt to use it in any unlimited way.

Vacation Time

In general, asking for vacation time off is tricky. It must always be coordinated with ongoing projects, team commitments (i.e., on-call), other team member time off and holidays and requires manager approval. Even people who end up out sick can interrupt or force rescheduling of vacation time off.

Don’t be tricked by this perk, it doesn’t make vacation time off any more accessible and, in fact it is entirely designed entirely for …

Ripping off Employees

There are two fundamental problems with Unlimited Vacation. The first problem is that the benefit (ahem) is being implemented as a cost saving measure to rip off employees when they leave a company (and is designed to appear to save the company many thousands of dollars). This issue really only affects long term employees. You know, the ones who have devoted several years to your business. But now, you’re going to give them the finger on the way out the door? Smart.

With standard paid time off (PTO), you are allotted a certain amount of hours that accrue over time. Let’s say for every year of service that you complete, you will accrue up to 1 week off (with a maximum of 2 weeks that can be held in total). After 2 years of service, you’ll have those 2 weeks accrued, assuming you never take time off. If you leave the company after 2 years without taking any vacation, you’ll be paid out your accrued PTO balance for the 2 weeks that you didn’t take. That’s two weeks worth of salary you’ll receive upon exit, in addition to any other salary owed.

With Unlimited Vacation, that vacation payday goes away. Since it’s now unlimited, there’s no more time accrued and no more PTO to pay out for any employee. The only thing that payroll needs to keep track of is how much time you’ve used solely for timekeeping purposes. When you exit a company offering Unlimited Vacation, you won’t receive any vacation pay because they are no longer accruing any. This means that when you were formerly paid 2 weeks of PTO, with Unlimited Vacation you now get $0.

Unlimited Vacation is then an HR cost-cutting measure entirely designed to screw exiting long term employees over so companies no longer need to make any vacation payouts.

Here’s where the second problem begins. As employees realize this screw-over job and to make up for the lack of accrued time, this means employees will need to take as much vacation as is allowed without getting fired in the process. Since you can’t accrue, you now need to use.

Accrued PTO vs Unlimited Vacation

Businesses don’t seem to understand the ramifications of this perk on its workforce. The first ramification is that employees with accrued PTO no longer get the exit vacation payday. This is significant when exiting your employer and moving on. But, this only occurs on a termination event. Employees should remain cognizant of this event, but even more employers should remain cognizant of how this will change how vacation is used. As an employer, it means you need to understand how to retain your workforce better.

Here’s the second problem in a nutshell. PTO encourages employees to stockpile their vacation and rarely take it. Up to 50% of the workforce does this. However, Unlimited Vacation encourages employees to take as much vacation as they can legitimately get away with.

With PTO, employees might work and work and work with little time off. With UV, more employees will take more time off, thus working less. This is something that HR and management will need to understand about this benefit. If the point is to get people to take more time off, then UV is the answer. If you’re trying to encourage people to stay at their desks and work, PTO is the answer… but has the end payout.

It really all depends on how you want your staff to work. If you want people at their desks not taking time off, then PTO is your answer. If you want people constantly taking time off, then UV is your answer. Sure, UV saves you on the exit payments, but at the cost of people taking more time off throughout the year. It does one more thing.

The up to 50% of employees who rarely take time off will change their work ethic to include significantly more time off. Since they know can no longer stockpile and get that payday when leaving, they will now be encouraged to take time off to make up for that loss of money. This means that a workforce that you relied on to work excessive hours to make ends meet will no longer continue that trend in your business.

If you think that people will continue the same type of vacation behaviors they used with PTO when on UV, you’re mistaken. People will use what they are owed. If they are encouraged to take time off, they will whenever possible. This means that for the folks who rarely (if ever) took PTO days will now begin scheduling more time off throughout the year. That’s not because it’s unlimited, but because they understand that they no longer get the payout at the end. This compromise ensures they get the equivalent benefit and that means scheduling and taking time off. There’s entirely nothing the HR team can do about this change in vacation usage behavior when on the Unlimited Vacation plan.

It’s a use-it-or-lose it situation. If you never take vacation with PTO, you can justify it with the payout at the end. If you never take vacation with UV, not only do you get no time off, you get no payout at the end. It’s simple math. No payout at the end means using more vacation time to get the equivalent benefit. Employees aren’t stupid and they will realize this paradigm shift and compensate accordingly.

This outcome will happen. You can even watch your employees behaviors after you convert from a PTO to UV system. I guarantee, your employees will notice, understand and modify their vacation schedule accordingly. This may impact your business, so caveat emptor.

Good or Bad?

That’s for each company to decide. More employees taking more vacation is good for the employee and their morale. But, it may negatively impact the productivity of your business. With PTO, people not taking vacation means more productivity. With UV and more vacation time off, this likely means less productivity. It might mean a happier and less stressed workforce, but it likely also means less work getting done.

I’m not saying any individual will take excessive time off. No, I’m not saying that at all. That’s simply not possible. What I am saying is that if 40-50% of your workforce never takes time off under a PTO plan, you will likely find that number reduces to less than 10% of your workforce not taking time off with a UV system. That’s a significant amount more people taking time off throughout the year than on a PTO system.

If you delude yourself into thinking employees who don’t take vacation time off will continue a PTO trend on a UV plan, your HR team is very much mistaken. I can also guarantee that if managers deny vacation requests to keep employees at their desks, this too will backfire and your talent will leave. This will become a catch-22 problem in your business.

As an employer, you spend a lot of money hiring talent. You also spend a lot of money holding onto that talent. Why jeopardize all of that with a policy like UV that won’t really do what what you hoped it would? On paper, it seems like a great cost saving policy. In practicality, it will likely backfire on your company’s productivity efforts and cost you more money in the end, but not for the reasons you think.

Conversion Process

You may find that if you are converting from some other vacation system to unlimited that people do continue their traditional habits. However, that will change over time both as turnover happens and as people realize their loss of PTO payout. Once employees wake up to the realities of the new system, the amount of employees requesting and taking vacation will increase.

A UV policy will make it more difficult on the managers to juggle vacation timing, fairness and who can take what when. This will increase manager load by taking them away from managing projects and deadlines to managing the minutiae of juggling even more staff vacations.

Hourly Employees versus Salary Employees

This type of perk works best in salaried environments. With hourly employees, trying to offer a perk like Unlimited Vacation won’t really work well. This is particularly true of employees working in a call center or similar type environments. With salaried tech workers, this kind of benefit may work for you with the caveats that have been thus far described.

Startup or Established Company

If you run a startup, you should stay away from the Unlimited Vacation policy entirely. It won’t do your business any favors. Sure, it’s more cost effective, but only when long term employees leave. If you’re a startup, you won’t have long term employees to worry about for a while. Your duty is to entice your talent to stay, not leave. If you have a problem with a revolving door of staff, then you have a much bigger problem than a benefit like Unlimited Vacation. The problem for a startup is that a UV plan encourages more people to take vacation more often rather than stockpiling it for use later. Again, more workload for a manager to juggle vacation schedules rather than handling projects and deadlines.

In a startup, a UV policy means more people taking time off. This isn’t what you want when you need all hands on deck to keep the business afloat. You want most people at their desks and readily available at all times. When people take vacation, they expect to be cut off from their job including no email, no pager and no contact. And, rightly it should be. If you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation. PTO plans encourage staff to accrue now and take time off much, much later, perhaps years later. With a UV plan, this  encourages more people to take vacation regularly. Not exactly what you need in a startup. PTO works for a startup because employees stockpile and then once the business is off the ground years later, they will then take their vacations. This is why PTOs are actually better for a startup than a perk like UV.

If your business is established with 500 or more employees, then implementing an Unlimited Vacation policy might be worthwhile depending. With larger numbers of staff, there’s more opportunity for someone to cover an employee who’s out. This means if your 40%-50% staff who are stockpiling decide to start taking vacation in increasing numbers, you can withstand this change in your workforce behavior.

It’s up to you to decide how to operate your business, but PTO vs UV is one perk you should thoroughly investigate and then weigh all pros and cons before implementing it. Don’t do it simply because it might (or might not) save you some cash when employees exit. Do it because it’s the right plan for your business’s current operating goals.

 

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The H1-B dilemma

Posted in best practices, botch, business by commorancy on April 9, 2014

I have recently heard that a common question among Silicon Valley CEOs towards government is, when is the H1-B allotment going to increase? Let’s explore exactly what this question ultimately means.

Foreign vs US Workers

The H1-B visa is a type of work visa granted to a foreign national to work within the United States for a specified period of time, that eventually expires and will need to be renewed. Asking to have more of these granted per year says only one thing: These Silicon Valley CEOs believe they cannot find domestic US talent to fill positions. Either that, or they mistakenly believe it’s for cost cutting purposes.

My problem with this situation is that someone in each of those organizations is telling the CEO that they cannot hire locally. This is a load of rubbish and the current limit on the issuance of H1-B visas is in place for a reason. If you are a company doing business in the US, the point is to …

Hire Domestically

The foreign visa limits are there to prevent hiring foreign workers over local US citizens (and thus, keep those wages inside the US to help the economy). That’s the entire point. If the US government were okay with letting companies hire foreign workers willy nilly, then there would be no limits on H1-B visas nor would this visa likely even exist. Instead, it is there for a purpose and that purpose is to limit foreign workers to force hiring of US citizens. This is exactly as it should be.

If you think you need to hire foreign workers, feel free open a foreign office and hire all of the foreign workers there. Just keep them there and do not bring them onto US soil.

H1-B Workers

One of the other problems that I have with hiring H1-B workers is that most of these worker’s wages get sent back to the country where that worker calls home. Most of the money is not spent in the US. So, in general, H1-B workers do not, for the most part, help improve the US economy. But, they do help out their own country’s economy by sending much of their paycheck there. This is, if for no other reason, a big reason to hire US workers over any other type of worker. This all assumes that you value your US based business along with the US economy.

Again, if you really need to hire cheap labor, open an office in that region and hire to your heart’s content. As a CEO, nothing is stopping you (other than perhaps the board of directors) from making that decision. Asking the government to grant more allotment of H1-B’s is not the answer and never will be.

Lack of Talent

If anyone on your hiring team is telling you that there is lack of talent, the real lack of talent is actually in your hiring team. Meaning, when they’re not finding people it’s because they’re simply not trying. There are people all over the US who are talented and willing to work. Yes, you might have to pay them more in some cases, but if you want good talent, you pay for it.

Is hiring an H1-B worker actually cheaper? Not necessarily. If your company is choosing to sponsor a foreign worker (whether or not they plan to get a green card), your company is in for a large number of fairly pricey and somewhat time consuming legal proceedings at regular intervals. In other words, expect legal fees and lawyers to manage this process. So, what you’re not spending on that worker’s wage goes to your lawyer to keep that person legally in this country (and your business in compliance with the law). Worse, if that H1-B worker chooses to leave the country before your sponsorship is over, the legal fees you’ve spent are lost. If nothing else, the proceedings can interrupt both yours and that worker’s schedule to meet legal deadlines. Even worse, an H1-B holder can work at your company just up to the point of becoming a citizen, making your company foot all of the bills and then they jump ship leaving you without a worker and a set of legal bills you still need to pay. It happens. It’s not pretty. You can simply avoid this by hiring domestic US citizens.

Silly Valley

It’s called this for a reason. If Silicon Valley CEOs are claiming they need more H1-B visas, I call hogwash. There are plenty of talented US workers. The problem is not in the talent pool, it’s in the talent acquisition process. Either the job role is too overreaching, in which case you still won’t find someone or the job role is overly tiny, neither of which a foreign worker would turn down even when they’re not qualified. Considering the unemployment rate today, your hiring managers are not even trying. Meaning, because most hiring processes are severely broken, its difficult to find talent because it’s hard to spot talent. That’s why you have a 90 day new hire grace period. Put it to use. Hire people, take chances, let those go early who don’t work out. Many job description postings are looking for the swiss-army-knife of talent. For example, a guru in networking, databases, systems administration and software development all rolled into one. If your company is a startup, you might need someone like this because your staff is so small, but chances are you’re not able to hire H1-B staff that early in the company’s life.

Still, a swiss-army-knife of talent is hard to come by no matter the size of your business. Pick the role that you really need most and train the staff for the rest. Focus on the skills you find in your candidate rather than those that are not there. If you can find a database administrator separately from the systems administrator, hire two people. You still need to have the backup. If you place all of your eggs in one job role basket, when that person leaves (and they will because they’re in demand) you have a huge hole that’s, once again, hard to replace. Choose smaller more easily replaceable roles. You’ll also end up paying a high wage to the swiss-army-knife talent versus much less for the limited role talent.

Hiring Processes Broken?

Hiring managers can sometimes create some of the most difficult interview processes leaving would-be candidates unable to show they have talent because the hiring manager asked the wrong questions. Yet, given a chance, many people would not only do well, but they would excel at the job. Hiring managers don’t see the talent and then claim they can’t find talent. The HR people pass that feedback blindly along to the CEO who wholeheartedly believes he/she needs H1-B workers for all to be right with the world.

Nope. I completely advocate that you need to exhaust all of the talent pool in the US before you jump on the H1-B bandwagon. And no, hiring one Indian worker does not mean you need to hire more Indian workers no matter how convincing that first H1-B worker may have been. However, if you promote an H1-B worker to a managerial position, you need to expect them to reach out to their friends living in India and then want to hire their friends who will also require an H1-B. Your hiring handbook should be very clear on this point. You should only hire H1-B workers after you have exhausted all domestic US workers and this is as it should be.

The point is, your company doesn’t need H1-B workers. It just needs better processes to find citizens living in the US who are willing and able to work the role. If you still think you need H1-B workers, please re-read this article again and then comment on why you think so.

American Idol: Failure to launch (artists)

Posted in concerts, music, TV Shows by commorancy on May 31, 2009

While I understand the hype about this series (the competition and all), I don’t really understand why this show continues to exist.  Yes, we go through each season and whittle down contestents to the final two.  But, after the winner is chosen, then what?  Oh yeah, they get a recording contract.  What happens after that?

Spotting Commercial Viability

The ‘judges’ (and I use this term loosely) seem to think they know what’s best in the ‘pop music biz’.  Frankly, if they could discover real talent, they would be working for a record company locating and signing talent right and left and not hosting a silly variety hour show.   But, here we are… and here they are.  So, I must honestly question the sincerity and realism of this show.  The whole thing is staged, yes, to find someone who can sing.  But, it’s really there as a money maker for whomever is producing that show.   The underlying values aren’t to get someone signed to a contract.  The real point is  to put on a show.  And, thats what they do, for better or worse.

Judges

It’s funny that they pick judges who are has-been recording artsts and supposedly A&R people like Simon Cowell.  What’s funny about Simon is that his ability to pick talent has been extremely spotty.  For example, he signed and produced Westlife.  Westlife is a boyband that’s a meager shadow of N*Sync and The Backstreet Boys at best.  What’s even more funny is that THAT is really his BEST claim to talent selection outside of Idol.  Every other artist beyond that isn’t even worth mentioning.

So, how do these washed-up has-beens end up judging a show that supposedly prides itself on selecting quality talent?  Well, let’s examine Idol more closely.

Winning Contestants

Since 2002, there has been (in order), Kelly Clarkson, Rubin Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook and Kris Allen (most recently).  Arguably, the biggest name to come out of the Idol circle is Kelly Clarkson with Carrie Underwood as a solid second.  The rest, well, what about them?  They may have produced records, but few appear to be listening.  This isn’t a good track record for Idol.

Let’s consider Kelly Clarkson for a moment.  Even she has had her ups and downs (mostly downs).  While Kelly has a resonably strong voice, the question remains just how commercially viable it is.  With a name like American Idol, you’d think that Kelly Clarkson would have taken the pop crown away from the likes of Madonna and Britney.  Yet, while Madonna’s star is fading, Britney has taken the crown over and firmly holds it as far as pop acts go.  Britney wasn’t even ‘discovered’ on Idol.  More than this, Kelly has a stronger voice than Britney, yet you see what that gets you.  Kelly isn’t even close to being in Madonna’s league and, while Britney has her own personal issues, her music producers provide a much better music experience than most of Kelly’s efforts.

Outside of these ‘winners’, we also have non-winners like Jennifer Hudson (who’s at least as well known as Kelly Clarkson and she wasn’t even a runner-up) and she’s also an overall more complete ‘star’ than Kelly.  Then there’s David Archuletta, Chris Daughtry and Clay Aikin.  These four people are the proof that the judges cannot pick winners.  In fact, these 4 people should have won Idol, but didn’t.  Yet, they are still successful on their own.

Track Record

Just looking at Idol’s track record, you can see more of the Idol winners have failed to be commercially viable than have been successful (Fantasia who?  Jordin who? David who?  Rubin who? Taylor who?).  The point here, that the judges clearly are not capable of spotting talent.   Even when someone has real singing talent, is young and good looking, clearly that’s not everything that’s needed.  Otherwise, everyone graduating from Idol would have become an instant success… which, of course, has not happened.

I understand the fervor over this show and I understand that the point in watching is more about the competition than the outcome.   But, isn’t the outcome why we come to watch?  Don’t we actually expect the winner to become popular, make great music and usurp the pop crown from Britney?  After all, that’s what Idol started out promising.

Idol is Flawed

The premise of Idol is flawed.  The barometer by which they choose winners is in versatility in singing already commercially successful songs. The real barometer of talent is both in songwriting and performing.  Even though someone has a great singing voice, that doesn’t automatically make them a pop sensation.  Becoming a ‘Pop Idol’  comes with singing unique new songs.  Songs that have not been heard before.  Better yet, it proves talent when the person can both write and sing their own music.  Artists like Prince and Sarah McLachlan are capable of this.  To me, this is talent worth finding.  But, today, commercial pop music is more about the look and voice than it is about songwriting.  Music producers are far too prone to run to Taxi and buy a song or commission their favorite songwriter to write a song rather than having the singer write something.

For me, Idol would be a much more rounded show if they actually required the singers to also write all of their own material.  This would be a lot more time consuming, but requiring this would also show the true talent of the artist.  This premise would show a contestant’s ability to write music under pressure and, at the same time, perform that music admirably.  Using this model in the show would likely have changed both the contestants in the show and the outcome of the winners.  I would also have a lot more respect for the winners of the show.  I also believe the winners would have been far more commercially viable as artists than anyone Idol has, so far, produced.

Idol’s days are numbered

We are now going into the 9th season and I believe this show is wearing out its welcome.  Talent shows like this do come and go, so I expect this show go packing probably in one to two seasons.  If it lasts beyond 10 seasons, I’d be highly surprised.  I’m honestly surprised that it has survived this long with its dismal track record of spotting viable commercial talent.  Yes, the winners can sing, but can they produce an album that people want?  In 8 seasons, I’d say the answer to that question is unequivically no.  The spectacle of the live performance is great, but it doesn’t mean the contestant has what it takes to succeed in the music business. Clearly, Idol has failed at it’s primary goal.

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