Last-minute time off requests can disrupt your business, but approving them can make your employees feel more valued. We explain ways you can approach unexpected time off requests that protect your business and keep your employees happy.
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Deciding what to do when an employee requests time off on short notice can be tricky. You don’t want to deny the request—time away from work is essential to employees’ happiness.
However, you also know that approving a sudden time off request for that employee means you must scramble to cover work. You could miss important deadlines or push other employees towards burnout.
We can help. In this guide, we explain how to deal with last-minute time off requests and help you shape a time off policy to prevent them.
- Time off can improve employee morale and work-life balance while preventing burnout.
- Deciding to approve or decline a last-minute time off request is a subjective decision. Consider your legal requirements, assess your staff and workload, and think about the circumstances.
- You can prevent last-minute time off requests by implementing a clear time off policy that requires advance notice and defines blackout periods.
- Reduce the impact of employees taking time away from work by cross-training your staff and building extra capacity into your workforce.
The Importance of Providing Time Off
In most cases, you must decide whether you offer time off as a benefit for your employees. Offering time away from work is a good idea because it improves employee morale and work-life balance. It prevents burnout and the productivity losses that come with it. In addition, time off makes your business more attractive to candidates.
You can choose between 2 types of time off: paid time off (PTO) or unpaid time off (UTO). PTO is considered much more of a benefit than UTO. You can offer both, although it’s important to ensure employees fully understand how much total time they can take off.
How To Deal with a Last-Minute Time Off Request
When an employee makes a last-minute time off request, you must make a decision: grant or deny the request.
It’s a no-win situation for you. You’ll either have to cover work unexpectedly or risk alienating an employee. Usually, the decision comes down to a subjective assessment of which outcome is worse.
You should try to make this decision as fair as possible to avoid upsetting employees. Employees who perceive your decision to be fair are more likely to accept it and move on—even if it’s not the outcome they hoped for.
With that in mind, here are 5 steps for dealing with last-minute time off requests:
Consider your legal requirements
Some states require employers to give employees time off on short notice for certain types of leave. For example, Oregon requires employers with at least 25 employees to offer up to 2 weeks of bereavement leave (time off following the loss of a family member) without advance notice. New York requires some employers to offer safe leave with little to no notice—like in cases of domestic violence.
Many employees also qualify for protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). While the FMLA generally requires employees to give 30 days’ notice, this requirement is waived if the reason for the leave wasn’t foreseeable.
You must grant time off requests made for legally protected reasons to ensure compliance with labor laws.
Assess your staffing and workload
When other employees can cover all the extra work that must get done, approving a last-minute time off request might make sense. Think about whether you have any deadlines coming up and whether any other employees have pre-approved time off for those days.
On the other hand, if a key employee asks for time off and no one else can do their job, you have a strong reason to deny their request. Say your company’s only accountant asks for vacation time in the middle of tax season. Asking them to reschedule their vacation for the future is reasonable.
Think about other circumstances
When you aren’t legally obligated to approve time off, there are several other factors to consider.
How big is the request?
There’s a big difference between a request for a single day off later in the week and a request for a week off starting tomorrow. Consider the amount of notice the employee gives relative to the length of time off requested when deciding if a request is too “last minute” to be reasonable.
Has this employee taken a lot of time off recently?
If an employee asks for last-minute PTO or unpaid time to take a vacation, consider whether they’ve taken lots of time off in the recent past. If they have, you’ve given that employee plenty of time away from work and demonstrated that you prioritize allowing personal time. So, the employee is less likely to feel burned out or upset if you deny their last-minute request.
🧠 Did You Know?
Connecteam is a time off management app that makes tracking employees’ time off balances and seeing how much time off they’ve taken recently easy. It also lets you easily visualize whether other employees have requested the same days off.
How will this employee respond if you deny the request?
The possibility of an employee quitting or feeling burned out if you deny their time off request should play into your approval decision. Inconveniencing your business for a few days to avoid losing a valuable employee might be worthwhile, especially considering the costs of replacing them. Plus, an employee who quits will lead you even more short-staffed.
You may be able to reduce the emotional impact of denying a time off request by telling the employee in person—or by video chat if the employee works remotely. Explain the reasoning for your decision and let the employee know that you’re willing to discuss the matter more if they desire.
Use a clear process
You should use a standardized process to respond to time off requests. Having a clear process ensures that you treat all requests similarly, reducing the potential for perceived bias or favoritism. Using your process, you’ll know:
- What to take into account when approving or denying requests.
- How long you should take to respond to requests.
- How you’ll communicate approvals or denials.
If you don’t already have a set process for approving or denying time off requests, start building one now.
In some cases, you can approve a time off request on the condition that the employee takes care of certain tasks before leaving. Alternatively, you can reshuffle your employees to cover the additional work or ask some employees to work overtime for extra pay. If an employee will be gone for an extended period, such as for last-minute FMLA leave, you may want to consider hiring temporary employees.
Creating a Time Off Policy To Prevent Last-Minute Requests
While you can handle last-minute UTO and PTO requests, preventing them is better. This starts with creating a policy that details when and how employees should request time off.
Include your time off policy in your employee handbook and make it easy to understand.
Here are a few things to include.
Requiring advance notice for time off requests is the single best policy you can put in place to prevent last-minute requests. Employees who know they must request time off 2 weeks in advance will usually submit their requests by that deadline. They also shouldn’t be surprised when you deny requests that don’t meet the deadline.
How much advance notice you require depends on how you run your business. Many businesses require 2 weeks notice for requests. But if you typically build schedules monthly, you may prefer requiring a month’s notice.
While this policy shouldn’t be vague, you should carve out exceptions for unexpected events like family emergencies. Include language like “requests submitted with less than 2 week’s notice due to unforeseeable circumstances (e.g., family emergencies) will be considered at your manager’s discretion.”
Submission of requests
Your time off policy should also instruct employees how to submit time off requests. For example, under a section titled “How to submit your request,” explain whether they should submit a request in writing or initiate a request using an online approval system.
All time off requests and decisions should be documented. You can use Excel if your business is small enough, but this quickly gets messy as your team grows. Dedicated time off management software can be extremely helpful for businesses of all sizes. Never rely on word-of-mouth agreements since these can easily be forgotten and lead to arguments later.
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Read our guide on the 7 best time off management systems.
Aim to approve or deny time off requests within 3 to 5 business days. If you need more time to make a decision, let the employee know as soon as possible.
You can also specify blackout periods when you don’t allow employees to take time off except in case of emergencies—such as busy times. For example, if the weeks leading up to Christmas require all hands on deck, create a blanket policy stating you won’t approve time off for those weeks.
This lets employees know they must schedule vacation time or other absences for other times of the year. Of course, your blackout periods should be limited in duration and frequency to give employees plenty of opportunities to use their time off.
Overlapping time off requests
During popular vacation times like summer, multiple employees might request the same days off. If your business can’t ensure work is covered when multiple employees are out at the same time, specify a policy for determining whose requests get approved.
A simple method is to take a first-come, first-served approach. This means the first person to request time off will have it approved, while later requesters may not. This approach is beneficial since it encourages employees to request time off as far in advance as possible. However, it can significantly disadvantage employees who aren’t as proactive about planning time off.
Another option is to assess requests based on how much time each employee has taken off recently. Say one employee has taken multiple days off and the other is asking for their first days off in months—you may give preference to the latter employee’s request. This approach requires more discretion.
You can also choose to approve PTO and UTO requests based on the reason behind the request. However, making fair decisions with this method can be difficult.
There might be clear-cut cases, such as one employee having a child’s graduation to attend and the other wanting to go to the beach. But you can also encounter murkier cases where both employees want a personal day and you must make a potentially unfair decision. In those cases, consider determining compromises.
Strategies To Reduce the Impact of Time Off
In addition to creating a time off policy, you should have strategies in place to reduce the impact of time off. This ensures your business operates normally when an employee is gone. It can also encourage approval of time off—so employees can reap the benefits of extended breaks from work.
Cross-training your employees to ensure that multiple individuals are capable of performing each essential role.
Say your business’s sole payroll specialist wants to take time off when they would normally run payroll. This might mean no one in your business will get paid that week. But when another employee who can step in to run payroll, this won’t happen.
🧠 Did You Know?
Connecteam is an employee training software that lets you build custom training courses you can use to cross-train employees. You can easily track which employees have learned which skills and quiz employees on what they’ve learned.
Build extra capacity
Another way to lessen the impact of employee time off is to ensure your business isn’t running at maximum capacity all the time. If it is, employees won’t feel like they can take time off—and you won’t want to approve time off. This bad situation can quickly lead to burnout.
Businesses running at maximum capacity should consider hiring more employees or finding ways to increase productivity without burning out workers. For example, you could automate repetitive tasks that suck up employees’ time.
Last-minute time off requests can be highly problematic for your business, but approving some requests keeps your employees happy. Consider your staff, your workload, and the circumstances of requests to decide whether to approve or deny them.
To prevent last-minute requests, create a clear time off policy that includes rules for how much advance notice employees must give. You can also cross-train your staff or hire more employees to lessen the disruption caused by employees’ time off.
A time off app like Connecteam can be perfect for helping you effortlessly implement your policy and deal with last-minute requests.
How do you handle excessive time off requests?
A clear time-off policy can prevent excessive time off requests—for example, by setting limits on how many days can be taken consecutively or within a certain period. You can also deny excessive requests with good reasoning. In addition, you can start a conversation with the employee to explore alternative solutions that align with their needs and your organization’s.
How do I politely decline a last-minute time off request?
You can decline a last-minute request by telling the employee your reasoning for the denial in a respectful manner. Use professional yet sympathetic language. Be upfront, and let the employee know that you’re happy to discuss the decision further if they have questions.