Negotiate PTO Like a Pro: 3 Expert Tips to Know

negotiate pto like a pro

As much as we all love to work, there is nothing quite like getting paid to take a little break. Paid time off (PTO) (aka vacation time) is a key benefit for W2 employees at most companies, and in this post we’ll discuss how to get more of it. Our goal here is to teach you to negotiate more vacation time – a.k.a. how to negotiate PTO like a pro.

An important backdrop for this topic is to understand that, like most things in a negotiation, your amount of PTO is rarely set in stone. If you’re negotiating a job offer, you might hear companies make the argument that PTO policies are standard across the board – that everyone gets the same amount.

While it may be true that a company has a templatized “out of the box” PTO agreement, this doesn’t mean it cannot be modified. We’ve negotiated tons of employment contracts over the past decade. One thing we’ve learned: If you’re a competitive candidate applying for an important role, anything is up for negotiation. In fact, it’s in a company’s best interest to listen and accommodate the specific needs of promising candidates (for more on this and how to manage 10x-level talent, check out our upcoming book, Game Changer).

With this understanding that you often have a path to negotiating more PTO, we hope the expert tips in this post serve to help your efforts.

Unlimited Vacation Policy: What’s Left to Negotiate?

A recent trend, especially in the tech industry, is the concept of unlimited vacation time policies. If you find yourself at a company that offers this, what’s left to negotiate? For some, this might seem like the best case scenario when it comes to PTO.

Unlimited PTO is most commonly a company-wide policy that leaves nothing to be negotiated. But if you’re doing proper diligence, there are still questions to be asked regarding a policy like this. This may not be negotiation per se, but it’s just as important.

Companies often enact this policy because they expect employees to hold themselves accountable. In other words, if you’re someone who “abuses” the PTO policy, chances are you’ll be seen as unfit to work at the company. Netflix first popularized this approach, to positive results.

Your job as a candidate is to understand how unlimited PTO plays out in practice. How does it impact company culture? Are people afraid to take too much time off? What does it actually mean to use the policy, let alone abuse it? An unlimited PTO policy is only as good as the company’s willingness to embrace it. 

While it might be difficult to figure this out before starting, you can ask qualifying questions to get an idea. For example: “Unlimited vacation sounds great, but what do most employees view as a reasonable amount to take off in a year?” How much vacation do people in the C-suite take? These questions are an attempt to uncover the culture which supersedes the policy.

Additional PTO Negotiation Homework

In a similar vein, your job as a candidate is to learn about the entire PTO policy. For example, what if you don’t use all of your hours? Some companies let unused PTO hours rollover into the next year. Others do not. Some might pay you in exchange for the hours you don’t use.

Certain employees prefer different procedures here, but the last thing you want is to disagree with the company policy once it’s too late. As it relates to your negotiation, there may be an opportunity to negotiate specific terms around what happens with potentially unused hours. At the very least, you should be informed on what will happen before you sign.

3 Expert Tips for How to Negotiate PTO

For the rest of us who aren’t navigating the world of unlimited vacation, a handful of best practices exist on how to negotiate PTO and get more of it in your employment deal.

1. Leverage What You Can

We’ve written before about the many ways to gain leverage in a job offer negotiation. This topic can be discussed in a general sense, or in a more detailed context. Let’s look at leverage as it relates to PTO. 

Reference Other Offers on the Table

One of the golden rules of negotiation leverage is to reference other offers on the table. If you’re talking to multiple companies, you can mix and match aspects of those deals to explain why you think you should get more PTO than currently offered.

In practice, this is pretty simple. Say company A offers you 15 days PTO and company B offers 25. By telling company A that you have 25 days PTO on the table from another company and asking if they would match it, you’re giving them a chance to level up, or at least improve their offer. At the end of the day, it’s fair for you to say the disparity between the two offers is a potential dealbreaker.

Describe Current or Previous Expectations

Another way to gain leverage is to discuss previous PTO agreements you’ve had at prior jobs. Granted, this isn’t the strongest negotiation point because what one company offered you in the past might be viewed as unimportant.

But if you are acclimated to a certain vacation routine or time away from work, there could be an angle here. Not to mention, you’re allowed to have existing expectations, and you should always strive to make steps forward when jumping to a new job. If 20 days of PTO is a requirement for you, it’s okay to be unforgiving in seeking that accommodation.

Point Out Lacking Aspects of the Deal

If you’ve read our content before, you know we are firm believers in the fact that any job offer is multifaceted. We often hyperfocus on salary, but there exist dozens of other things to negotiate.

What your offer lacks in one area might be reason to ask for extra PTO. Maybe your offer includes no equity agreement, or no bonus agreement. To make up for these missing terms, one angle is to ask for more PTO as a compensatory measure. Or conversely, if they can’t come up with the PTO you’re seeking, they can provide something in lieu of it. 

2. Look at the Bigger Picture for All “Time” Related Terms

In most job offer negotiations, employers make a handful of concessions in the “time” family – remote time, flex time, vacation time (aka PTO).

As you might know, remote time is the freedom to choose where you work, and flex time is the freedom to choose when you work. Both are worthwhile negotiation topics, and both can tie back into your PTO negotiation discussions.

We can offer a lot of hypotheticals here, but the main point is to look beyond just PTO to craft the best situation for yourself. Here are some examples:

  • You negotiate more flex time into your deal so you can work unconventional hours the days before and after you take paid time off to maximize your vacations.
  • You negotiate remote work into your deal so you can go on long trips and only use PTO for half of the days you’re gone.
  • Your offer includes the freedom to work remotely but you negotiate that out of your offer in exchange for some extra PTO.

Some of these negotiation hypotheticals might be more viable than others, but the strategy behind them remains consistent. Sometimes the best move is to look at the adjacent possible. You might be limited in your PTO negotiation leverage, but that doesn’t mean similar items are off the table too.

3. Connect the Dots for the Employer

We’ve already covered a handful of ways to justify your request for more PTO. But it’s important to really hit this one home. Always enter your negotiation prepared, and if you anticipate asking for more PTO, have your justification ready.

Time away from work is a legitimate need, and if your work history demonstrates a strong work ethic, your request for more PTO shouldn’t suggest a lack of drive. But again, you’ll be expected to have reasons for making the request. 

For example, one legitimate reason includes seasonal work cycles. If you’re in an industry that has predictable “up” months and “down” months, you might work crazy hours, intermittently. The down months might be time to exercise your PTO, and if you’re fresh off a month of 16 hour days, an extended break might be warranted.

Similarly, any high stress, long hours job might need to be complemented by increased PTO. Many successful people require extended time off after working at max capacity. If you’re one of those people, and can deliver on giving extended periods of working at 110%, additional PTO might be justified.

Everyone needs breaks, and tired, burnt out employees are unproductive employees.

Final Thoughts on PTO Negotiations

As with any negotiation topic, you will have to use discretion in figuring out the best path for your own unique situation. We are the first to admit that with some companies, various bits of advice in this post may be irrelevant. We cannot always speak to some of these negotiation strategies in a blanket sense that works for everyone.

With that said, we hope you take away at least one new idea from this post to help you negotiate more PTO into your next employment deal. For those with specific questions, or a desire to get additional perspective, feel free to reach out and chat about your current or upcoming negotiation. Best of luck!