4 strategies to deal with competing requests for time off work

Managing your staff’s leave requests can be a nightmare, particularly when several people want to be off work at the same time. Whether it’s the Glastonbury weekend or the summer holiday season, one look at your employee scheduler software will tell you the dreaded news: you will have to make some hard and unpopular decisions to protect your operational needs.

But how do you get around the tricky situation of approving one leave request but refusing another? The last thing you want is friction between you and a disgruntled employee, or animosity between staff members that might manifest in poor productivity or customer service.

The only way to defuse any issues before they can arise is to have a simple and transparent company policy in place that defines exactly how overlapping leave requests will be dealt with. That way, everyone is clear about why one person’s holiday leave got approved while a colleague’s request for the same day/week was turned down.

The policy you establish for your company is likely to be different to that of other companies – after all, every business has specific needs, peak trading times and different operational requirements.

Here are 4 popular strategies to deal with overlapping requests for time off.

1. ‘First Come First Served’ policy

Introducing a first come, first served policy is an obvious starting point. The concept of having to wait one’s turn, and potentially missing out if other people got there first, is universally accepted in all areas of daily life. From the bus queue to booking theatre tickets or buying the latest iPhone, availability is always on a first come first served basis.

The downside of this policy is that employees who don’t plan their holidays far ahead may feel resentful of those who do, while new employees are at a disadvantage. A rota system, whereby a staff member whose request is refused is given priority for the next request, may go some way to address this.

First come, first served may not be a sufficient criteria for decision making – other factors may come into play to determine whether time off work should be given.

2. Reason for wanting time off work

Sometimes, there is a convincing reason why Employee B should be given time off even though Employee A asked first. Family emergencies, official appointments and or other urgent unforeseen circumstances are a case in point. In this case, First Come First Served could reasonably be overridden.

Outside of compelling circumstances, giving preferential treatment to one staff member’s leave request over another may be difficult, since it involves a value judgement on the part of the management. Who is to say that a trip to Disneyland is more worthy of time off than a week in Tuscany? While the reason for requesting absence from work should always be taken into account, do whatever you can to avoid being accused of favouritism.

3. Seniority rules

A variation on the ‘first come first served’ theme, this policy will essentially allow a more senior member of staff to ‘pull rank’, requesting that his leave be approved in preference to the less senior employee. While there’s no reason why this can’t work with everyone’s cooperation, there is a slight danger of encouraging an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture.

To alleviate any concerns, it is advisable to make employees aware that a seniority based policy will not operate solely on its own merit, but will only ever be taken into account as part of other business considerations.

4. Managerial Discretion

Sometimes, the best person to decide who should be allowed to go on holiday and who should stay is the line manager. Armed with management information about the resources needed for a smooth operation, you know if it is a good idea for two staff members to be off work at the same time. If you can only spare one employee, use your managerial discretion as a basis for your decision.

It is likely that you will have a good insight into the personal needs and abilities of each staff member and can take these into account when deciding whose request to approve. To avoid accusations of favouritism, however, do make sure that your reasons are full transparent to all concerned.