How to bring up planned vacation time in an interview

Jul 09, 2024

7 mins

How to bring up planned vacation time in an interview
Debbie Garrick

Freelance writer and translator, ex-recruiter

It’s no great secret or surprise that most of us enjoy taking vacations. Time away from work has been proven to improve your health and lower your stress levels, you come back from your time off feeling refreshed and motivated. However, as a job seeker, how do you tell a potential employer that you can’t make it to the next round of interviews because you’re away? Does asking about leave in an interview make you look lazy or less motivated?

Career & HR consultant and founder of the Flourish Careers podcast, Jennifer Smith, shares her tips for finding out what you need to know about paid time off (PTO) and telling a recruiter you’re about to take a break just when things are about to go full speed ahead.

Take time to plan ahead

No one can predict what will happen in the future, but if you’re in the market for a new role, it may be worth taking your vacation before you start applying. While there’s no golden rule on recruitment time, Smith says, “The typical job search takes between 3 and 6 months and that’s depending on a lot of things, but if you’re leaving your company and going to a new company and you want to take a vacation, you have to take that time frame into consideration.”

That said, she notes that hiring cycles can vary, and if we’re talking about popular vacation periods then it’s quite likely a member of the hiring team will be taking PTO at some point, and that may delay the recruitment process too. Sometimes the process can take months, other times there’s a target of a 30-day window to complete all of the interview rounds. So, even with the best planning, it won’t always work out. You may be tied into a specific date because it’s a special anniversary, wedding, or family event and that’s beyond your control. Maybe you weren’t even looking for a new role but an opening at your dream company came up and you felt compelled to apply. Smith says not to worry too much, all is not lost. “Life happens, we know this, it’s a vacation, it’s totally fine.”

Be honest from the beginning

According to Smith, the best time to mention a vacation in an interview is at the earliest opportunity. Most recruitment processes start with a phone screening call where basic requirements are discussed. This is the perfect moment to mention your upcoming PTO. Usually, at some point in the screening call, there will be a discussion about the recruitment process and planned start date and that’s your opportunity to tell them you have a vacation booked. For example, the recruiter will say, we’re looking for someone to start on August 1st and you can then say I’m sorry I’m actually on vacation that week so I need to start a week later. Smith adds that in her experience, “It’s not usually a big deal.”

If the person interviewing you doesn’t bring it up, then make sure you do. Don’t feel so scared to mention it that you end up tagging the information onto the end of your post-interview thank you note – it definitely won’t go down well and they may even wonder what else you’ve been hiding.

Ask the right questions

It’s all very well waiting for a cue to talk about timelines and vacations, but if one isn’t forthcoming, or you know you won’t be able to fully relax and concentrate on the interview while you’re thinking about it, it’s absolutely okay to simply ask the question yourself. Here are three ways to approach it.

  • The start date: Smith suggests going with something along the lines of, “What’s your ideal start date for this role?” When it comes to pushing the start date, Smith says in her experience, “9 times out of 10 they can be flexible, but again, who knows what’s going on in the business. Their number one goal is to make sure the business isn’t impacted. They’re not going to judge you or anything like that, this is a normal thing, people go on vacation, it’s a totally normal thing to have a conversation about.”
  • Flexibility: If you know the start date, you can always frame your question around flexibility. Smith suggests asking how that’s lived out on a day-to-day basis, and whether there are any blackout periods – these are more common in seasonal work and retail but you do find them elsewhere.
  • PTO logistics: It’s okay to want to know how vacations work. Do you have to accrue time off and work for a specific amount of time before being entitled to PTO? Would it be a problem if you need to take leave a few weeks after starting? A popular option these days is for companies to offer unlimited leave, but how does this work in practice? Does anyone actually take it? Will you be frowned upon if you do? You might only be able to touch on the surface of the topic during an interview, so Smith recommends chatting with current employees to get a broader picture of how leave works in practice. You could reach out to company employees on LinkedIn, mutual acquaintances, etc.

Once you’ve opened up the topic or floated the idea of your upcoming PTO, Smith suggests listening carefully to the answers. “That’s your opportunity to determine whether you want to work for this company, too. Maybe the job was interesting but you start to learn more and maybe it’s not going to be a fit.” Not getting the answers you want around PTO might be a dealbreaker and only you can decide.

Accept that your vacation might be a problem

Before you go into full rant mode over how unfair the company is for not seeing past your vacation time to the great fit you’d be for the role, it’s worth considering the reasons behind their decision. Smith explains, “In my experience 9 times out of 10 they can adjust recruitment to allow for a vacation, but if you’re a project manager and you’re interviewing for a project management role and the project that’s kicking off August 1st, and you can’t start until August 30th, that’s going to be a problem because it’s going to have so many downstream implications, especially if it’s a big project.”

Other reasons they might not be able to grant your request include: deadlines, workload, and client commitments, plus the need for overlap with an outgoing member of staff for knowledge transfer, the urgency of filling the role, and even recruitment patterns. Smith shares an example, “As an HR person we did new hire orientation two Mondays a month, so if we had a big class starting on a certain day and you couldn’t start on that one then typically we’d push you to the next one. But if the company only does new hire orientation once a month and you’re not going to get in until the following month that could affect the operational things on the backend that have to happen.” There might also be an issue with team dynamics. If generally, people at the company have to accrue leave and then you come in and after a couple of weeks head out on PTO when no one else was allowed to it could ruffle some feathers. It might not be a dealbreaker, but it will require a conversation.

Watch out for red flags

While there may be valid reasons for denying your request for PTO immediately after starting a new job, or refusing a delayed start date so you can take a vacation, remain vigilant to red flags around the idea of leave. If your interviewer won’t discuss the leave policy openly with you, if unlimited leave exists in theory, but no one takes it in practice, or in Smith’s words, “If people are super vague or elusive about PTO and you feel like you’re not getting a transparent response.” Those could all be red flags and you might be better off stepping out of the recruitment process for the role and enjoying your well-earned rest on vacation before looking for something else. Again, reaching out to current or former employees may help you get a clearer picture, but try and speak to more than one person to get a balanced view.

Solutions & compromise

If after all your discussions, you really want the role and your vacation, but it’s not lining up for whatever reason, Smith suggests trying to find some kind of compromise that works for both sides. That way, you get your leave and they get the employee they need. Here are three possible solutions:

Unpaid leave

Say you get the job offer, but they say they need you to start right away and they can’t give you the time off. Smith suggests saying something like: “Hey, I’ve had this vacation planned for a really long time, but I’m super excited to work with you guys so I’m going to come in and work for two weeks and then I’m going to take a week unpaid, thank you so much for accommodating that.”

Work while you’re away

In an ideal world, you want to disconnect and forget all about work on holiday, but if you want to have your cake and eat it too, you need to be able to compromise. Smith isn’t suggesting you remain online during your vacation but suggests offering to dial in for team meetings or check messages once a day in the evening to ensure no critical tasks are missed, or depending on your availability and the reason for the leave you may work a few hours each day remotely at a time that suits you.

Be flexible

It might be that although you haven’t yet booked anything you’ve loosely planned a trip, for example, it’s an important wedding anniversary and you’d planned to go away, Smooth suggests trying something like this, “Hey, it’s our 10th wedding anniversary soon and we really wanted to take a week and do something. I know I’m just starting, so I can be flexible with the dates. Is this something we can work on together?” Make sure you do this with some advance notice so that your new employer can plan around it and cover any gaps.

Could your vacation cost you the job?

Smith says in most scenarios, having some vacation planned, though not ideal, probably isn’t a deal breaker. If the company can hold off on the start date for a week or two, then it will all be okay. She explains that the only time it might make a difference is if two people were equally strong on all other aspects. The person not taking a planned vacation would have the edge.

She goes on to say, “I think it’s important, especially when you’re building a relationship [with a future employer], when you’re going to work somewhere, just emphasize your commitment to fulfilling your responsibilities and contributing to the success of the company. You don’t want to come across as if you’re going to be on vacation every two weeks. Just let them know ‘Hey, the timing of this didn’t fully work out as I’d hoped, but I want you to know I’m fully committed to getting this job done’. Just be professional and positive about it.” It’s never a black-and-white situation, most people are pretty reasonable and it’s all part of a discussion. As long as the conversation is respectful and constructive, there’s usually a way to find a solution without giving up your planned vacation.

Photo: Thomas Descamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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