Question

I’m one of those people who’s been waiting all year to quit my job and just did it. Your advice about negotiating salary (explain your value) worked great! But a careful reading of the offer and benefits (thanks again) revealed I’d get only two weeks’ vacation time! I’d be walking away from five weeks at my old job. Do I really have to give up my hard-earned vacation?

Nick’s Reply

vacation timeThis is the perfect time to negotiate assertively for what you want because employers are dying for good talent. If you’re really good at your work, you have excellent negotiating leverage in the current economy and labor market. I’m glad to hear you got a good salary offer. Now let’s work on that vacation time!

Many companies want a new hire to start earning vacation time all over again — but that doesn’t make it a done deal. If you want the vacation time you deserve, you must negotiate to get it.

I have never understood why companies claim vacation time isn’t negotiable. Their position is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it. It’s the policy.” What a company means is that it won’t be able to keep a lid on vacation policy if it negotiates special deals with new hires. But that doesn’t make sense. Just as some people are worth more salary, some are worth more vacation time.

Salary history & vacation time history

Employers demand to know your last salary because they want to base their offer on it. “The only fair way to structure an offer is to look at what you’re already earning,” they explain. So if a job offer is based on your last salary, why shouldn’t your vacation time be based on the amount of vacation time you received at your last job, too? When a company asks for your salary history, why doesn’t it ask for your vacation history? Both reflect your industry seniority and your value.

So what does it mean when a company offers you a job with a paltry two weeks of vacation, and you’ve been taking four or five weeks off at your old company? Okay, let’s get to the advice part of this column. But please remember: this is advice, not a guaranteed way to get five weeks of vacation.

Time off is compensation, not a benefit

The reason you can negotiate salary but not vacation time at most companies is because salary is part of your compensation. Vacation time is not. Vacation time is considered a benefit. Salary can vary, but benefits are fixed. (Or so companies would like you to believe.)

But there is no rhyme or reason to this distinction.

In my opinion, time off is compensation just like cash is because “time is money.” You get compensated for your work with money, and you get compensated for your work with time off. Your expertise, experience and seniority make you worth higher compensation because you probably do more and better work than most junior employees. So it makes sense to give you more time off. Your work still gets done.

I think vacation benefits are negotiable if you have the leverage of expertise and experience (or “seniority”), and when the company isn’t policy-bound.

Negotiate all compensation

My advice: Wait until the offer has been made, then diplomatically and matter-of-factly explain that just as you wouldn’t take a lower salary, you wouldn’t accept less vacation time for your level of seniority in the industry.

Of course, you must decide in advance whether vacation is a deal-breaker for you. In fact, you could test an employer by bringing this up before you agree to do an interview — make vacation a condition, just like your desired salary range. Some companies will balk at this. The more they need you, the more likely they are to negotiate. When employers aren’t flexible, you might want to take an alternative approach.

Tips from an HR insider

To get a well-rounded perspective on this issue, I turned to an expert I respect. Marilyn Zatkin is a veteran HR manager and consultant in Silicon Valley. Her perspective on both the policy and practical sides of this question is solid. She reveals that some companies will be flexible because they understand that vacation is a form of compensation. They also don’t want to lose a great candidate! Here’s what she has to say about this:

“Most companies do not like to alter their vacation policy and create internal equity issues. There are alternatives to granting more vacation than policy allows, such as giving the person a sign-on bonus equivalent to the desired vacation amount, and then letting the worker take the extra time off without pay in the first year. A company can also take that ‘extra vacation value’ and include it in the total compensation package. However, they usually try to limit a special deal like this to the first year.”

I’ll point something out: The moment Zatkin (or any HR manager) concedes that there is a dollar value to vacation time (after all, she’s offering a cash bonus to pay you back for less time off), we have established that vacation time is, indeed, part of compensation. The only thing left to negotiate is how much. I don’t see why that sign-on bonus or “extra compensation” can’t be permanent. (See also Can’t negotiate a higher salary? Ask for more money.)

This may not solve your long-term vacation problem, but it suggests to me that companies are indeed aware there’s an issue they have to face. So I say, negotiate and be as firm about vacation time as you are about salary.

Is time off a benefit, or part of compensation? Have you sacrificed vacation time when changing employers? If not, how did you negotiate it? Do you think you’d have more negotiating leverage nowadays if you changed employers?

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29 Comments
  1. Great column this week! I’ve negotiated vacation time for my last two jobs, and even negotiated a vacation payout when I had to change companies due to a contract change. I explained that I could take the last two weeks with the company off and they could pay my vacation out, or they could bill for the last two weeks for my time and pay my vacation out, they chose the latter.

    You are completely correct, vacation is compensation, period.

  2. I think one thing that employers are worried about when it comes to things like this is having to pay out accrued vacation benefits if/when someone leaves. For example, someone negotiates 5 weeks, leaves after a year, and the company has to pay out 5 weeks.

    One way to address this is to offer a reduced payout schedule. Start with, say, 5 weeks. If the person leaves after a year, the company only has to pay out 2 weeks. After 2 years, 3 weeks, etc.

    In terms of dissent in the ranks because of “unequal” benefits, well, it’s management’s job to explain that someone who comes into the company with 25 years experience has earned that vacation.

    I would always suggest staying very, very firm on vacation. If you end up in a situation where you really need the job because of non-compensation factors and the company is playing hard ball, negotiate an accelerated vacation schedule. Say, 2 weeks the first year, 3 the next, and 5 on the 3rd year, or something like that. Or do something like Nick recommends above.

    Finally, vacation *is* compensation. After all, they’re giving you money not to be there.

  3. @J & @Chris: This is why I always come to the comments section! Smart readers with great suggestions! Thanks!

  4. PTO, holidays, and immediate eligibility have been used as an inducement for me (“Like your salary, you are not to discuss…”)

    And it is negotiation. The company can negotiate back of no payout beyond the typical (which works for me).

    Another way to negotiate is 2 weeks PTO and additional time off is not paid…for a higher annual salary. Of cours, in writing, that time will be taken off.

    And to be clear, everything is negotiable. Just look at the deals CEOs come up with.

  5. This one is easy. Most states require employers to pay accrued vacation as compensation when an employee leaves the job. So if government views vacation time as compensation, employers should do the same.

    • Its actually not most states, only 24 states require employers to pay out accrued vacation to employees. One of these states requires a minimum of one year tenure to pay out accrued vacation.
      Employers don’t view vacation as compensation. I’ve quit jobs in my state, with a 2 weeks notice, and been told to “go fish” when I asked about my accrued vacation time.

  6. In Australia, some organisations allow you to buy extra holidays (everyone with a permanent job is entitled to four weeks unless you work public holidays; those employees get five weeks – for example nurses and journalists).

    So yes, annual leave is definitely worth dollars!

  7. I’ve been hiring people for a long time. Many years ago I finally realized that attracting strong talent requires everything to be negotiable. I am competing in an open market for talent. Will I offer less vacation to an inexperienced person? Yes – just like I would offer a lower salary.

    We have many tools to attract talent from a financial perspective. Vacation time, hiring bonuses, paid training, interim reviews, etc. If I find the right person, I am willing to negotiate any of them.

    Ultimately we all have to live within budgets and those dreaded HR grading systems.

    My strategy is to typically make a very strong first offer to show how much I want to hire the person. I want the business side of the relationship to start well and earn some trust from my new hire.

    • @Dave: Like my editor at Penguin used to say, This is just like dating! You’re trying to impress and delight the person you want to join you — not compete against them to get a better deal!

  8. This issue reminds me of one of the several reasons I choose to work at universities. Salaries may not match Amazon, Facebook, or Bloomberg, but depending on grade/seniority I’ve had between 23 and 28 days off per year for vacation, plus sick days, plus personal days. It’s actually difficult for us code monkeys to find time to take all our vacation each year.

  9. It amazes me that no has mentioned the unlimited vacation time policies that firms are now using as an enticement to join them.

    Sounds great doesn’t it.

    The problem comes when you try to use it and there’s always excuse why it’s not the right time. And of course if you leave there is NO accurate accrual of vacation days owed to the employees.

    I never did get that vacation time off and so I left knowing they were not to be trusted.

    Lessons learned….

    • I was thinking the same regarding these newfangled “unlimited” time off policies that are gaining popularity. My former company switched to this model a few years ago I found it especially annoying as I had just qualified for a higher PTO amount due to my years of employment. As one would expect, this unlimited time off system was touted as so much better than the old system of accruing a PTO balance but they weren’t fooling anyone. The reality was that most people I knew took the same amount of time off as before and a handful of people took advantage of it and took more time off than before – in some cases two to three times as much as everyone else of the same (or greater) level of seniority.

      I work in the tech industry and it is getting harder and harder to avoid. I was hired at a new company a few months ago and while I wasn’t thrilled about continuing with the same unlimited system, I was able to negotiate a competitive compensation package that more than made up for it. So as long as you are happy overall I don’t consider it a big deal and so far they have been extremely flexible about allowing people to take time off.

  10. The last time I looked at a new job, health insurance was going to be part of the negotiation. (I would have a retirement package including that, so little value in getting one there).

  11. Even though I have excellent performance in my current position, I am very lucky to get any offer I can get my hands on. My degree, in electrical engineering and accredited by ABET is from a no-name school. While I might be able to command a good salary, I live in an area where people graduate from the UC’s and West Point. That’s in my office. One of our new hires, though 25 years my junior, has a BSEE and an MSME – from well known schools (UC system for BSEE).

    So no, I am not asking for more vacation – that would mean an offer being rescinded. I am not that great of a candidate.

    • “So no, I am not asking for more vacation – that would mean an offer being rescinded. I am not that great of a candidate.”

      You probably ARE that great, but, that aside, it could never hurt to politely inquire, “Is there any flexibility on vacation time?” Especially if it’s only an extra week or so, and you put “unpaid” on the table as a possibility that you would consider.

  12. That’s appalling – the university you attended is often a factor for new graduates, but anyone who has been working for decades? Surely the only thing of interest at that point is your experience.

    I’ve worked with IT graduates from a prestigious Australian university, and none of them could even top up the paper in the printer (okay, this was before computers became ubiquitous in the home). There was so much they still needed to learn.

    With many practical degrees, the amount you learn on the job after graduation far exceeds the knowledge imparted in your degree.

    Lift your head up – I sincerely doubt your employers see you as inferior!

    • Fortunately, my manager likes me, but my company as a whole sees engineers as disposable, so I am often told to keep my mouth shut, and heaven forbid if I went before a customer and told the truth. I have probably overstretched for the job I am in.

      • @ Kevin-
        Don’t let any employers beat you down, my man. Employers come in and out of our lives like waiters in a restaurant. Employers view everyone (well, most everyone) as disposable assets, so this is why I give a good faith effort and integrity, but I don’t trust employers as far as I can spit, and I know they’d throw you, I, and anyone else on here under the bus with no compunction. Those who say otherwise are either mid-wits, or incredibly naïve.
        This is a problem in STEM occupations. Back in the early 80s, I had a friend who was an EE at Minneapolis Honeywell. He graduated from Michigan Tech (a small, but very practical engineering school). He saw this same thing. After 5 years of watching recent graduates (wet behind the ears MEs and EEs come into his department at a considerably higher salary), he jumped ship for General Dynamics in San Diego. I lost track of him after that, so I don’t know how that played out.
        Obviously, you have practical nuts and bolts experience from your years of tenure.
        Maybe someone can help doll up your resume, and you can reinvent yourself? I don’t give unsolicited advice as a rule, but I’ve been where you’re at.
        I’ve been looking for a new job, and while employers are still picky, and are offering chump change wages, they’re a little more held in check (I’d like to say “humbled”, but that’s a stretch)now. I’m seeing less of the hire young and cheap, to hire older and experienced + soft skills. You might even look at doing something else outside of STEM. You don’t sound like some slack jaw to me.

  13. @Antonio – I was just feeling really down when I wrote this – I actually have great coworkers, but the management of my company doesn’t like us evil engineers. Even so, the technology is simply amazing. That said, it is good to know that I can always find another job. I just don’t interview well.

  14. I grew up in a family that didn’t take vacation vacations. I had no idea of what that was. ditto my wife. So vacation time was never a deal breaker for me. I’d take vacation time because mostly I worked in “use it or lose it” environments & I’d usually burn vacation in pieces, a day here a day there to create long weekends.

    Yeah it’s really compensation. If you can negotiate it, go for it. But negotiate with care on infrastructural stuff like this, One-off changes in policies because you’re putting a boss & even HR in what’s usually an untenable and unwinnable position. No one is expendable, and no one is so good that you’ll put on your David suit and take on Goliath. What you’re putting in your slingshot are silver bullets to be used very wisely by those you’re talking with.

    Negotiate for things a hiring manager can control They really can’t control vacation time & to mess with it they have to negotiate with God. So if you want to try to negotiate policy changes you need to vet the hiring manager for guts.

    So much easier to negotiate for what we used to call “comp time” Where a boss can say take off you’ve earned it & I won’t charge it to vacation. OR we agreed that I’ll make up the Delta with comp time until there is no Delta. Company’s don’t like it, officially forbid, but as a manager, I gave it, and received it. So much easier. And it’s something between you & your boss. In the world I worked in, people put in horrendous work weeks, after which you could catch some slack. And as a boss you could tell someone, I don’t want to see you in here next week. The obvious risk is that if that boss hits the road…there goes the agreement.

    • @Don: Nice work managing locally and leaving the higher brass out of it! But I’m sorry to hear you didn’t have vacation vacations when you were a kid.

      “Negotiate for things a hiring manager can control They really can’t control vacation time…”

      I know sometimes they can’t, but leading with a request for more vacation time that they can’t give you opens other doors…and at least you’ve established that “now we can move on to other options…”

      • In truth, I never reached anything past 3 weeks & by that time I moved on.
        The comp time conversations usually arose triggered
        by vacation conversations. Comp time usually was
        a satisfactory alternative…and much much faster to offer & deliver.
        The way it worked in practice for both me (& my peer managers) was to protect vacation time. Time off where you didn’t burn vacation time. That was for a real vacation & if you needed more you usually could tack on some extra days.

    • @Don: Your story about growing up in a family that didn’t take vacations resonated strongly with me because that is how I grew up as well. We never took vacations, not even a day trip locally. My dad worked on construction (non-union) since he was a teenager, and the company for which he worked didn’t give their employees paid vacation time. Many years later, I remember him telling us (my brother and me) that his bosses told him he could take a day off/vacation, but he wouldn’t get paid, so he never took any time off. He didn’t get paid holidays or paid sick time either. It took him 25 years of working there full time before he finally got ONE paid vacation day (and still no paid holidays or paid sick time).

      My mom was home with us when we were small, and when she went back to work, it was only a part time retail job. Even so, after she had been there for a few years, that company offered paid vacation, paid sick time, and paid holidays for their part timers, which was pretty rare, as I remember that other part time retail jobs offered no such benefits to those workers.

      So, like you, it never occurred to me to consider those things when I entered the workforce. Neither of my parents had those benefits when I was growing up, and when I was in college and working, none of my jobs offered them either.

      In one of my first post-college jobs, I worked for a town library, and those benefits were given to all employees who worked 20 hours per week or more–prorated of course, but you got them without having to ask for them. And because it was the public sector, there were schedules and steps to keep everything fair and transparent. You knew what you’d get after x amount of time and when. The private sector was like the wild West–no rules except for what the company decided, and I was so young and naïve that when I was interviewing I never asked about vacation time, sick time, etc. because I never had them in my previous jobs and because my parents didn’t have them either. They couldn’t guide me because it was out of the scope of their experience. I’ve learned more here about what is negotiable and that it is okay to ask (and that I should ask for it, because it is compensation).

      • @Mary Beth. I don’t think I ever got past 3 weeks & I changed companies enough so that the clock reset.

        I didn’t see anyone mention it But when newhires were told they got 2 weeks a year vacation…it was
        accumulated pro rata . That is, it took a year to accumulate that 2 weeks. So if you came aboard & in 6 months you wanted to take a week’s vacation, actually you only had 1/2 a week on the books.
        A point that surprisingly didn’t occur to them when they signed up.
        It was usually shown on a pay stub..but again a
        surprising # of people didn’t look at them unless the $ weren’t right.
        That’s where as I said, comp time was a great way to deal with it. They take their 2 1/2 days & I’d cover the other two.
        And usually a person put in plenty of unpaid OT over the course of their time & I’d never ask them to take the other 2 1/2 days while working to even up the books.

        • @Don: Years after that town/municipal job, I worked for the state. Supposedly, comp. time was available, but it depended upon the largess of your boss, so the majority of us didn’t get it, and yet there was tons of “working late(r)” because there was never enough help, and there was no paid O.T. either. My first three bosses (in less than one year) were great, and they always told me to leave early on a Friday, for example, because they knew I’d stayed late and/or come in early and worked through lunch for the rest of the week. But my fourth boss refused, so I learned with her (and with the guy who succeeded her) that it was always better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission (and to play dumb when warranted). I made sure to email them so they’d see the time stamp on my messages, and then I learned to inform them that I was leaving at x time on Friday, because I had stayed until 9 pm on x days. I learned not to give them the opportunity to tell me “no”, because if I did, they would deny me permission to leave early (take comp. time). Another colleague did ask permission, and was told “no”, despite taking many projects home and working on them at night and on weekends. She was angry at me because she perceived that I was getting away with something. I told her “don’t ask for permission; she gave you all those projects, knowing full well that you’d never be able to complete them during your “regular” work hours. You email her when you’re done, or when you’ve completed a section of it so you have proof, and then when you want to leave early when your daughter has a track meet, you inform her that you’re leaving at x time because you worked on those projects over the weekend, and you don’t let her make the decision.”

          It gets old very fast when you’re putting in that much overtime and you’re not compensated in any way, no overtime pay, no official comp. time, and not so much as a “thanks, I reallly appreciate you doing this”.

          Official comp. time would be okay with me; I know how to play the game, but I would always rather be upfront and honest, and would rather that my employer also treat me the same (compensate me for the extra hours I’ve worked in some way).

  15. As a military retiree, I was accustomed to 30 days paid leave per year. The community college I was interviewing with offered a week or two to new 12-month employees. This might have been okay, except that my parents, in-laws, and step kids lived in five different states–and hubby and I lived in a sixth. (As it happened, the job was actually within commuting distance of my home, but in a seventh state!)

    Anyway, Thanks again to my military retirement (pension), I could afford to take a couple of weeks additional UNPAID leave per year, which the hiring manager agreed to. This stipulation would be included in my contract.

    I was offered the job, and would have accepted, had not a much-better paying opportunity arisen.

    • @Catherine: If buying vacation days is the only option, I think it’s worth it, but it troubles me that an employer would turn it into a transaction. It’s really a management problem: How can you run your operation while giving people a more reasonable amount of paid time off? In your case, it seems a more competitive employer won.

  16. I started my career doing the typical, “start with 2 weeks and every several years you get another week”. Most people never had more than 4 weeks by the time they either retired or left for other reasons (there was also some sort of sick leave policy).

    Then, I joined a company that gave everyone 25 PTO days right off the bat, but it also included sick time. That was great, because I rarely got sick for a day or two at a time. The progression over the years wasn’t very fast, but I was there 20 years and had 35 days by then. I was also lucky over the years I had workload coverage, so I was able to take vacations. I could go to Europe for two weeks, then a week-long cruise, and still have enough days where I could take more vacations if I could or wanted to or plenty of days over the holidays, etc.. Most of the time in the past, you take the two weeks and you’re working practically every day then the rest of the year.

    Then I was among the casualties of many of my coworkers I knew over those 20 years, too much money and worked there too long, and we were all let go (before covid).

    I found another job a year and a half later and it’s just two weeks again, but their solution to it is to let us buy one or two weeks and pay them back the rest of the year through payroll deduction. Not the ideal, but I can still take the vacations like I used to.

  17. I worked for a company with a union that negotiated 2 extra weeks vacation for all employees with 5 years employment to begin January the next year. Since I had 4yrs. and 5 starting in January I was looking forward to a month vacation….. In May it was announced that half the plant was closing and moving to Mexico and the employees with lower seniority, most had 5 years coming up, lost their jobs and the vacation. No wonder the owners were happy to give the extra 2 weeks, they knew that most employees would never get it.

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