Working in tech: the myth of “unlimited PTO”

Historically in the United States, the concept of “paid time off” has been a controversial one. The U.S. is the only industrialized Western nation to have zero national policy around paid parental leave in the world; some companies, some of which I have called customers, who are large multi-national companies with thousands of employees, have zero recognition for parental leave at their U.S. locations, and so when employees become new parents, if they choose to take time off, it’s deducted from their paid time off (PTO) allotment. We’re also the only Western country that does not require payment for time not worked, such as vacation leave, sick leave, or federally recognized holidays. These benefits are considered matters of agreement between an employer and an employee.

So it would appear that the U.S. values capitalism, productivity, and work, work, work as its number one priority. And it values human life or human health very little to not at all (we will not discuss healthcare in this post, though, as that is its own disgusting can of worms). It’s a wonder why people want to continue living here sometimes, self included.

But that idea inside, when you are living in a country that has egregious laws, or lack of laws, around paid time off, it would initially seem to be a sort of dream when you are finally employed by a company that actually has what is known as an “unlimited PTO policy.” The average American company across industries only offers around 10 days of PTO per year, so… unlimited? WHAT A DREAM LIFE, right?

Perhaps initially, it may seem that way. That’s why so many tech companies list it as a “benefit” or “perk” when you visit their Careers page or see one of their job listings on sites like LinkedIn. That’s why when recruiters do phone screens with potential candidates, it’s one of the very first perks they note on their calls. But in reality, it’s much more nuanced than this. No, just because you work at a company that has unlimited PTO does not mean you can just take off for half the year, a quarter of the year, or even a full month. Nope. They expect that you will still work as you would normally work as if there were a set number of days you could take off per year.

As an HR professional once told me pointedly, “‘Unlimited PTO’ is not a benefit to the employee; it’s a benefit to the company,” she said. What this means is: the day you decide you want to leave your company (or said company fires/lays you off), the company will be required to pay out zero accrued PTO days because you didn’t accrue anything; there’s an “unlimited” policy, remember? The company wants to “owe” its employees as little as possible, and this is their way of getting there while also at the same time appearing to do something that is beneficial and “perk” like for its employees. Yet, hmmmm. Despite having an “unlimited” policy, pretty much all companies that have this policy in place still require you to “log” PTO so that it’s still be tracked (to potentially be used against you later for baseless reasons). Fun, right?

“So then, how much PTO are you expecting I actually take with this policy?” I responded back to this HR professional.

She smiled. When HR professionals smile, you should really never trust them. Every time they smile, they are just lapping up their perceived power in the conversation. “You should take however many days you would have taken if you were able to accrue PTO at your previous company.”

Here is where I smiled back. “Well, it’s funny you say that because the last time I actually accrued PTO, I had 23 PTO days, 4 summer days, plus the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day off,” I said to her. “So in other words, here, do you suggest I continue taking 31 days off?”

Her smile faded. She paused, wrinkled her brow, unsure of how to respond. Frankly, I don’t remember what her response was to that in the end because it was so plainly insipid. But I did remember to tell her at some point of this conversation, “If the stance of HR at this organization is that ‘unlimited PTO’ is a benefit to the company and not to its employees, I would suggest that you stop having our recruiters talk so enthusiastically about it during their phone screens with prospective candidates, and also to remove it from our Careers page as a listed perk.”

That was when I made it clear to our HR professional that I wasn’t going to take bullshit explanations. It was also probably when they decided to wage a form of war against me. At the end of the day, stupidity and hypocrisy need to be called out, and I don’t really care if they enjoy it or not.

When the person who is supposed to give you the DL ends up being the unpaid PR person

I had a call scheduled this morning to chat with Chris’s friend who works at a company that I’m interested in. He’s been friends with her for a few years, but I’d never met her before since he likes to keep separate parts of his life separate, and there was really no reason for me to meet this person, so I never really cared to ask. So I called her to get a sense of what the company was like and how she liked it, and it was clear from the beginning of the call that she really loved working there. She talked about the company leadership, the culture, the nature of her work, and she gushed endlessly about how great it was. It got to a point where the entire conversation just seemed like the type of conversation I’d have with the company’s HR or recruiting team; she said glowing, nearly-canned positive things about the company like “great work-life balance,” “everyone is so amazing here,” and “senior leadership is really accessible, their ‘door’ is always open for you; the only blocker to developing a relationship with them is yourself.” I nearly vomited in my mouth a little when she said that last part. How often have I heard that from recruiting teams in the past, or people who truly drink the kool-aid.

While I appreciated the time she spent to chat with me, I didn’t really appreciate the PR-spin on her perspective; it came off as too enthusiastic, a bit disingenuous, and well, not authentic. Luckily for me, I have other contacts I can speak with at the company through personal connections, so I can get a more well rounded perspective, but it just struck me as odd that she was technically supposed to be a personal connection through Chris, but she gave me a not-very-personal perspective of the company.

My mom always says that the older you get, the wiser you get. I actually don’t really agree with this. The older I have gotten, the more confused I have gotten about why and how people are so twisted and weird.

2009 layoff reflection

In 2009, when I got laid off, my dad cutely asked me, “Well, will they rehire you later?” When my dad used to work at a glass company, they would occasionally go through temporary layoffs due to lack of services requested. When the requests for glass installations decreased, team members would get let go, and when the requests increased, they’d get called back. So my dad thought that maybe this would how it would work in the white-collared world. Nope, that’s not how it works. Once you get laid off, you’re laid off. Though I have heard of some snafus where some individuals who were laid off were requested to come back months later, that is pretty rare to non-existent.

My mom tried to be comforting, but she was a total wreck. She thought she was thinking about how I was feeling and being sympathetic. But from what I could see, all she felt was shame for herself to have to say that she had an unemployed daughter. She sent me a hundred bucks to make me feel better. But that’s kind of where the comforting ended. She insisted many times, at varying volumes, that I move home (yeah, I would have rather dropped dead). She insisted that the recession was so bad “because of that Black man in the White House!” that I would not find another job in New York, so I should just give up. She also didn’t want me socializing with anyone, saying that everyone would look down on me for not having a job. She didn’t even want me to go to my cousin’s wedding the next month (I still went). She made me feel lesser than for not having a job. I obviously moved on, but I never forgot how she made me feel worse about myself based on no wrongdoing of my own.

That’s the thing, though. That type of thinking is not necessarily unique to my mom; as Americans, it’s nearly ingrained in us that our jobs define us. That’s why most of us are assholes, and when we in America meet people for the first time, we immediately ask after exchanging names, “What do you do (for a living)?” Why? Because our (paid) work defines us. Because our paid work makes us valuable to society. Our paid work contributes to our national GDP, our sense of self-worth, our sense of being. Our salaries say to us, “this is the dollar amount you are worth as a human being.” But… isn’t that sad… and just… wrong? How can your kindness be measured? How does your generosity factor in? What happens to all the good deeds you’ve done so selflessly? Do they just get completed and then taken for granted and forgotten?

I would love to exist in a society that did not measure people based on their salaries and net worths, to be viewed as a contributor of society based on my passions and strengths as a person. But that is a utopia and so far from what the United States would ever be — a country that devalues so much that is important about human beings.

When you’re in the middle of a recession for the second time

When I first started full time work after graduating from college, I graduated into a recession. Just four months after starting at my new job at a SaaS company, the company had a layoff, which resulted in a number of my colleagues getting let go. Given my connections to the HQ, I knew a second layoff would also happen soon after. All signs pointed to it — employees not getting their bonuses, being forced to take X number of days off before the end of the year. The writing was on the wall. I started applying for new jobs because I knew I’d get laid off — last ones in are usually the first ones out. I even packed up the belongings on my desk a few weeks before the second layoff happened. That made it easier for me to make a quick escape when I finally did get laid off; no need for a big show of packing up my desk. I spent three months being unemployed, which ended in two full-time job offers and one full-time contractor offer. It was not a fun time at all, but in the end, I learned to never be that loyal to any company because at the end of the day, every single one of us would always be discardable. Very little protects you when you get fired or laid off; you’re powerless as an individual.

So when I realized the second recession of my adult life was coming, I imagined getting laid off again. I’m in a very different place in my life now and am way more comfortable then I was in 2009, but you know what? No one wants to involuntarily leave their job. No one ever wakes up in the morning and says, “I’d love to get laid off today!’ It’s demoralizing. It’s a huge ego hit. It is especially hurtful when you know that you’ve been the top performer on your team, but even that does not make you immune from a layoff. But it’s a further reminder that the working world is full of politics, gossip, backstabbing, and the game of favorites. And if you are not a favorite, your employment is always at risk.

People like me don’t fare so well in that schema because I don’t like to suck up, and no one would ever, ever label me a kiss-ass. I just want to be who I am and I will stand for what I believe in, and I won’t kowtow to people because of their positions and their standings as “favorites” among the CXO team.

If you aren’t going to be true to yourself, then who are you going to be true to?

Juneteenth

Like many other tech companies who are attempting to be seen as “woke” and progressive during this period of heightened awareness of racial injustice, my company granted today, June 19th, or “Juneteenth” off as a holiday to allow employees to take time for themselves to educate themselves about this day in history. Juneteenth, rarely taught in schools, is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were now free. However, the issue here is that this news came to Texas 2.5 years AFTER then President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which had become official on January 1, 1963 (funnily enough, this is basically like how the country is run today; just because something becomes national “law” does not mean individual states instantly start enforcing these laws).

We had a series of programming lead by our Diversity and Inclusion Group (DIG) team along with our Optimizely.org rep. I joined one of the early sessions on the history of Juneteenth and also spent the day exploring the much quieter Manhattan Chinatown, buying different foods I’ve missed out on over these last few months, exploring bakeries and noodle/tofu shops that I’ve been wanting to buy from, and just wandering the streets to get a sense of what life is like now given so many businesses are either still temporarily closed, or have even permanently closed during this COVID-19 shelter-in-place period.

Throughout the day, I continued listening to the White Fragility book and lamented the fact that this book, like so many books, movies, articles that are so informative and enlightening, will likely never be received and consumed by those who need this information the most. It’s sad to think that even when people have willingly participated in anti-racism training with the author herself, Robin DiAngelo, that they will get angry when their own racism is called out in incidents they themselves chose to willingly share, and that they would then be a live example of white fragility in a classroom led by the White Fragility author. I am sure that similarly, many of my colleagues who so severely suffer from white fragility refused or declined to participate in our company’s Juneteenth events, likely because they are so consumed by their own feelings of *potentially* getting hurt in a situation where their hurt doesn’t even matter.

Working in tech in America

As a female person of color who has been working in digital marketing and in tech for the last 12 years, I can say that unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of not thinking about race. I have to think about it pretty much every single day. I am oftentimes the only woman in a meeting, the only person of color, or in endless cases, the only person of color AND the only woman in the room. So, I am constantly asking myself, how are people going to perceive me and my actions as an Asian female here? I know I am the minority; the last time a colleague and I manually checked our stats, about 15% of the entire go-to-market organization were people of color. Are they going to immediately assume I fall into the “model minority” stereotype, that I’ll be quiet, passive, never speak my mind, simply take orders and carry them out? Needless to say, I do not fit that stereotype at all, and I know for a fact that my failure to conform to a racist stereotype has brushed a lot of individuals along my career path the wrong way. Here is just a handful of incidents that have happened to me personally, but does not include all of them: 

  1. I have repeatedly voiced constructive feedback about my team to a former VP. Though I know the feedback I gave was shared by a number of colleagues, including several white colleagues who spoke to this leader, I was the only one out of all of us who was told that she is “one of the most negative people on this team. For your career growth, I suggest that in the future, you consider how you ‘package’ feedback.” Now, what makes me different from all the others in this group? 
  2. I was once told that I was “rude,” “unprofessional,” and spoke with a “demeaning tone” when asking a colleague who was speaking far above normal office speaking volume to please lower her voice. She had antagonized a number of colleagues sitting around us to the point where most of us did not feel comfortable being around her or sitting at our assigned desks. Yet when a white male colleague literally yelled across the floor of the NYC office, on multiple occasions, “Yo, <employee name>! LOWER YOUR VOICE!”, everyone merely laughed and took him as the joker of the office. Nothing was reported in that incident. When I mentioned this to our HR rep, she responded to me, “Well, I wasn’t there,” and shrugged. 
  3. I, along with another Asian colleague in New York City, have been told repeatedly by a colleague, in an attempt to be “woke”/ aware, “I can tell the difference between Asians.” 
  4. On more occasions than I can count, I’ve been asked by white colleagues, “Where are you really from?” after telling them that I was born and raised in San Francisco (to be clear, this is a microaggression that implies that I am a perpetual foreigner and not truly American). 
  5. I’ve repeatedly been mistaken for at least half a dozen different Asian female colleagues across offices, via Slack, e-mail, and in person.
    1. One European employee gaslighted me, insisting I had been in San Francisco in April/May 2018 when he had actually confused me for another Asian female colleague. I told him that I hadn’t been to San Francisco since kick-off that year, and I would obviously know when I traveled from NY to SF. He kept insisting I was wrong and that I was in his meetings in SF that week. 
    2. These mistakes have also been made by members of our CXO team.

How do I know that any of the above was actually racist or prejudiced? In the day and time we currently live in, all of the above would be quite hard to prove as “racist.” And if I were white, I’d have the luxury of never even thinking for a second it could be about my race because I would be the majority group. The majority group is the default group, the “normal” group to which everything else is compared. But that’s the thing: You don’t need to yell racial slurs to be racist. You don’t need to be a member of the KKK to be racist. You could easily donate to progressive causes and vote for Democrats and still be racist. The Amy Cooper/Christian Cooper situation was a classic case of white privilege and racism in action, as her actions silently said, “Your position in society does not allow you to talk to me like that. Now, you’ll be punished for not knowing your place.” This was all because she couldn’t tolerate a black male birder calling her out on breaking the law.

It doesn’t seem to matter where you go, what you do, or what industry you choose. Racism is pervasive everywhere. And the worst part is: the people you think will help you, the ones whose jobs are actually to help you (hello, human resources teams, I’m looking right at you), make the situations worse. They gaslight you. They question you to death until you question your own sanity and sensitivity. They try to make you “consider other viewpoints.” They try to make it NOT about race. BUT IT IS ABOUT RACE. It IS about sex. The white moderate is the issue here. The people who think they are helping are NOT helping. They are making the situation worse and perpetuating the status quo, which is to continually oppress people of color and under-represented groups in a white male-dominated society.

“I don’t understand why they are protesting. The cop got arrested.”

I was on a Zoom call with two colleagues today, and it began with a discussion about the protesting across the U.S. My male colleague said, “I don’t understand why they are protesting. The cop got arrested.”

My female colleague and I looked at each other. We had to address this in the most civil way possible.

Me: Getting arrested is not enough. It was third degree murder when it should have been 1st degree. And it’s not a guarantee he will get convicted. That doesn’t even include the other three cops involved. Then there’s Ahmaud Arbery getting chased down, shot and killed, and us finding out about it two months later? What is that about? And then there’s the long history of black men unarmed getting shot by the police that has been going on for hundreds of years. How can you answer for any of that?

My female colleague: Well, I have a black fiance who I’m going to be marrying, and if we procreate, that means… I believe, that I will have black babies. So, I have a black future husband and black future babies, so I am personally invested in solving this ongoing issue.

My male colleague’s face was hard to read. He looked a bit defeated. He simply responded with, “Well, I hope justice is served.”

I hope it is, too, but I also wish that he would acknowledge that his lack of understanding is 100 percent his fault. Who knows if anything that we said got through to him. It’s not up to other people to educate him, particularly people of color. It’s his own personal failing as a human being to not seek out resources, whether that’s a GOOGLE SEARCH, news articles, blogs, opinion pieces, books, documentaries, movies, NETFLIX or HBO. The digital world we live in makes it so damn easy to find information, but the key part of finding the information is to SEEK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF. And if you choose to whine and whinge, insist that you “just don’t understand,” then you are part of the problem and will only exacerbate the oppression.

I’m sure he got off the Zoom call and ran to his wife, complaining that “My liberal colleagues ganged up on me!” Well, I’m not going to apologize for hurting his white fragile feelings because this is beyond politics. This is a human rights issue, and if you do not care, you are not human. Clean and simple.

“Are you taking any time off?”

A colleague and I were chatting about life in general during an age of the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. She asked if I was planning to still take time off despite the fact that my three trips between May and July have officially been cancelled.

“Wedding cancelled in May, Ecuador trip that I’d be leaving for tomorrow is not happening, and my Sri Lanka trip at the end of June/early July just got cancelled and refunded,” I said to her. “If I’m not traveling, what exactly would I be taking time off for?”

“You can go to the park!” she suggested. “Read a book! Exercise more!”

I sulked further. “I go to the park for a walk nearly every single day when the weather is good since I live two blocks away. I’ve read 11 books this year already when my usual goal is 12 books per year. And I exercise every morning before work in my bedroom! I’m doing everything! I’m even doing all these cooking projects I kept adding to my list but never getting to!”

“WHY ARE YOU SO PRODUCTIVE?” she exclaimed. “I do nothing outside of work on the weekdays, and my only activities are on the weekends!”

I’ve always been obsessed with productivity and efficiency. It’s a really good and a really bad thing. I obsessively look at the time no matter what I am doing. So when quarantine first began, I told myself that I had to make the most of all this anti-social, no travel, no life-outside-of-the-home time. I wanted to maximize everything I possibly could: the podcasts to listen to, books to read, lists to organize, nooks and crannies to clean in the apartment, videos to edit for my channel, cooking projects to test out and film, increase my social media presence for YMF. All the things I could do within the apartment to be efficient and productive are all the things I immediately thought about as lockdown began.

But all of that seems exhausting sometimes. Sure, I’m happier because I’ve done a lot of these things, such as edit a ton more videos than I would have if COVID-19 had not hit, or read a lot of amazing books that had me completely hooked, but everything just seems so mundane when you have nothing tangible to look forward to, whether that’s a restaurant to try out, an oldie to go back to, or a new destination to explore.

Working from home… forever?

Many companies, from tech companies to major financial firms, have been making announcements in the last week about becoming more flexible and allowing employees to work from home even after shelter-in-place orders have been rolled back. Twitter has announced they will allow employees to work from home forever… if they choose to do so. Slack says they won’t have employees come back to the office until at earliest, September. The idea behind this is to ensure that employees feel safe and can take control of their own health. It’s also because a lot of companies, even those who were vocally adamant against employees working from home, have realized that productivity actually has declined with mandated work from home in light of COVID-19. In fact, and much to my own personal disgust, people are actually working more hours because they are having a hard time drawing a line between “work time” and “home/personal time.”

There are a lot of problems that this presents, as attractive as this might initially sound. What happens to office real estate? What happens to neighborhood coffee shops, restaurants, takeout spots, and other businesses that would rely on its usual loyal business workers to patronize them during the work week, or restaurants who rely on team business power lunches? In addition to that, people will be even more sedentary than they usually are, so what does that mean? Obesity will increase as physical activity decreases? Even with my daily walks and my morning workouts on my mat every weekday, I know for a fact that I am moving a lot less in terms of steps.

Coffee shops will close. Beloved restaurants and holes-in-the-walls will go under and shutter. Neighborhoods known for their “charm” will… lose their charm. Wall Street will become a ghost town.

Now, more than ever, do I believe we are truly living in a dystopia.

Numb hands

The last few mornings, I’ve been waking up with my hands feeling numb. They’ve been sore the last week, likely because I’ve been spending more time video editing, which means more time at the computer on top of already being on a computer most of the weekdays for work. The upside of COVID-19 quarantine is that I’ve been spending more time shooting cooking videos and editing. The downside of the quarantine, other than the obvious, is that the more editing I do, the more time I spend on a computer, which means the more my hands and wrists get sore and angry at me for abusing them. I did a quick Google search for “waking up with hands numb” and found that most of the results I got were around early onset carpel tunnel symptoms.

That’s exactly what I need to hear. Granted, I’ve been able to handle wrist and hand pain from computer use with my dyna-flex power ball and stretching, so it’s been manageable for all these years in front of a computer. But I hadn’t needed to use the power ball in months now. More physical therapy is needed for my body and me during shelter-in-place.