By Steve Habel
Flaunting the standard idea of how much paid time off employees should be entitled to take, some companies are letting workers make that decision on their own. In the process, they're dispelling old notions about vacation time while creating a sense of company ownership and loyalty and exploring the ever-changing idea of the workplace.
Bazaarvoice, an Austin-based company that uses customer reviews to help online vendors increase sales, offers a vacation policy based entirely on trust.
"Someone could come in and in that first year, if they wanted to, they could take four weeks," said Brett Hurt, Bazaarvoice's co-founder and chief executive officer. "There is no accrual. There is no tracking. It is completely based on trusting our employees and trusting ourselves. That has become one of our most radical cultural policies."
The trust-based vacation policy was enacted six months after the company was founded in May 2005, and Hurt said it's worked for four and a half years without abuse. Since that time, Bazaarvoice has expanded to about 550 employees globally with about 850 clients. Hurt said the company is 500 percent larger than he had expected at the five-year mark, and he credits a good deal of its success to the workplace's culture — with the untraditional vacation policy becoming a "lightning rod of sorts."
"When you treat people like adults, when you treat them with radical trust, they in turn do the same for you," he said. "If you treat people like they are in jail, then they will act like they are in jail."
The secret — though Hurt is far from shy about revealing it — is hiring people well-suited for Bazaarvoice's culture. His company puts job candidates through a rigorous period of interviews and testing to glean high-performing employees who will thrive in a dynamic workplace.
"As the CEO, I was nervous," he said, recalling when the idea was first pitched. "I didn't have any companies to point to as an example. We took a real leap of faith with that. In hindsight, I'll tell you that it's one of the best decisions we've made."
Hurt said Bazaarvoice's employees are productive on the job, know their work is valued and, subsequently, don't worry about taking time off.
"We have stories of people who have worked here for three months, aced their position, then went to China for three weeks," he said.
HubSpot, a Cambridge, Mass.-based Internet marketing company founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, has a policy similar to that of Bazaarvoice.
"Our new vacation policy is that there is no vacation policy, no paid time off forms, no vacation rollover, nothing," Brian Halligan, HubSpot's CEO and founder, wrote on his blog. "If people want to take time off, they can take time off. ... We hire very smart people who are very focused on contributing to the growth of our company. We trust that the folks will use ‘common sense' with regards to taking an appropriate amount of time off."
Halligan said most companies' vacation plans are relics "of an era when people worked 9 to 5 in an office, like our fathers did. The Internet and mobile devices have enabled our employees to work where they are comfortable (often at home) and the hours they are comfortable (often in the middle of the night)."
In a phone interview, Halligan said the company's vacation policy has been in place for about six months.
"At a recent employee meeting, our 150 workers were asked if they liked the policy, and 148 of them said they did," he said. "Some of our employees used their time off to go to Asia, which can be a long haul from the U.S. east coast.
"We are not worried about the potential for abuse of the policy because giving our employees this option allows them to take ownership in the situation and in their jobs," Halligan said. "Our managers keep a close eye on things to make sure we have all our bases covered and not too many people are out of the office at the same time."
While time off from work is often viewed as an earned employee benefit, a whopping 66 percent of employees were found to have neglected to use all of their vacation time in 2009, according to a study released by Philadelphia-based career management consulting firm Right Management.
Before choosing vacation guidelines, corporate leaders must decide what they want to accomplish. Companies must decide if the vacation policy is designed to create a reward, minimize costs or even to be competitive, and each can lead to different conclusions.
For more information about benefits such as vacation time, resources include industry associations and chambers of commerce. Some of Austin's local labor data is available at austinchamber.com/dobusiness/greateraustinprofile/workforce.html.
Marketing publications staff writer Beth Bond contributed to this story.