How to Manage Time-Off Requests (and Have your Employees Still Like You)

When it comes to a day off, there may be none more epic than Ferris Bueller’s. For those of you who missed this 80’s classic, a teen from the Chicago suburbs decides to cut classes with a couple of friends. During the span of one school day he manages to go joyriding in a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT, watch a Cubs game at Wrigley, appreciate the famous works at the Art Institute of Chicago and finally give an impromptu performance of “Twist and Shout” in a city parade. (Go ahead. Have a dance break.) If you stop to consider all Ferris packed in–all without getting caught by a principal hot on his trail–it’s truly astounding. No wonder the guy’s a legend.

According to Project Time-Off’s State of American Vacation Study, workers are averaging about 16.8 days off work per year.

There are all kinds of proven benefits of taking days off for both employees and their employers including increasing engagement, preventing burnout, and investing in one’s family. And in addition to planned time off, things such as sickness and family emergencies require everyone to step away from work unexpectedly.

We all want awesome, memorable days off and we all need to deal with the unexpected things life throws at us a times. However, playing hooky like Ferris isn’t an advisable approach. Good employer-employee relationships mean an honest, well-communicated process for requesting time-off and managers who recognize the benefits of these deserved breaks.

And while you may not have to chase down your absent employees like Ferris’s principal (let’s hope not!), managers have their own legit challenges when it comes to days-off.

Not only do managers have to make tough calls and say “no” to some time-off requests, but they have to figure out how to staff their restaurant or keep projects moving while team members are out.

Let’s look at a non-Hollywood scenario most managers and HR pros have faced. You open up your email and three leave requests pop up, each asking for the same week off:

  1. A new employee wants to spend time with her mother who is recovering from unplanned surgery.
  2. One of the company’s top performers scored tickets to game four of the World Series through his brother-in-law’s neighbor’s colleague.
  3. Your veteran employee of fifteen years wants to take a well-deserved family vacation.

This leaves you in an unenviable position, especially because while they are all reasonable requests, it’s a busy season for your business and losing three key players at once is not an option. These requests may come in while you have other team members out for maternity leave or on short-term disability.

There is a better way to manage your team’s leave requests than consulting the Magic Eight Ball or drawing straws, as tempting as that might be in the name of fairness.

Before you start picking names out of a hat to approve for leave, here are some ideas that might help take the stress out of time-off requests:

  1. Spell it out. Make your time-off policy clear when employees are onboarded. Include the process for requesting time off and how far in advance time must be requested. Note “blackout” days that all team members are expected to be at work. (For example, Mother’s Day at a restaurant, or in our case, tax season! ) When you can point to a policy, there’s a greater sense of fairness and fewer headaches for managers.
  2. First-come, first served. This no-nonsense, black and white approach is far better than drawing straws. This practice solves your leave request dilemmas most of the time but there will still be situations like illness and family emergencies where you have to make your best judgment. Seniority is another option, however it may leave your newer employees frustrated if they are always getting shut out.
  3. Call on your reserves. Have a bank of part-time, seasonal, or former employees (not the ones you fired for poor performance!) that you can call on during emergencies.
  4. Set limits. A department cannot function properly if a significant number of players are out. Put in writing how many people from a specific team can be out at one time.
  5. Switching shifts. Allowing your employees to trade shifts with one another is a great way to keep a large percentage of them from being out at one time. The process for finding a replacement should be defined in your employee handbook and the switch of shifts should documented in writing and require managerial approval.
  6. Shut it down. Some businesses may want to consider company-wide days off, or closing the week between Christmas and New Year’s, for example. This may alleviate schedule stressors over the holidays. (Which also tend to be unproductive times for many businesses anyway.)

The key to successfully navigating your employees’ time off requests is striking the balance between maintaining consistency, while allowing some room for flexibility.

Let’s revisit our original scenario. Maybe your new employee can try to visit her mom over a long weekend to minimize the impact on work. You can’t change the date of the World Series but maybe your employee can switch shifts with someone else. (If at all possible avoid denying your team member the chance to see the game of a lifetime!) Hopefully this leaves your veteran with his week-long vacation at the time he requested, but otherwise maybe he’d be open to moving it up or back a week.

You may also find that technology can make managing time off requests easier.

Using payroll and HR software can help you go paperless so your employees can submit leave requests from anywhere (hopefully before they book their flight!) and you can approve or deny them as the email comes in.

At Patrick Payroll, we offer a comprehensive payroll and HR Solution. Our service provides anytime, anywhere access that tracks your employees’ benefit accruals in the cloud; allows your employees to ask for time off directly from our payroll app or from within their employee self-service portal; and enables managers to see a calendar with all employees currently scheduled time off or requested time off. If this has been a major area of friction for you or your employees, schedule a time to talk to us so we can lighten your back-office burden. (Now go plan an epic day off. Just ask your manager first!)