The stability of a planar surface upon pulsed UV-laser irradiation is studied with special emphasis on polymer ablation. Here, we consider a two-level system in which the excitation energy is dissipated via stimulated emission, non-radiative transitions, and activated desorption of excited species. With thermal relaxation times t T≥10-10 s the ablation front turns out to become stable. This could explain the smooth surfaces obtained after pulsed UV-laser ablation of pure and stress free organic polymers. The situation is quite different for materials, for example metals, where fast thermal relaxation of the excitation energy within times, typically, t T<10-11 s, gives rise to instabilities which result in surface roughening.