Employee Vacation Requests: Can PTO Be Denied?

By Laura Dowling, SPHR on Dec 04, 2023
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how to deny an employee holiday time off request

As the festive cheer of the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s season unfolds, with its twinkling lights and ubiquitous holiday tunes, small business owners face a less merry scenario: a flood of employee vacation requests. This period, while festive, poses a logistical puzzle. 

Can PTO Be Denied?

Generosity in granting paid time off (PTO) is a virtue, but when everyone wants to be off simultaneously, it begs the critical question: 'Can PTO be denied?' For small companies, the answer isn't just about goodwill; it's a balancing act between operational necessity and employee well-being.

Occasionally, denying PTO requests becomes an unavoidable decision. While legally, employers can deny vacation requests, compliance with laws like the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is non-negotiable. These scenarios require careful navigation to ensure legal obligations are met.

But the crux of the matter extends beyond mere legality. It's about striking a harmonious balance: what benefits the company must be weighed against the needs and rights of employees. As challenging as it may be, finding this equilibrium is crucial for the health of your business and the satisfaction of your team.

So how exactly do you decline an employee’s request for time off? Below are a few tips and some advice for those tough conversations.

RELATED: Understanding Today's Paid Sick Leave Laws >>

Be Considerate

Unfortunately, sometimes the number of overlapping holiday time-off asks that come in means you may have to say no to some employees’ requests. How exactly do you decline an employee’s request for time off? Be considerate.

Look at the situation from the employee’s point of view. Is there something meaningful happening in their life surrounding this time off request? Before you decline the request, see if there are potential solutions.

For example, if multiple employees want the same days off all at once, is there some sort of compromise available? Perhaps you can accommodate part of the time each employee requested. 

It's also important to consider that fostering a healthy culture by promoting work-life balance is vital to employee engagement and performance. If you unnecessarily deny employee PTO requests, you may harm employee morale, engagement and productivity.

Bottom line: Don’t be quick to reject a time-off request. First, take some time to examine the situation from all angles.

Disgruntled employees can often be perpetrators of workplace shootings.

How to Say "No"

Can PTO be denied? Yes! But when in this situation, it's best to handle it with care. Rather than a quick "no", show empathy. Exhibit a willingness to listen to the employee’s individual circumstances.

Ideally, have this conversation in person. A series of back-and-forth emails, for example, may only exacerbate the issue, as employees sometimes can misinterpret the tone and intent of an email. Be clear in how you communicate, and explain why the request can’t be met. Ultimately, if you still must deny the time off request, hopefully, your openness and forthrightness will have helped to alleviate some of the tension.

Offer an Alternative

Work-life balance and time off are important factors in setting company culture and employee satisfaction. While denying a paid time off request may be necessary, be transparent with the employee about why they cannot take time off during their requested timeframe. In addition, discuss alternative time-off periods with them. Managing time off fairly means that, as a manager, you need to help find solutions that keep your employees engaged.

Anticipate the Potential for an Emotional Response

When you tell an employee their vacation request is denied, an emotional response may happen. The employee may have already made plans, booking flights and reserving hotel rooms, assuming you would approve the time away from work.

Responding with a “no” could cause the employee to grow frustrated and perhaps raise their voice or even cry. As their manager, you need to be prepared for this type of reaction and help diffuse the situation.

how to create fair weekend and holiday schedules

Offer the Employee Some Space

Just as individuals who argue sometimes need to take time apart to “cool off,” in this scenario, your employee might just need a little time and space to regroup. Offer that you can continue the conversation when they are ready and, if possible, schedule a different time for them to use their PTO.

RELATED: Six Ways to Effectively Manage Time Off Requests >>

When Your Employee Just “Takes Off” Anyway

Rarely, but in some instances, even though you denied the time off request, the employee may decide to just take vacation time anyway and deal with the consequences later. What then? Managing time off requests means being prepared for a variety of situations, even one like this.

  • Unexcused absences should be addressed under company policy.

  • Even though you may have had a “heart to heart” with this employee prior to the taking off of unexcused time, you still want to ensure their case is treated just as any other employee’s would be. If action is warranted, take the action under the company policy.

  • Get an HR expert involved. If your organization does not have an in-house HR team, then working with a professional employer organization comprised of experienced HR professionals who are knowledgeable about these types of employee matters can make a big difference.
sample holiday work policy downloadable guide

Axcet HR Solutions: Helping You with the Hard Conversations

We've addressed both the legality and employee relations side to the question, "Can PTO be denied." And while you have every right to deny a request, Denying an employee’s vacation request can be a difficult conversation to have. As the boss, you must be tactful yet firm. If you are struggling with these kinds of issues or are uncertain about the rules and regulations regarding employee time off and protected leave, we can help. Contact us today.

Axcet HR Solutions is your reliable HR outsourcing company, backed by a team of skilled HR experts. We understand that challenging situations can arise, and we are here to assist you every step of the way. From everyday HR consulting to complex issues, our dedicated team is prepared to offer valuable guidance and support. Trust us to be your go-to resource for comprehensive HR solutions.

For more information on how Axcet HR Solutions can help you with difficult employee relations issues, visit our website. 

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Written by Laura Dowling, SPHR

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