Benefits & Comp 10 min

When Should You Talk to an Employee About Their Time-Off Request?

January 23, 2018
Updated March 19, 2020

In a perfect world, employees taking too much time off would never be an issue. Everybody would take the exact right number of days off at the exact right times in the exact right way. No one would ever take too much time off.

But the truth is, sometimes time-off requests cause issues and raise questions. For example:

  • How much time off is too much?
  • What should you do when an employee is taking too much time off?
  • How much time off is too much?
  • What if an employee is taking unapproved vacation?
  • Should you treat excess unpaid time off differently than excess paid time off?
  • How do you handle employees unfairly taking advantage of time-off policies (say, shirking work by overusing an unlimited vacation policy)?

These are just some of the many possible issues associated with taking too much time off—we can’t address all of them individually in a single article. However, we can give you advice that will help you prevent many time-off problems and resolve issues like these when they arise.

The greatest challenge is deciding when a situation needs special attention and when it doesn’t; in other words, deciding whether an issue is really an issue. So, when is it time to talk to an employee about their time-off request? And how do you know what to say to an employee who’s requesting too much time off? Here are a few things to consider.

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Three Important Realities About Time-Off Requests

Reality #1: Communicating time-off policy is key.

What is your employee time-off policy? If it’s not clearly defined, you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you’re suddenly confronted with an employee’s emergency, personal crisis, or any situation that employers must handle carefully, the last thing you want to have to do is wing it.

Remember, clear policies lead to easier decisions.

For example, let’s say an employee is suddenly invited to take the trip of a lifetime with their whole family, who hasn’t been together in years. Everyone is going, someone else is paying for it, and it will be an amazing three-week excursion. But the employee is out of PTO, and the manager knows that the unplanned absence would take place during the company’s peak business season, leaving busy coworkers to cover the vacationing employee’s responsibilities.

Should the manager give in to the employee requesting too much time off? Having a policy in place will give the manager the tool they need to make the best decision, and the policy will also help the employee know whether their request is likely to be approved.

Your employee time-off policy should be detailed and written. Add it to your employee handbook, make sure every manager and employee is familiar with it, and review it with new hires during onboarding. This will go a long way toward helping managers treat employees fairly while helping employees understand and follow the rules.

Reality #2: Respect is also key.

The second reality is related to the first. When time-off policies don’t adequately cover a particular issue, always err on the side of respect for your employees.

Make sure your managers treat each time-off request that comes in with respect, recognizing that it is important to the individual who submitted it.

Deciding how to respectfully resolve an unusual request isn’t always easy, because respect may be shown in different ways that can be mutually exclusive. For instance, bending the rules may show respect for an employee in need, but on the other hand, denying the request may be necessary to be fair and respectful to all of the other employees who don’t get special treatment. Every situation is different, and deciding what to do requires careful thought, good judgment, and a keen understanding of the implications of the decision for your organization.

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If a request must be denied, continue to treat the employee with respect by explaining why. Remember that employee time off is a benefit, so don’t kill the value of that benefit by how you allow or deny its usage.

Reality #3: Be aware of your time-off culture.

Your policy may say one thing, but how you act as a manager will ultimately determine your employees’ expectations around time-off requests. If you’re not careful, that time-off culture will create conflict and confusion with your actual policies. For example, if time-off requests are approved 99.9 percent of the time, and the policy appears flexible as a result, you may find yourself in trouble if you decide to deny a request based on a reason found within the policy.

When It May Be Time to Discuss a Time-Off Request

When the request goes against company time-off policy.

Generally speaking, it’s important to be consistent with company policies on employee time off—it’s how you can ensure your time-off culture stays in tune with the actual guidelines your organization has set forth. There will always be exceptions worth considering, but you shouldn’t make exceptions the new rule.

Just as the introduction of an invasive species can destroy an ecosystem, unwarranted exceptions to company policies can erode an organization’s culture.

So, when an employee makes a request that is against company policy, make sure to have a conversation with them about the situation and document the conversation. Whether you approve their request or not, your record of the conversation will help you stay consistent down the road and may even be useful to call on if someone questions a similar decision in the future.

When you can demonstrate their absence will have a negative impact.

Obviously, you’d love to approve every time-off request, but what about those times when Employee X wants to leave during a crucial time in their work? In this situation, you may be tempted to deny their excessive time-off request without a second thought. Before you do that, make sure you’re prepared to explain the reason for your denial.

It might be cumbersome to quantify the opportunity cost to the organization when an employee wants to take time off at an inconvenient time, but it’s necessary. These facts will help the employee understand the issue and not take the denial personally. In many instances, the employee will be okay with moving their time-off request to a better time.

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When an employee is taking too much time off at once.

If a time-off request is so long  you wonder whether it qualifies as a leave of absence, you probably need to talk. There will, of course, be perfectly acceptable reasons for an extended absence, but you’ll want to make sure that’s the case with your employee. If not, here are two points you might consider incorporating into your response when an employee requests too much time off.

On the employee’s side, experts estimate that the perfect vacation length is somewhere between eight days and ten days. Also, research finds frequent vacations (as opposed to using vacation days in one big chunk) are good for you.

On the team side, long absences can put a heavy workload on others in the organization, weighing them down and diminishing their ability to perform. When extended absences lead to poor performance, the previous point about business pain comes into play.

When a time-off request comes with too little notice.

Handling last-minute time-off requests relates to the previous points about showing employees respect even when a time-off request is denied. Sick days and legitimate emergencies are one thing, but when a coworker is always taking time off for impromptu trips and personal days, it can put an unfair burden on their teammates, raising many of the same issues that extended absences create. Not only that, but taking off with very little notice can come across as unprofessional.

To be clear, there are times when an employee just needs to get away. And most people need a little spontaneity in their lives. The difficulty arises when the spontaneity becomes routine, and too much time off is leaving others to pick up the slack. When this is the case, it’s appropriate to talk with the employee and help them understand the effects of their sudden absences.

When time-off requests aren’t happening often enough.

Taking too much time off is easy to spot, but there’s one PTO issue that’s practically invisible: many employees don’t take as much time off as they should. Only 23 percent of Americans take their full amount of available PTO, and an equal amount take 25 percent or less of their allotted time.

Learn the best ways to manage time-off requests in our free infographic.

Simply put, this refusal to take a break is bad for employees. It can take a toll on their health and happiness, as well as their job performance. So talk to them about time off, and make sure they know its benefits.

If push comes to shove, you might consider insisting employees take a vacation. (In case you’re wondering whether this is legal, the answer is more or less yes.) Now, force rarely leads to mutual respect, so use it only as a last resort. Rather, work to persuade employees to take time off both through one-on-ones and by building a culture where employee time off is encouraged. As difficult as it may be for some to accept, ultimately everybody will be better off when employees are taking time off appropriately.

Establishing Rules for Requesting Time Off

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When it comes to your company’s employee time-off policy, the rules for requesting time off are those ounces of prevention. With clear rules, you can avoid the awkward conversations that arise when employees misunderstand what your company expects. The following questions will help you establish basic rules for requesting time off.

How far in advance must time off be requested?

This timeframe may depend on how much time off employees are asking for. Two weeks’ notice might be sufficient for a few days off, while a two-week vacation may require advance notice of a few months.

Do you have a standardized system for requesting time off?

While a casual atmosphere might be good for company culture, being too casual in how time off is requested may not be. A formal, yet simple, system is best.

Are there times when employees can’t request time off?

Certain times of the year are in high demand for time off, like the Christmas holiday season, school breaks, or during the summer. If your company has to block certain dates with no or limited time off, make that clear to existing and potential employees.

How often can time off be requested?

If you have a strict policy about frequency, make sure that it is also clear to employees. Maybe they can only request time off a certain number of times per month, per quarter, or per year.

How do you handle overlapping requests?

It’s going to happen: More than one employee will ask for the same time off and you can’t grant all the requests. When that happens, you will be grateful to have a system for handling the situation. Popular systems include:

  • First Come, First Served: First to request gets the time off.
  • Reason-Based: Weigh and prioritize the reasons for the time-off requests.
  • Prior Request History: Those who have taken less time off get first dibs.
  • Seniority-Based: Whoever has been at the company longer gets priority.

Do you keep track of who has taken time off and how much?

If you’re not tracking time off, you may inadvertently be granting excessive time off to the same employees, and alienating some who feel they are always carrying the extra load. The right software can make tracking paid time off simple.

Finding Solutions Together

Time off is a benefit—and one that should be benefiting both employees and employers alike. When it’s not, it’s probably time to talk to employees about their time-off requests. As you do, having clear and consistent policies in place will help everyone agree on fair solutions that accommodate employees’ needs while keeping your organization running smoothly.

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Kent Peterson

Kent Peterson is a writer at BambooHR. He has also created award-winning work in radio and television.