How to Manage Time Off Requests Fairly

Today, workers view benefits and perks of the job as important as the actual wage they’ll receive. The way you handle time-off requests directly affects the type of people who want to work for you.

Restrictive time-off policies will make it difficult to find great job applicants. Make it unfair or difficult to get time off, and you’ll struggle to retain your employees. Neglect to make a policy and you’ll have a hard time staying staffed during peak vacation times.

Time off is seen as directly connected to quality of life and the freedom to maintain a healthy personal life away from work. It’s important to know how to manage requests in a timely and effective manner. Here’s how to create a time off request policy that works for everyone:

Managing time off requests fairly begins with a clear and easy way to track them. Download our free time off request form to get started.

Communicate your time-off policies at the start

Whatever route you take with employee time off, you must communicate it to all employees as soon as they are hired. If employees don’t know the boundaries you’ve set up for time off, you’ll have two results:

  • Some employees are going to ask constantly, for any reason, to take time off because there are no boundaries. This leads to resentment among the other employees.
  • Some employees are going to be too hesitant to ask out of fear their request will be denied because they don’t know boundaries. This leads to frustration and burnout.

Depending on your business, time-off policies may be part of a union contract. You are bound by those policies, in that case. Otherwise, you may want to write some flexibility into your time-off policies. That flexibility should include managerial discretion so that you allow for situations you can’t plan for ahead of time.

Put your policies in the employee handbook, make your policy accessible for employees to look up if they have questions, and cover it in your hiring interviews.

Set a deadline for requests

Every industry has different high-intensity seasons in which too much time off wreaks havoc for a business. Retail, for example, needs all hands on deck around the winter holidays.

For those times, you may want to set a deadline for when time-off requests can be made. You may even want to take that a step further and set a time frame for when requests can come in. This is to prevent people from making requests for the following year when some employees that will be working haven’t even been hired yet.

If you set a request deadline, let all employees know at the same time. This matters, because you’ll likely get time-off requests that can’t all be granted and you’ll need a process for deciding who gets their request and who doesn’t. Some of these methods are based on who asks first, which is only fair if everyone is equally aware they can make a request.

The most common method employers use to manage time off during holidays is the first-come, first-served approach, followed by seniority.

  • First come, first served. Whoever submits their request first is granted the time off. This is why you tell all employees about the deadline at the same time, and with plenty of heads-up. You want to be flexible; some employees may consistently be first all the time and you don’t want the same employees stuck working every holiday just because they didn’t get their request in until the next day.
  • Seniority. This is best used when there are time-off requests that, for all other reasons, are equally valid and conflicting.

Avoid what seems to be constant arbitrary managerial discretion. It reeks of favoritism, particularly if there is no specific reason for your decision as to who gets time off and who doesn’t.

Be wary about first-come, first-served, or placing too heavy a weight on seniority. It is discouraging for new employees to feel as if they will never get optimal time off requests because they haven’t been there long enough. Remember that younger generations often change work every few years, and so traditional seniority approaches to time off penalize them and can hasten their exit from your business.

Use employee rewards during peak times

Rewards are always better than a punitive approach. Heavy on the rules makes people feel oppressed. Consider rewarding employees who are willing to work during holidays, weekends, or other peak times that are notorious for time-off requests.

For example, let’s say you have an employee who can work every weekend in December. Her reward could be first dibs on taking the first two weekends off in January, or promising her that she won’t be stuck with any closing shifts during those weekends.

Other forms of rewards work, of course, but time-off bonuses to solve a time-off problem make sense. Some employees actually don’t want time off (that’s a whole different issue), but for most, this type of reward works well.

Create a rotating schedule for all employees

HR Solutions, Inc., a management consulting firm that specializes in employee engagement surveys, compiled the top ten complaints employees have. On that list is favoritism, which rears its ugly head in many ways, particularly in how you handle time off.

That bubbly employee who always seems to ask for weekends off in summer? That employee who always has a family emergency? It’s way too easy to show favoritism without even realizing you’re doing it. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, after all, and quiet and reserved employees aren’t experiencing the same time off that those other employees are.

That’s where a rotating time-off schedule comes into play.

Rotating the time-off schedule for employees is a fair way to manage requests, particularly when it comes to holidays or weekends. Whether you’re aware of it, employees have long memories of getting stuck working holidays, or every Friday evening shift, or if they worked last Thanksgiving. You might not remember, but they do. Rotation is a purposeful way to avoid this.

Track previous requests

Keep track of the time-off requests of employees, including when they make the request, why they requested it, and the actual time off.

While it might be onerous, keeping track of employee time-off requests will help you spot problem patterns and also give you a better position for rejecting the time-off request of an employee who might be asking too often for the same reasons.

Depending on how you track the requests, you can also see if there are employees who rarely ask for time off. Perhaps they deserve some time off, but aren’t confident enough to ask on their own.

To help you keep track of time-off requests, try our free time clock app, which keeps track of all your employees’ requests in one easy-to-use software.

For flexibility, allow employees to trade shifts or days

Emergencies (legitimate ones, not those that seem to only happen on warm summer weekends) pop up, and you want to be able to give your employees time off in those cases. But what if you have a strict rotating schedule, or the employee has used up the allotted time-off requests?

Letting employees trade shifts or days, or come to an agreement between themselves, removes you from the equation and dispels the idea that you are showing favoritism. This can be made a lot easier with an employee scheduling app like When I Work. Employees can swap shifts from the app and it’s sent to the manager for approval. This is especially helpful with last-minute needs if an employee is sick.

One caution: check in with an employee who seems to be working for others a lot to be sure he or she actually wants to do it and isn’t feeling pressure to work. Power struggles, bullying, and strong personalities exist, and when it comes to time off, some employees might be afraid to say they don’t want to pick up someone else’s shift.

Managing time-off requests fairly is a mix of structured policies, flexibility for emergencies, and a purposeful avoidance of favoritism. Letting employees volunteer to pick up a shift gives them a sense of control that they aren’t at the mercy of the whims of their manager.

Streamline employee time-off requests with digital solutions

Instead of manually trying to keep track of who has requested time off and when, use a digital solution—you’ll get more benefits than just the break for your memory. You’ll get a more streamlined process, making it easier for employees to submit and track their requests, and for managers to approve or deny them. This can save time and reduce your administrative workload. It also ensures that all time-off requests are properly recorded and tracked, preventing confusion and errors. You’ll see more transparency and fairness, as all requests are stored in a central location and can be easily accessed, reducing the risk of favoritism or bias. Using dedicated employee scheduling and time tracking software like When I Work to track time-off requests can lead to an overall better and more efficient process for both employees and managers.

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