What Is Flexible Time Off?

You work hard and life, like work, can be unpredictable. Sometimes you need a day off that doesn’t fit into a neat box of being sick or going on vacation. Maybe you need a day off to attend your kid’s wedding, to volunteer for a day at your child’s elementary school or to stay at home so you can be there for a plumber to unclog your toilet.

Flexible time off is a form of paid time off, or PTO. It’s generally unlimited, a form of PTO that doesn’t need to be earned or accrued. You simply get it when you need it.

Plenty of corporations don’t offer flexible time off. According to a U.S. News survey of 200 large companies in the finance, technology and digital media industries, only 20% offer unlimited PTO. (Of those, 15% are technology companies.) Of the 200 companies surveyed, 39% do not offer unlimited PTO, and 40% do not publish their policy. Therefore, it’s important to inquire about the policy when job searching.

So how does flexible time off work, and is it a benefit you should seek in your next job? Here’s what you should know.

What Is Flexible Time Off?

In a nutshell, this is a company benefit that offers paid time off for employees to do whatever they choose. You can use flexible time off as a sick day, a vacation day, to run errands or even to stay home for a mental health day.

[READ: What Employees Should Know About the Family and Medical Leave Act.]

Flexible Time Off vs. Unlimited Time Off

Flexible time off should be easy to understand, but because you can use it for any reason, it’s easy to overthink things. Can you use it to extend a vacation? Can you go overboard and use it too much? Is it really unlimited paid time off, or is there a limit?

Much of the confusion can be diminished by looking at your employee handbook or talking to your company’s human resources specialist to find out what’s allowed and what isn’t. After all, some flexible time off packages have a certain number of days you can take off and some offer unlimited time.

It’s often better for employees, though, if flex time, PTO or vacation time is not unlimited, says Selena Rezvani, a leadership speaker and consultant based in Philadelphia who often advises human resources departments.

“Unfortunately, research suggests that employees with unlimited vacation actually take fewer days off on average than those with a limited number, due to pressures to not go overboard with the perk,” Rezvani says.

How Flexible Time Off Works

It’s best to consult your employee handbook or talk to your HR manager, but in general, experts say that you’ll want to treat your days away from the office much like more traditional vacation or sick days.

Some businesses require giving a manager a notice in advance before taking PTO.

While such a time off policy is supposed to be flexible, you still want to consider your colleagues, customers, managers, vendors or anyone you work with who will be inconvenienced by your absence. Calling in sick, of course, is one thing, but the best way to use flexible time off is to give colleagues a heads up as early as possible.

Your flexible time off may not be unlimited, so if you have a cap on the total number of days you can take off, that’s all the more reason to plan ahead. You wouldn’t want to take too many days off only to realize that you’ve exhausted your flexible time off by midyear, for example.

[Employee Benefits to Consider During Your Job Search]

How to Find a Company’s PTO Policies

It can be challenging to find a company’s flexible time off policies, and in general, its rules about PTO. That’s because many companies label PTO differently, making it difficult to find in a search engine. For instance, Adobe calls PTO “paid time off” while Zoom refers to unlimited PTO as “My Time Off.” You may have to search for multiple terms to find unlimited PTO and forms of PTO like flexible time off by typing in phrases like, “quality of life” or “time away.”

Making matters even more complicated for somebody who is keen to get a job with flexible time off, many companies don’t even have their PTO policies online. You may have to reach out to the company’s human resource department and inquire about their paid time off policy if you’re really curious.

[READ: Job Outlook for Recent College Graduates.]

Best Practices for Flexible Time Off

Actually take your paid time off. Don’t take PTO every once in a blue moon — take time off fairly regularly. “By doing so, you train your manager to see it as a consistent, natural occurrence rather than a rare event,” Rezvani says.

Don’t overexplain why you’re taking PTO. There’s nothing wrong with offering some details, if you feel comfortable doing so. But know you don’t need to. “Don’t go into detail about your time off or feel the need to explain it, such as ‘I need to take Billy to a dentist,’ or ‘I’m going to a day spa in Arizona.’ Doing this can set a precedent that you’ll share your whereabouts every time you use PTO,” Rezvani says.

Try to schedule your PTO well in advance. If an emergency comes up, that’s one thing. If you know about a vacation or appointment three months in advance and you wait to put in a request for PTO until the last moment, you could end up unpleasantly surprising colleagues.

Understand your company’s flexible time off policy. This will save you money in the long run.

“Employees should understand their company’s PTO policy and make certain it is compliant with state law. Some state laws treat PTO time earned by employees as a legal liability of the employer, meaning it must be either taken by the employee or paid to the employee,” says Bill Lyons, author of “We are HR: The Business Owner’s Definitive Guide to Professional Employer Organizations” and CEO of Lyons HR, based in Florence, Alabama. “Employees should know whether the policy allows them to accumulate a large bank of unused PTO days or if it’s limited to a certain number.”

For instance, Lyons asks, “Does the company have a use-it-or-lose-it policy when it comes to PTO? Employees cannot always assume their employer’s PTO policy is compliant with the laws in their state.”

Thoroughly read about your company’s flexible time off policy because it may not work the way you think. “Some employers may deny PTO during particularly busy times of the year, or if an employee’s absence would create an undue hardship,” Lyons says.

The biggest takeaway is to try to schedule flexible time off as far in advance as you can.

More from U.S. News

13 Companies That Offer Unlimited Vacation Days

20 Jobs That Pay $80K or More

Best Jobs for Work-Life Balance

What Is Flexible Time Off? originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 06/27/22: This story was published at a previous date and has been updated with new information.

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