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Hard conversations: How to deny a vacation request


Even with the most generous PTO policies and time-off procedures in place, it isn’t always possible to accommodate every employee vacation request.

Your business needs to continue operating, after all. To guarantee you’re able to do so, that usually means you need to restrict the number of people who can take vacation days at any given time. The ability to award vacation time may also be impacted by how many employees are off work due to protected leaves or employer provided time off for other reasons, such as sick time or personal leaves.

Ideally, your written vacation policy would include exactly what those limitations are and provide a fair, standardized method for handling competing time-off requests.

But inevitably there are times when you will have to deny an employee’s vacation request. Breaking disappointing news is tough; however, hard conversations are part of being an effective leader.

With the following tips to guide you, you’ll be better prepared to deny a vacation request in a way more likely to:

Determining if you should deny a vacation request

When evaluating employee’s vacation request, it’s important to keep in mind the need to:

  • Meet your business needs
  • Follow your PTO policy as written
  • Determine whether you have enough staff coverage

At the same time, you’ll want to come across as empathic to employee needs, showing that you care about their work-life balance and needs, too.

Use your creativity to explore possibilities for when, where and how they might be able to take time. Making a good-faith attempt to help employees get the time off they deserve – while still adhering to your policies and maintaining coverage – will make a denial much easier to take.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Can another employee pick up extra work during the requested vacation? Give the employee a few days to ask around or post the dates they want covered via a company intranet or a bulletin board.
  • Can a manager step in and cover the shifts to allow the employee the ability to have time off?
  • Can the employee be flexible with the vacation dates?
  • Can the employee work remotely on the days when your coverage is lightest?

If you’ve exhausted all your options and still can’t make things work, it’s time to have a conversation with your employee.

Remember: Even if it feels easier to make an exception to your vacation policy than turn down a good employee’s request, don’t make the mistake of being subjective in your approvals and denials.

This could expose your business to legal risks.

For instance, your attempt to be a nice boss could accidentally turn into a pattern of approvals and denials that creates a disparate impact on certain employees (e.g., employees under 40, men, women or nonparents).

Instead, plan to tell the employee you will be unable to approve the request and tell them why. Channel your good intentions into having a healthy, productive conversation.

How to deny a vacation request

When having this type of conversation, it’s important to approach it with a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence, or EQ.

Here are some tips for meeting to discuss a vacation request denial:

  • Plan a face-to-face meeting. If you can’t meet in person, try a video or voice call with the employee.
  • If an employee has already booked flights and hotels or has become quite excited about their vacation plans, be prepared to encounter a range of emotions, such as disappointment, anger, embarrassment, frustration and jealousy.
  • Be human. Try to imagine if you were in their shoes. Tap into your compassion for their situation.
  • Stay calm, even if the employee erupts emotionally.
  • Do what you can to diffuse the situation. Offer a tissue if there are tears. Let the employee say what he or she needs to say in order to process your decision.
  • If the conversation becomes unproductive or disruptive, consider allowing the employee to go home early for the day.

Overall, your goal is to stay understanding and respectful while also enforcing your policy and providing the business reasons that led to your decision.

What to do when employees take off anyway

When you’ve shown compassion while denying a request, most employees will return the favor, being flexible and doing what’s best for the team even if it means reworking their vacation plans.

However, you also need to be prepared for employees who seem to accept your decision, but later fail to show up for work on the days for which they’d requested leave.

Here’s how you can handle this situation:

  • Get familiar with your company’s attendance or absenteeism policy – know which employee actions (e.g., unexcused absence) require a response from you as the manager.
  • Follow your company’s policy, and take disciplinary action when required (e.g., a verbal or written warning). It’s critical for you to treat the offending employee the same way that other employees have been treated in the past for unexcused absences to avoid discrimination.
  • If your organization doesn’t have any written policies related to absenteeism, it would be a good time to begin working on them and to get them implemented. Until then you should carefully follow precedent.

This situation may be disappointing, but it isn’t uncommon. Take a deep breath and stick to your policy. Remember, it’s very important to be consistent in enforcing your written policies.

HR compliance tips for managers

Bosses juggle a lot, and managing employer liability is one important aspect involved in approving or denying vacation requests. But there are many other HR compliance concerns about which every manager should be mindful. That’s why we created The Insperity guide to HR compliance. Get your free copy to learn how to take care of your people and protect your business from costly mistakes