Charlotte-based Grant Thornton exec: Unlimited vacation policy sets firm apart

Grant Thornton’s Charlotte offices are in the Charlotte Plaza building. The sixth-largest accounting firm in the U.S., Grant Thornton employs about 300 in the city.
Grant Thornton’s Charlotte offices are in the Charlotte Plaza building. The sixth-largest accounting firm in the U.S., Grant Thornton employs about 300 in the city.

A Grant Thornton executive in Charlotte helped launch the accounting giant’s new unlimited paid time off policy, which the firm hopes will give it a competitive edge.

Grant Thornton, the sixth-largest accounting firm in the U.S., said the policy will take effect Nov. 1 and affect more than 6,900 workers nationwide. In Charlotte, the Chicago-based firm employs about 300 people.

The policy replaces vacation time that capped days off at 30 for the most senior staff, according to the firm.

“Competition for talent within the accounting and consulting industry is high, and Charlotte is no different,” said Lou Ann Hutchison, the firm’s Charlotte-based executive director of people and culture.

For Grant Thornton, competition in Charlotte comes in the form of other major accounting firms with local offices, as well as from Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

The new policy comes as other companies, particularly in the finance and technology sectors, roll out benefits such as enhanced parental leave policies as a way to attract talent in an increasingly competitive market. Microsoft, which employs about 1,100 in Charlotte, recently said it was lengthening its parental leave policy to 12 weeks, fully paid, effective Nov. 1, up from the eight weeks paid it previously offered.

Hutchison, the executive whom Grant Thornton credits with crafting the new “flexible time off” policy, was part of a team that worked directly with top executives, including Charlotte-based Chief Executive Officer Mike McGuire. The team gauged what employees wanted and assessed other firms’ benefits policies.

“It was really challenging to see what other organizations have done, because so few have gone this route,” Hutchison said.

Fewer than 1 percent of U.S. companies offer employees unlimited paid time off, according to a June report from the Society of Human Resource Management. Netflix, Virgin Group and General Electric have made the switch for some employees in the last few years, according to Bloomberg.

Locally, Indian Land, S.C.-based marketing and sales firm Red Ventures offers its approximately 2,300 employees unlimited paid time off, or what it calls a “flexible vacation policy.”

And accounting firm LBA Haynes Strand, which employs 35 at its Matthews office, has had an unlimited paid time off policy in place since 2012, says Brian Harwood, the firm’s marketing coordinator. As is the case at Red Ventures, time-off requests at the firm must be coordinated with and approved by a manager ahead of time.

That’s also the case at Grant Thornton, where Hutchison says managers will have discretion to limit time off during tax season, roughly January through May – an especially busy time for the 94 certified public accountants in the Charlotte office.

“It’s not unusual that during periods of peak demand that it would be less practical to take time off,” Hutchison said.

Steve Graybill, a Charlotte-based consultant at human resources advisory firm Mercer, said in a professional services environment in which employees are committed and generally have unlimited Internet access, they know how to manage their time and workload so can be trusted to take time off when needed.

“In that environment, it may be possible still to operate an effective business for those who don’t abuse the policy,” Graybill said.

Among the so-called Big 4 accounting firms, KPMG offers a maximum of 30 days, Deloitte has a maximum 35 days, and PwC has a maximum of 22 for management level staff, Bloomberg reported recently, citing the companies. Ernst and Young has a minimum of 15 days with additional days added with years of service.

Grant Thornton’s new policy is “representative of the firm’s culture,” Hutchison said. She added that its implementation is meant to enhance the employee experience and increase engagement, productivity and commitment to the workplace.

“It will help us both retain the talent that we’ve got today and also attract the talent that we’re looking for,” Hutchison said.

She added that even in the week since it announced the new policy, the firm has heard from a larger number of interested applicants than usual. Clients have provided “great feedback,” and response among Hutchison’s colleagues in Charlotte and beyond has been “tremendous.”

“You’d think we told everyone they won the lottery,” Hutchison said.

Bloomberg News contributed.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta