Time management

Last-Minute Time Off Requests: What You Need To Know

While managing PTO can be challenging even on a good day, last-minute time off requests can easily become overwhelming. Read more.

Whether you’re a storied HR pro or an office manager tasked with HR responsibilities, your heavy workload is likely considered “just part of the job.”

Your invaluable role in team management is all-encompassing: payroll, time cards, recruiting, training, managing PTO, conducting employee reviews, updating benefits and policies, and ensuring constant compliance—to name just a few.

Of course, HR also happens to be the first line of defense when it comes to the unexpected: employee conflict; unforeseen termination; or, for our current purposes, last-minute time off requests.

With the onset of summer and the relaxing of Covid restrictions, the latter has become more commonplace. It’s not surprising, really, considering that people have been cooped up for a year and a half and want to take advantage of that familiar old ability to let their hair down, socialize, and take trips beyond the corner store.

As a manager, you probably understand the value of fulfilling your team’s time-off requests—namely,  positive company culture, retention of talent,  and employee engagement. But while managing PTO can be challenging even on a good day, last-minute requests can easily become overwhelming.

How to handle last-minute time off requests

The fact is, last-minute time off requests can mean needing to reshuffle priorities, which could force you to pull people off important projects, and even ask them to work late—and/or have to work late yourself.

That’s why it’s important to find ways to filter for time off requests that don’t prevent you or your team from respecting deadlines and performance expectations. Luckily, there are ways of handling last-minute requests without creating an abundance of stress for yourself.

While you may choose to make exceptions under certain circumstances, the more thought and structure you put into time-off policies and protocols, the more seriously employees will take them:

Establish when requests should be made

As a starting point, communicate clearly how far in advance you accept time-off requests. Depending on your business, this might range anywhere from one week to two months.

You could also create time-frame stipulations based on how much time is being requested. In other words, if someone only needs a day or two, they might not need to give the same amount of notice as someone taking a two-week vacation.

Additionally, make sure that your team is aware of how often they can request time off. If you have a rule on frequency of requests per month or year, make this very clear from the get-go and keep these rules consistent for all employees.

Identify “off-limits” time periods

Blocking certain time-frames as “off-limits” could help with the smooth functioning of your team. It’s important to make those expectations clear as soon as possible. You could even go as far as mentioning these times during the hiring process.

Most employees want time off during the holidays, for school vacations, and during the summer months, but if your business doesn’t actually slow down during these times, it becomes necessary to either have “off-limits” periods or enlist backup staff for these periods.

As well, it should go without saying, but do your best to remain fair: don’t bend the rules for one or two employees while holding the rest to strict rules.

Have backup

Speaking of backup, there are many scenarios in which having a few on-call employees to, well, call upon, may come in handy. Emergencies, for instance, since they do happen.

Whether it’s sudden illness, an injury, or a death in the family, employees can’t be faulted for last-minute time off requests under these kinds of unanticipated circumstances.

To avoid the stress of reaching out to all your staff as you desperately seek a replacement, create a list of backup employees. These are the people who don’t work that particular shift but who are nonetheless available during that time to come in should something arise last-minute.

Deal with multiple requests fairly

When more than one employee is requesting last-minute time off for the same period—and you can only handle one absence—a first come, first served policy may be the simplest way to be fair. This will also encourage employees to submit their requests more in advance.

If several staff want the time off for different reasons, consider making your choice by comparing the reasons.

For example, if one needs to attend a funeral while the other has a friend in town, you might prioritize the former, as it appears more pressing. Not all comparisons are as stark or as clear, of course.

Another potential go-to is to compare frequency of time-off requests. If one employee has already requested multiple shifts off that month, while the other never makes requests, you may decide to go with the latter.

Ultimately, it helps to have clear protocols in place for different scenarios and to include said protocols in your written time-off policies.

What to ask of employees before they submit a request 

As a general rule (emergencies aside), it’s a positive thing if your employees are able to manage their own time off. This responsibility increases their accountability as well as their sensitivity to the needs of the business.

In other words, staff should be able to assess their workloads and make an informed choice about when they can feasibly take time off, and for how long. If they can do that, it might not be necessary for them to ask for a week’s notice for one day off.

That said, when it comes to making last-minute time off requests, it’s perfectly fair to ask your employees to do so mindfully, by doing the following:


Be reasonable

It should go without saying, but employees should understand the effects of their last-minute time off requests, and adjust them accordingly.

It’s one thing to request a couple of days for an unforeseen event, but demanding three vacation weeks without notice (or when one’s vacation time has already been used up) is not typically acceptable, and staff should know this.

Have a plan

Barring emergencies, before requesting time off, an employee should have a plan for how to make up for their absence.

Whether it’s finding their own replacement, delegating some of their more pressing tasks, or requesting time-off during a known lull in business, ask your employees to do all they can to ensure their absence causes minimal inconvenience.

Assess the situation

If they’re already behind on their work, or if a project they’re working on needs all hands on deck to meet a deadline, an employee may want to consider hitting pause on their time off request.

If a given employee has become “too essential” to take time off, support them in training someone else who is capable of taking over occasionally, or develop a cross-training program in your office—this will also help with creating that list of backup employees!

How to minimize last-minute time off requests 

Because time off requests are a whole different beast when submitted with adequate notice, consider the following strategies for minimizing their occurrence to begin with.

Valorize accountability

Don’t wait until someone makes a last-minute time off request to remind them that ideally, you want more notice. Create a culture of accountability in the day-to-day.

If you decide to make an exception and grant someone a day off at the last minute, be sure to follow up with them when they return to see what might be done differently in the future to avoid giving so little notice.

It doesn’t hurt to communicate the effect their absence had on you personally, perhaps making you work late or creating undue stress.

Know when to say no  

Although you might have trouble saying “no” to people, it’s important to familiarise yourself with situations in which a “no” is the only acceptable answer!

For instance, if an employee agrees to finish his deliverables before taking time off, and then attempts to leave early even though they didn’t finish, it’s your job to put your foot down, create some accountability, and say no.

While it may be challenging to deny a request, particularly when managing an incredible, deserving, high-performance team, sometimes all you can do is explain your decision clearly and reasonably.

Being flexible with great employees when life throws the unexpected their way is part of being an effective manager. But the real clincher is being able to hold your team to the same level of consideration in return.

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