HR Headaches: How to Handle Last Minute Vacation Requests

If your company doesn’t have a paid time off policy in place, here’s why you should consider creating one — plus what you should cover in yours.

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There’s one in every company: the last minute vacation requester. Either they’ve found a great deal online that requires they hop on the plane tomorrow, or they forgot to mention they planned on taking the kids to an amusement park excursion 6 months ago. Whatever the reason, they need vacation time off and they need it now. Not to be confused with those who are unexpectedly called out of time for a family crisis, these employees are either impulse travelers or bad planners, but their problem becomes your emergency.

How you handle these urgent requests depends on several factors. If you have a paid time off policy in place, it may outline guidelines with the amount of advance notice required to take time off. If not, it might be a good idea to update your policy with this included. With no policy, you may have to weigh the benefits versus the risk when you determine whether the request will be granted or denied.

You’re within your rights to require notice

You are well within your rights as an employer to require staff members to provide sufficient notice of time off, particularly if their absence will disrupt your business. If the only payroll processor asks for the week off when payroll is run, the rest of the company will suffer. If they’ve trained someone to handle the run in their place, it wouldn’t be problematic. You have the right to deny the request, but the fallout may not be worthwhile.

As you make your decision, look at the impact the absence will have on others. Will you be able to work, temporarily, without them? Will others be able to pick up the slack? Everyone entitled to earned vacation should be allowed to use it. Keeping employees from using their paid time off is a morale crusher and typically results in burned out, low performing staff members.

It may be in your interest to allow time off; ask employees to help make sure it doesn’t bring your operation to a standstill. For employees who work mostly independently, there may be no impact on others. For those who are a part of teams, there may be a ripple effect of lost production. You may want to ask those staff members and their managers to help find a way to allow the time off. If it’s not feasible, due to deadlines and other factors, the decision will be made for you. If it is, consider allowing the time off.

Set a precedent

A big consideration when allowing last minute time off requests is that they become the norm, rather than the exception. If you allow one employee to do it, it will be hard to refuse the next. That can put your organization in constant crisis aversion mode, trying to find coverage for single or multiple employees who decide “it’s time for me to fly.” For this reason alone, denying last minute requests might be a best business practice. If you do allow it, the next step may be to create a policy against the practice, but you might want to wait to put it into effect. Allowing one employee to take a last minute trip, then writing a policy that denies that right to another employee who asks 2 days later for the same accommodation might be problematic.

Define “last minute”

Defining your rules in advance is key and sticking to them across all levels of employees is critical.

For some organizations, less than a week’s notice is considered a last minute request. For others, a longer lead time is required. Defining your rules in advance is key and sticking to them across all levels of employees is critical. You will not want to allow management level staff members to take off without notice, then deny others the right to do so. This could be considered discriminatory or disparate treatment. Once you’ve established a rule, equitable enforcement is required.

When employees call in that they’re heading to the airport that morning, you have few options. They’re not coming in, and you’ll be spending the day covering for them or finding coverage. Without a policy in place, you have the option of terminating them, but might want to delay the decision until cooler heads prevail. In the heat of the moment, you might not be carefully weighing their overall value to the company versus a few days’ inconvenience. Take time to determine whether they’re an asset on the whole and, if you decide to continue their employment, warn them this will be a one-off situation. You can tell them the next time they don’t provide at least a week (or more) notice, will be their last week’s employment with your company.

The benefits of planning ahead

When employees pre-plan their vacation time off, they and their managers are able to come up with coverage and solutions. When the request is last minute, it’s a scramble to make even the minimal necessary adjustments for coverage. Every staff member has been in the position of covering for last minute call-offs. They’re frustrating and challenging. Asking for adequate time to review and approve the request is a reasonable business practice.

Many organizations ask staff members to start planning their vacations as soon as possible, even starting on January 1. The further in advance you plan, the better coverage you can provide for the staff members in place.

The weeks before Thanksgiving or between Christmas and New Years are coveted and difficult to allocate. For employees with families, spring and summer breaks often allow for more flexibility: these can vary depending on your location and offer a larger window of vacation opportunities. The newest staff members may not get first dibs on the best dates, but their length at the company will catch them up to their peers.

Creating a policy

If you don’t have a policy in place for paid time off, you should. Typically, businesses require employees to provide at least 2 weeks’ notice to take non-sick time off. Set your policy to include how much advanced notice is required for time off that extends more than 2 or 3 days (more or less if you prefer). Remind employees that time off is an earned benefit and should be taken every year, but doing so will require planning and approvals so the request has the littlest impact on colleagues as possible.

Remind employees that time off is an earned benefit and should be taken every year, but doing so will require planning and approvals so the request has the littlest impact on colleagues as possible.

Include any blackout days your business operations may need. For retailers and food service providers, for example, the holiday season may mean all hands on deck. While staff members may want that time off, you may have to set a policy that blacks out those dates (or others) and outlines specifically that no request (advanced or last minute) will be approved during the time frame.

Outline what factors will be weighed in determining vacation requests. In some companies, workers with more seniority are granted time off before less tenured staff members if both request the same days and weeks off. If requests are on a first come, first served basis, specify when requests can be submitted and don’t accept them before the allowable date.

Written request policy 

You may want to set a written request policy, asking employees to fill out a form or write when and for how long they want time off with a copy to their supervisor and the HR Department. If you ask for requests in writing, with a cc: to HR, it can minimize disputes. Under a first come, first-served request, the date of the request will help determine who gets the time: for seniority priority, HR can provide who has more tenure and therefore gets the time off.

To grant or not to grant last minute requests

When employees ask for vacation time without notice, it puts business in a difficult position. If you grant the request you may be setting a precedent that will make running your operation challenging for years to come. If you deny the request, you may be losing a talented employee. In a tight talent market, it may be worthwhile to lose the staffer for a week: when times are less challenging, it might be easier to replace them. Weigh these — along with the time and cost to recruit, training time, and lower productivity — before you decide.

If you have a policy in place, even one that denies requests and requires you terminate the staffer, you should follow through. If you don’t have a policy, consider creating one to stave off chaos in the future.

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