Sir Richard Branson announced recently that Virgin Group employees will get unlimited vacation time:

(From his blog:) It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business – or, for that matter, their careers!

Sounds incredible, right?

I worked at a start-up company that had the same “policy” (or in Branson’s words, the “policy-that-isn’t”). When I recruited new employees, their eyes lit up at the potential of being treated like an adult, spending time with their families, and being in a seemingly-relaxed work culture.

Except it wasn’t.

If you wanted to take vacation time (ESPECIALLY more than once per year), your request was not always granted, and even if it were allowed, you often paid a price. Not for a random Friday off here or there, that seemed fine; it was the week-long vacations that raised eyebrows and indicated that the employee might not be committed to work.

“We are a work-hard, play-hard culture,” the managers would often say. But what they really meant was that it was a work-hard, toss-a-ball-against-the-wall-while-you’re-whiteboarding-and-and-working-long-hours culture. Why would you want to be anywhere but here, with all these exciting things going on? Why would you miss a minute?  What kind of person leaves at 5:30 each night and goes to the Cape for a week?

What would it take for you to feel “one hundred percent comfortable” that you’re “up to date on every project?”… does such a thing even exist?  It’s a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to project a positive culture, while making it hard for people to prove that they “deserve” time off.

So, if you’re in an interview and the interviewer dangles the “unlimited vacation” carrot in front of you, think twice about what that might say about the company culture – unless you like working long hours, or you dread Cape traffic more than anything.