Team Member Is Overusing PTO? Ask Madeleine

April 20, 2024 Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Dear Madeleine,

I manage a team of mostly young people, all of whom manage internal communications for a global manufacturing company. A few years ago the company went to an unlimited paid time off policy. I have read a lot about the effects of unlimited PTO, and note that the biggest risk is that people don’t take enough time off, whereas in the past they were required to take their PTO or risk losing it.

My general approach has been that if your work is done to the expected standard, taking PTO is fine. I guess it never occurred to me that anyone would take off more days than what I consider to be reasonable unless they had medical issues or were taking care of a family member. It also never occurred to me that my idea of reasonable is not necessarily what others may interpret as reasonable.

My problem is that I have one person who takes entirely too much time off. And it isn’t to deal with problems—she is off larking about with her friends. (Note: this is not my opinion; she shares openly.)

Her performance is excellent, so I can’t really make the case that she shouldn’t take PTO—except other team members are noticing and judging. She often is not available to discuss work assignments or to help others on the team when they need something from her.

I think she would be eminently promotable if it weren’t for the fact that she never seems to be around. How do I tell her that it just isn’t a good look? Her overuse of PTO is causing me, and others, to question her commitment to the job. Do you think that is fair?

Questioning Judgment


Dear Questioning Judgment,

Boy, isn’t this interesting? It highlights what happens when rules are open to interpretation and when we make assumptions.

My first thought is if Larking About can get her work done with plenty of time left over, she could be doing so much more if she buckled down and put some elbow grease into it. But I suspect that would be interpreted as old-school thinking. And we all know that the reward for excellent work is—more work.  This is how we have collectively created the hamster wheel we all perpetually bemoan. So my second thought is wow, Larking About might be on to something. My third thought, based on my experience that you never know what hard thing is coming at you, is that we should all save up as much goodwill as we can regarding PTO for when we really need it.

But seriously, as her manager, it is up to you to help LA understand the impact of her choices on her career, as well as the impression her choices are having on both her reputation and her options when it comes to optimal work assignments and advancement opportunities.

I imagine your employee handbook has some guidelines about how people should use “unlimited” paid time off. For example, my own company requires that all team members submit their time-off requests in advance to their manager for approval, collaborate with their team to ensure proper coverage, and limit their consecutive out-of-office days to no more than 15 at a time. It might be useful to find the handbook and see what is laid out in black and white that might support you when the time comes for a conversation.

Because that is where this is leading. A conversation. The first order of business is to find out what LA’s hopes and dreams are when it comes to her career. She may not think of her work as a career; she may simply think of it as a job. If that is the case, other than making sure she complies with whatever rules do exist, there may not be much you can do. LA may be just fine having a job and doing it well. No harm in that.

However, if LA does want a career, which would mean development projects and advancement, she needs to know how the intangibles—what I think of as “personal public relations”—are going to affect her future.

You can keep personal judgment out of it and simply share that perception is important and taking excessive PTO can create an impression of a lack of commitment to work. When it comes to advancement, it’s a fact that HR and leadership teams tend to favor those employees who exceed expectations over those who simply meet expectations. So if LA has ambitions to advance, she might consider taking on volunteer roles or more work for the team, which would limit her PTO and bring it in line with expectations. This, of course, would require you to define what you believe to be reasonable. I suspect what is reasonable in your mind is roughly the amount of vacation time that employees were afforded before you went to the new model. If your company does not provide guidelines, you might find some in this article: Paid Time Off Practices Around the World.

Do I think it is fair that LA’s behavior is causing others to question her commitment? It doesn’t matter what I think. That’s what is happening, fair or not. Perception is everything, and LA needs to understand that. Once she recognizes the impact of her choices (with your help), she can decide to change them. Or not. And she will reap the consequences of those choices.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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