HR Insights 5 min

8 Tips to Better Manage Employee Time Off During the Holiday Season

December 21, 2021

As fun and full of joy as the holiday season can be, it can also be a stressful time for employers and HR teams.

Why? Because you have to manage employee expectations for taking time off during what is often the busiest season—end-of-year projects need to be wrapped up, quotas need to be met, shifts need to be covered.

So how can you manage employee time off during the holiday season without dropping the ball? Check out our eight tips for a happier holiday season for you and your employees.

1. Make a Holiday Time-Off Policy (and Communicate It)

To properly manage employee time-off requests during the holidays, you need to have a specific and clearly outlined holiday policy that spells out how your holiday time-off policy differs from your regular PTO or vacation policy. Here are a few questions to consider as you draw it up:

  • Which days (if any) will your business close? If your business is closed on some holidays, communicate that to your employees. Otherwise, they may unnecessarily submit time off for those days, which can be a headache for both employees and managers.
  • How is time off approved? Does it need to be approved by the employee’s manager? Or by the leadership team? Whoever approves it, make sure you establish the rules.
  • Who is eligible for paid time-off benefits during the holidays? While you may offer some level of PTO to every employee, some may be eligible for more time than others during the holiday season. For example, part-time employees may only get a half day of PTO on a holiday whereas full-time employees get a full day of PTO.
  • How many consecutive days can an employee take off? To ensure you have enough staff to cover your business’s needs during the holiday season, you may need to impose a limit for the number of consecutive days employees can take off.
Your employer brand matters to customers (so it should matter to you).

2. Set a Deadline

Once you’ve set up your holiday time-off policy, set a deadline for when employees need to submit their time-off requests.

While you should allow some flexibility since many people don’t make concrete holiday plans months in advance, deadlines ultimately help you:

  • Plan ahead for your staffing needs
  • Coordinate holiday schedules
  • Avoid last-minute scrambling to find replacements

There’s no “perfect day” for this deadline, but you should ideally give yourself at least two weeks before any major holiday season to solidify schedules.

3. Prioritize Requests

You’re bound to get a plethora of time-off requests, so you’ll have to make some choices on whose requests to prioritize. Here are three common prioritization strategies:

  1. First come, first served
  2. Seniority
  3. Letting teams decide

First Come, First Served

This strategy is simple:

  • Whoever sends in their request for time off first gets first consideration.
  • If someone delays their request, and everyone else takes time off, that employee has to work.

This gives everyone a fair shot at taking time off and helps managers know how many employees they can schedule ahead of time.


Essentially, longer tenured employees get first consideration regardless of who submitted the time-off request first. For example, if two employees request the same day, the employee with more tenure will get the day off. This can be a way to reward employees for sticking with your company.

Letting Teams Decide

You can also let each team decide among themselves who will take off which days. This strategy shows you trust your managers and employees to do their jobs, and it allows them to find a compromise and get the time off they need.

Which Time-Off Prioritization Strategy Should You Choose?

Along with the benefits listed above, there are drawbacks to each of these methods.

  • With first come, first served, some employees may forget to request PTO until it’s too late, leaving them to feel like they’re being unnecessarily punished for a simple oversight.
  • With seniority, you may have a harder time retaining newer employees if they can never get the days off they want.
  • With letting teams decide, you have to make sure managers and employees know what the business needs are, or you may end up with gaps.

Ultimately, deciding how to prioritize time-off requests comes down to balancing the needs of your business with your employees’ needs. Keep in mind that happy, rested employees also make for more engaged, productive employees.

Not sure how to measure or improve your employees’ experience? We have a few suggestions.

4. Clarify Organizational Needs

If your business needs a minimum number of employees working certain shifts or available in certain departments, make sure each manager communicates what those needs are to their team members. This will help employees better coordinate their time off since they’ll have an idea of how many people need to work on a given day.

5. Be Flexible by Staggering Schedules and Allowing Employees to Swap Shifts

Staggering Schedules

Staggered schedules ensure shifts get covered while allowing employees to still take plenty of time-off. Here’s how it works:

  • Managers establish when they need employees to be scheduled.
  • Managers split that schedule between different employees.
  • For example, during a busy holiday week, one employee works Monday and Tuesday while another employee works Wednesday and Thursday.

Swapping Shifts

Since everyone has different holiday plans, allowing employees to swap shifts gives them the flexibility they need to celebrate their usual holiday traditions while making sure you have enough employees on staff.

For example, an employee who usually celebrates in the morning, but has the early shift, may switch with an employee who usually celebrates in the evening but has a later shift.

6. Establish Blackout Periods

For some industries, the holiday season is their busiest time of the year. It may make sense to black out certain days from time-off requests, so every employee is available during that time.

For example, many retail stores need all hands on deck during Black Friday shopping. As such, they may black out that weekend from time-off requests.

A word of warning: Use this strategy sparingly. If you black out too many days in a holiday season, you’ll likely have disgruntled employees on your hands. Identify the days you absolutely need your full staff for, and offer flexibility on the other days.

7. Shut Down

Alternatively, you may consider shutting down during the holiday season and allowing all of your employees to enjoy a few extra days off with their friends and family.

Depending on your organization’s financial situation, you may or may not be able to pay your employees during the days you shut down. Coordinate between HR and your leadership team whether you can shut down for the holidays and if you can pay your employees during a shutdown.

8. Offer Rewards for Working

When employees don’t get the holiday time they want, they can feel discouraged. To offset this sentiment, consider offering rewards for working during holiday hours. This could come in the form of:

  • A holiday bonus
  • Overtime pay
  • A company-catered meal during their shift

Whatever you do, just make sure it makes your employees feel appreciated for working during the holidays.

Get Ahead on Holiday Time Management

With these eight tips, we believe you’ll be ready to tackle every request that comes your way and make the holidays a happy season for all of your employees.

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Marie-Reine Pugh

Marie-Reine Pugh is focused on making HR simpler for HR professionals and workplaces a better place for everyone. She pulls from her previous experiences as an educator and six years of writing and researching to explore how to create inclusive company cultures that help businesses succeed.