March can be a busy time of year for vacation requests—especially for employees with families, due to the spring break periods set by most schools. The holiday season and summer breaks can likewise be overwhelming periods for HR departments and people managers of all stripes. Not to mention, the post-Covid travel rush is real. But the reality is that it’s often not possible to grant time off to everyone who requests it in a given timeframe.
That being said, while you can’t make everyone happy all of the time, knowing how to handle time off requests fairly during peak vacation times can make all the difference in the world. While “fairly” may seem like a subjective term, a good place to start is ensuring that the process and reasoning for accepting or denying time off requests is very clearly outlined in your time off request policy. Before finalizing your policy, also be sure to acquaint yourself with any applicable legal mandates governing time-off in your region, state or province.
Finally, it should go without saying that all employees must be made aware of and have easy access to the policy!
Ways of handling time off requests
Now that you’re committed to clarity of policy, what exactly are the best practices for managing time off requests with fairness? Your go-to protocol may vary depending on the needs of your business at different times of the year, or the extenuating circumstances of an individual employee.
The following methods of handling requests can be used on their own, with certain caveats, or in combination with one another, as your company’s needs dictate. Again, just be sure to put it all in writing.
1. First come first served
This approach is common, self-explanatory, and can help to discourage last-minute time off requests. But while a ‘first-come, first-served’ policy can make managing time-off more straightforward during non-peak times of the year, it is not without its pitfalls, particularly during busy periods.
For instance, the same employees may always be first to jump in and snatch up coveted holiday vacation time. Whatever the reasons, this can be unfair to other staff, easily leading to resentment and low morale—both of which are bad for business.
The other most common method used to manage time off requests is seniority. This approach can improve company culture by motivating employees to stay on longer term, and rewarding those who have been loyal to your company the longest. However, knowing your audience is key here.
Today’s job market is not what it once was—it’s rare for an employee of this generation to remain at the same job until retirement. Unless perhaps, their organization is consistently compelling opportunities for growth on offer. To millennials—who are already more likely to job hop every few years—the seniority approach may simply emphasize favoritism “by default,” potentially giving them more of a reason to move on sooner.
3. Reward system
While discouraging employees from requesting time off should never be the aim, another way to approach time off requests in a given scenario is a rewards system. You can grant time-off priority to employees who have been doing excellent work, and who haven’t requested time off in recent history. You might consider allowing these employees their first-choice of vacation times as a way of preventing burnout before it occurs.
4. Lottery system
To give everyone a fair chance at getting their chosen days off, consider instituting a lottery system for the most popular days employees request to take off. Putting names in a literal hat and drawing names together, in person if possible, may even serve a team-building purpose at the same time. The idea is to randomly draw as many employee names as you can afford to do without on the given day(s).
5. Rotational system
Employee complaints of favoritism stem in part from the way you handle your time off requests. To be more fair, you could have a rota (rotational system). For example, employees could take turns getting time off on popular holidays like Christmas Eve.
You might organize this in any number of ways, but the basis is simple: when scheduling vacations, each employee puts in their requests in turn. And then, in the following period, the order gets changed. To be extra fair, seek input from your employees about how to change the order. You might reverse it, move the first five employees to the end, or randomize it—whatever works best. The overall goal is to give everyone an equal opportunity to get their first-choice picks over time.
Regardless of the approach you take managing time off requests, instituting a firm deadline for submitting requests is an undeniably smart move. While remaining flexible is important to your relationships with employees, it’s just as important to remain in touch with the needs of your business—you want to avoid being understaffed, particularly during a busy season.
It’s crucial, however, that you let your employees know about any and all deadlines in advance. Setting a deadline for time off requests can easily be paired with the ‘first-come, first served’ approach.
Be transparent with employees
No matter what method(s) you choose to employ in the management of your time off requests, transparency is vital. Using a shared time off calendar is a great way to champion transparency in the workplace and it can go a long way toward averting vacation or holiday clashes. You might hang it up in a common area or share it online—as long as it’s easily accessible to all employees. This way, your staff can check availability before blocking off the dates pertaining to their requests.
As it happens, PurelyHR’s time off management software offers a very handy (and modern!) shared leave calendar compatible with Outlook, Apple, and Google calendar. You can throw off the shackles of emails, spreadsheets, and paper calendars alike.
Employees can access their balances anytime, requests are sent and approved easily, and renewals, calculations and notifications for pending requests can all be automated. You can also use it to create custom time-off types and policies that truly match your business’s specific needs.
If you’re ready to explore a smarter, more transparent option, book a demo today.