June 5, 2018

Managing Employee Time Off Requests: How Managers Can Learn to Play Fair


The United States is notorious for its PTO policies. Namely, it is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that does not mandate paid time off. Managing employee time off requests is particularly challenging in a climate that seems to push employees to not take advantage of this workplace benefit.

Of course, hectic times are bound to happen, when managers can’t afford to have many staff members taking time off. However, refusing PTO requests shouldn’t end on a bitter note. If managers need to refuse a request, the employee is likely going to be upset. If they feel they’re not being treated fairly, though, they will become resentful. This could lead to a drop in productivity and an increase in turnover. After all, more than half of employees find it “very important” to have a job that allows them greater work-life balance.

Here is the top advice for managers to ensure that they are being fair about granting employees vacation time.

Create policies for managing employee time off requests

Clearly defined rules are a must-have for leave management. This includes guidelines on how much in advance employees need to make a request. This way, both the management and the team have enough time to prepare for business demands.

Within the organization’s policies, define the exact rules for requesting time off so that the entire staff is fully aware of each step of the process. This is the fairest way to nurture good internal relations. Moreover, remaining transparent and clear about all types of leave requests offered shows that you respect your team and their time.

Allow shift trades

One way to simplify managing employee time off requests is supporting shift trades. This practice allows a staff member to arrange for a relevant colleague to cover their shift during their time off. If the scheduling platform your organization is using suggests employees for shift trade based on their availability and skills, this process can be organized with minimal manager involvement.

Still, when not managed properly, shift trades can do more harm than good. Your line managers can end up with shifts that are under- or overstaffed. Or, they may have to scramble resolving issues with a team with the wrong skill mix. Therefore, management always needs to sign off on the arranged shift trade.

Give staff more independence

Allowing employees to submit their preferred working hours can also make managing employee time off requests easier. Example: the number of hours can be specified in the contract of employment, but the employee can decide for themselves when exactly they’re available for work. This arrangement will often be organized on a first-come-first-served basis or require additional negotiations between staff members. Still, it will provide your team with more flexibility, which can even become your selling point for job candidates. Staff members have more control and the risk of unfair conduct is minimized. Again, managers shouldn’t allow that this process gets out of hand and business demands suffer as a result.

Respect emergency absences

Sometimes employees will have sudden time off requests, usually due to some unexpected and important events. Depending on the severity of the reason, all efforts should be made to approve the request. In any case, if the time off request isn’t granted, there is a good chance that the employee will just take a sick day anyway.

This is why it is worthwhile to try to meet your staff halfway. If you simply cannot afford to lose the staff member on the day, then you should give a full explanation as to why. Give the employee a chance to suggest a compromise.

Have a backup plan

There are times of the year when vacation requests are traditionally flying in. This might be during the summer or the holiday season. Obviously, managing employee time off requests is more difficult during these times. Line managers need to strike a balance between ensuring full coverage and allowing their staff to take well-deserved rest.

That’s why it’s recommended to always have a list of trusted, part-time workers in your pocket that you can reach out to and use as replacements when needed. Having a list of seasonal workers that you have worked with before, you trust and you know are reliable is a definite must when risk of understaffing is high.


Being a great manager means being prepared for any business situation, but still looking after your team. Invest time to learn how to remain fair to employees and make sure that your business is running without a hitch. Your reward? A loyal team and satisfied workforce.