In the light of the decision by Goldman Sachs to allow unlimited holiday for senior executives and partners only, Gary Cattermole, looks at the knock-on effect of perceived unfairness on the levels of engagement among a workforce.

“As we continue to take care of our people at every stage of their careers and focus on the experience of our partners and managing directors, we are pleased to announce enhancements and changes to our global vacation programme designed to further support time off to rest and recharge,” Goldman Sachs, May 2022.  This was how Goldman Sachs announced its new unlimited annual leave policy – for a chosen few.


Fairness and equity

Fairness and equity are two of the most important pillars of good employee relations, so it is quite remarkable to see a sophisticated organisation apparently abandon these values in what looks like a truly careless manner. It seems extraordinary that Goldman Sachs made the decision to grant only senior executives unlimited holiday, as they did this month. Not only that, but the statement in which they announced this new policy very publicly demonstrated the company’s emphasis on the wellbeing of an elite minority of senior staff. A stated intent to “…focus on the experience of our partners and managing directors…” can hardly fail to convey the message to the rest of the team that they simply aren’t as valued.

In short, this new policy sounds like the embodiment of ‘one rule for us, another rule for them.’ It almost goes without saying, that senior executives will always have more benefits and rewards than those at the lower levels of an organisation; you cannot treat every employee the same; but that should not prevent an organisation from being as fair and consistent as possible with all their staff.


Employee engagement

Employee engagement relies on employees feeling that they are respected, trusted and valued. A declared agenda to value some more highly than others will clearly demotivate and even alienate a large proportion. No thought at all seems to have been given as to how this statement that Goldman Sachs’ focus was on the elite minority would be perceived by the rest of the very large team, many of whom cannot ever aspire to reaching the ranks of the most privileged with unlimited holiday.

No doubt this move was devised as a stratagem to retain and attract key talent at the senior executive level, but the vast majority of existing and prospective employees will see, or rather feel, this as a slight, and a disincentive. People will often make efforts beyond the call of duty when they perceive that they and their efforts are appreciated. Demonstrating that they are not equals and not as highly valued is bound to be a discouragement to go, not just the extra mile, but the expected distance.


The transfer of responsibility and stress

This policy may well have been introduced to alleviate stress and pressure from the senior management who, of course, shoulder a great deal of responsibility, make critical decisions and shape the future of the company. However, such a key member of the team going on holiday will affect the entire team. Work does not stop, so other team members must take up the strain. Anticipation of this alone can be a cause for added anxiety.  Unlimited holiday for some surely signals added workload and responsibility for all those who report to the senior team member, increasing the stress on them, especially if the perception is that it could happen at any time.

Fairness is very difficult to convey. Sadly, communicating the opposite is all too easy. Many employees already perceive their organisation’s systems and decision-making processes as being unfair, untrustworthy or biased. As McKinsey eloquently stated: “Amid ongoing dissatisfaction and experimentation, our research suggests that there’s a performance-management issue that’s hiding in plain sight: it’s fairness.”

Their analysis was that fairness struggles to be seen in many contexts, from performance reviews and annual assessments, to flexible working and the inconsistencies in managers applying rules and policies. To announce a particular perk for one small, senior section of the workforce, especially one already perceived as privileged, can only be an own goal in the struggle to be seen as fair, equitable and consistent.


A lack of fairness and consistency

Lack of fairness and consistency is something that we observe in the results of our employee engagement survey research work on a regular basis. Ironically, to be fair, the perception of unfairness does not always reflect the genuine aim of an organisation to be as fair as possible.

We wonder where the Goldman Sachs idea originated, how far it travelled through the organisation before being officially adopted, why no-one pointed out its potential drawbacks (or why they were not listened to) and whether anyone thought it might be a good idea to find out how this new policy struck those at middle management or more entry levels.

We believe it would have been very wise to listen to dissenting voices or to ask opinions of other team members, especially as the policy probably won’t have huge take up. Senior executives are not really known for taking vast amounts of holiday. They don’t usually get to the top by being absent. Top management positions tend to attract the driven, work focused individual. Not taking enough holiday is more often a problem, so we do wonder why the company thought that this policy was needed.


The practical reality 

If Goldman Sachs wanted to encourage its senior team to take sufficient holiday, it might have been wiser to increase their annual leave entitlement and then urge all employees to make full use of their holiday entitlement. This policy could be implemented across the board in a truly consistent way. Using this approach, a perception of fairness could have been strengthened, rather than undermined.

The practical reality may well be that the various partners and managing directors at Goldman Sachs will take no more annual leave than before. However, thanks to this curious new policy announcement, they won’t be looked on very kindly when they do take their well-earned time out.


Gary Cattermole is the Director of The Survey Initiative.





Gary Cattermole, Biography - Gary's initial grounding was in the areas of sales and marketing, in the mid nineties he joined Longman Software Publishing to head up the business development of SURVEYkits (the worlds first employee opinion survey toolkit). After spearheading its growth over an 18 month period, Gary joined EMPLOYeSURVEYS, the original developers of SURVEYkits, helping to establish EMPLOYeSURVEYS as a leading provider of employee surveys.
Following its successful growth, in 2006 employesurvey was bought by a leading consultancy group.

He has managed numerous employee research projects for a variety of organisations. He is a partner at The Survey Initiative (and enjoys sports, in particular table tennis and football).