Netflix loosens rules on managers' vacations

April 11, 2007|By Ryan Blitstein | Ryan Blitstein,San Jose Mercury News

When it comes to vacation, Net — When it comes to vacation, Net- flix has a simple policy: Take as much as you'd like. Just make sure your work is done.

Employees at the online movie retailer often leave for three, four, five weeks at a time and never clock in or out. Vacation limits and face-time requirements, said Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings, are "a relic of the industrial age."

"The worst thing is for a manager to come in and tell me: `Let's give Susie a huge raise because she's always in the office.' What do I care? I want managers to come to me and say: `Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done' - not because she's chained to her desk."

Across America, executives are searching for ways to keep experienced baby boomers at their companies and attract younger workers, many of whom are used to controlling which songs they listen to and where they get their news.

Los Gatos, Calif.-based Netflix's time-off rules - or lack thereof - are part of a broad culture of employee autonomy instilled in the company when Hastings founded it a decade ago. The executives trust staffers to make their own decisions on everything - from whether to bring their dog to the office to how much of their salary they want in cash and how much in stock options. Workers are treated, as Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord likes to say, as adults.

"We want our employees to have great freedom - freedom to be brilliant or freedom to make mistakes," Hastings said.

That might sound like executive blather, but to hear employees tell it, on the way to almost $1 billion in sales last year, Netflix has made good on its promises to workers.

"There's an inverse relationship between how often a company talks about its values and how much those values are actually reflected in the workplace," said Heather McIlhany, a Netflix online marketing manager who took a three-week vacation to South Africa in November, just nine months after joining the company. "At Netflix, ... the freedom is inherent in how we work," McIlhany said.

Though cultural change is hard to measure, some of America's largest businesses are experimenting with unconventional time off rules and benefits. New Brunswick, N.J., health-care giant Johnson & Johnson has an ever-expanding stable of work-life balance programs, including an extra week's paid vacation for new moms and dads, and for parents adopting.

"Companies are trying to give people more responsibility, more freedom and more flexibility," said Carol Sladek, a principal at Lincolnshire, Ill., human resources consulting firm Hewitt Associates. "If you have more control, your life feels better."

To be sure, Netflix's time-off policy is rare and applies only to its 300-plus salaried workers, not the much larger hourly work force. Experts said it's hard to imagine a bigger Fortune 500 company adopting the idea. As one Yahoo spokeswoman scoffed: "We're a grown-up company, with over 12,000 employees, and you have to have some semblance of process and procedure."

But even in perk-heavy Silicon Valley, what's happening inside Netflix's Tuscan villa-style headquarters might be unprecedented.

American workers get a median of 10 vacation days after one year on the job and 15 days after five years of work, according to Hewitt. One in three Americans doesn't use all their vacation, and barely one in 10 takes a break for two weeks straight, according to the nonprofit research firm Families and Work Institute. But at Netflix, it's estimated that most employees take off about 25 to 30 days a year, using the time to stay at home with the kids, travel to Cambodia, or visit relatives in India. It's "estimated" because Net- flix does not record vacation time, said McCord.

"I've never terminated a salaried employee for being tardy or being absent," McCord said. "There have been issues when people didn't come to work - but the issue is the work, it's not the time off."

Among a half-dozen corporate HR experts nationwide, none could name a company with such a widespread and successful unlimited vacation policy. Microsoft tried with executives in the 1990s, but few managers used more than a few weeks.

"We don't think of it as a perk," said John Ciancutti, a Netflix director of engineering who is traveling for several weeks in the Galapagos Islands with his mother this spring. "It's just emblematic of the way we work here."

The company's culture is one reason McCord believes Netflix avoided the post-public offering exodus that troubles many technology companies. Five years after the IPO in 2002, six of its seven top executives are still with Netflix.

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