Staffing Management

Managing employee time-off requests: A guide for business owners

By Dan Whitehead

May. 20, 2021

Managing employee time-off requests is one of the most important responsibilities a manager has, and mishandling them can lead to staffing shortages and morale issues. On the other hand, managing employee time-off requests well can help keep your employees happy, create a more positive work environment, and ultimately help your business thrive.

Creating a time-off policy is a good opportunity to think about your business’s needs and define the expectations you have for your staff. The best way to manage employee time-off requests is to have a clear policy and apply it fairly. To help you get started, we’ve put together a guide that will help you create that policy and use it to manage time-off requests from your team.

What kinds of employee time off are available

Before you start designing your policy, it’s important to understand the different types of time off and how they apply to your business.

Paid time off (PTO)

In the United States, employers are not legally required to give employees paid time off, unlike other developed countries. However, twelve states and Washington, D.C., currently have additional laws in place mandating paid time off.

Consistent research has shown that taking time off is good for both productivity and employees’ mental health. Offering paid time off can also help you retain talented employees and promote work-life balance for your staff. Some companies that offer paid time off choose to group PTO under one umbrella, and others break it down into different categories. PTO categories might include:

  • Vacation time: time off from work for employees to rest and take a break.
  • Paid sick leave: days set aside for when employees are ill, caring for a sick family member, or attending doctor’s appointments.
  • Bereavement leave: leave offered for the death of a family member, often to attend the funeral.
  • Maternity/paternity leave: paid leave for new parents.
  • Jury duty or voting time: paid time off to cover jury duty or to vote.

Unpaid time off

As the name implies, this is time off that employees don’t get paid for. If your business doesn’t offer PTO, all the requests for time off that you deal with as a manager will fall under this category.

While the United States doesn’t require paid medical leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does require that businesses offer 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave every year for certain family and medical reasons.

What to include in your time-off policy to better manage employee requests

Once you know what kind of time off your business offers to hourly employees, you can build your policy accordingly. Your policy should be shared with all your employees and be easily accessible for them to consult at all times. Here are some of the key things your policy should include:

How much time off employees receive

Your time-off policy should not only outline the different types of time off that employees get, but should also include details on how much of each type that employees receive. For example, do employees get more time off the longer they have worked for you? Do they get zero time off during their probation period?

How to request time off

Do you prefer to receive requests by email, through an app, by text, or even by having your staff fill out a form and drop it on your desk? Any of these options are fine, as long as they’re consistent and work well for you.

Make sure to create a system to file and review requests. You can use a calendar to block out requests, or an email folder to keep all requests in one place. You can sort them by whether a request is pending, approved, or denied, or sort requests by employee, so you can easily spot if one person is always requesting time off and another never does. You can also use an app to manage these requests automatically.

Workforce lets you see and approve all time off requests allows you to see and approve all employee requests for time off in one place.

How far in advance requests should be made

Making clear rules can save you hours and make scheduling much easier. It’s much faster to create a weekly schedule without including absent employees than it is to try to redo a schedule and find coverage for them at the last moment.

You can also decide that you need more notice for longer periods of time off. Maybe you only need two weeks’ notice to grant someone two days off, but would prefer to have two months’ notice before approving a full week of leave. Make sure to include that, too.

How often employees can request time off

Communicate to employees if there are limits to how often they can request time off. If you can only grant time off twice a month (or twice a year), make sure to include that in your policy, too.

When are time-off blackout periods?

And finally, spell out any blackout periods for your business when you won’t be able to grant time-off requests. For example, retail businesses are often very busy during the holidays and need all hands on deck, and restaurants in popular vacation spots experience their busiest periods in the summer.

An employee using the Workforce app to request time off’s employee scheduling app makes it easy for employees to submit their time-off requests.

How to use your policy to manage time off

Now that you have a clear policy in place, let’s look at how you can put it into practice and use it to manage requests in a way that’s clear, fair, and compliant with legal regulations.

Create a process for overlapping requests

Acknowledge to yourself that even in a perfect world, you won’t be able to accommodate all time-off requests, especially if they overlap and risk leaving your business short-staffed.

Create a system for yourself to manage overlapping requests. Different systems have different advantages: For example, you could allocate time off on a first-come, first-serve basis. This encourages staff members to make their requests far in advance and makes it easier for you to plan your schedule. You could also decide to prioritize time-off requests from employees with more seniority or who make requests less often.

A shift schedule clashes with paid leave
Use an employee scheduling tool like to prevent accidental scheduling of employees taking time off.

Leave space for managerial discretion

Whatever you decide, it’s important to leave yourself space for managerial discretion. If you need at least one bartender on every shift and none are available to step in, granting a time-off request will leave you in a bind. But be aware there’s a risk that your most valuable team members may resent you if you deny all their requests because your business can’t function without them. Use your best judgment to keep things running smoothly.

Always strive to be fair

At the same time, strive to be as fair as possible. Most employees are sensitive to favoritism in the workplace, and creating an unjust dynamic in the workplace will tank morale.

Don’t grant exceptions only for one employee, for example. Try to rotate which team members cover the most undesirable shifts, both throughout the month and from one year to the next: You may not remember who covered Christmas Eve last year, but the employee who worked that night certainly does. Consider incentives for harder shifts, like offering weekends off later in the year to whoever covers the holidays, for example.

Allow shift swapping

If you can, consider allowing your employees to swap shifts, and create a clear system for them to do so—make sure they know to run it by you for final approval, so you don’t end up short-staffed or lacking the specific skills you need on a busy shift. For example, you can request that employees email you their shift swaps. By giving your team more autonomy to trade shifts, they can help manage their schedules and create less work for you.

Workers using employee scheduling software can submit shift swap requests from the mobile app; you and your managers can quickly review and decline/approve shift swaps from one place within the platform.

Expect the unexpected

Even with the best policies in place, always expect the unexpected. Unavoidable emergencies will come up, and even your most reliable employees might have to call out without warning. Build up a trusted roster of part-timers who can fill in, especially during your business’s busier periods.

Communicate clearly to make managing time-off requests easier

It’s important to communicate with your employees, so they understand how time-off requests work at your company. Being transparent and fair are key to maintaining morale and creating a positive work environment for everyone.

The best way to find employees who can follow your time-off policies is to explain them upfront during the hiring process. That way, prospective employees can figure out in advance if they can work within those requirements, and you can save time by hiring people who are the best fit for your business’s needs.

If you can’t grant an employee’s time-off request (you’re short-staffed that day, or too many people are requesting the same day off), sit your team member down and see if you can reach a compromise or offer an alternative. Would a different day that same week work, or a different weekend in the month? Showing your team you’re willing to work with them when possible goes a long way toward creating goodwill, and encourages them to be flexible in turn.


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