Managing Employee Time Off Requests: The Ultimate Guide

As a small business owner, you’re often juggling responsibilities and priorities. With so much to keep track of, it can be easy to overlook the importance of managing your employees’ time off requests.

Managing how and when your employees request time off is an important part of operating a successful business. It helps make sure your business is always staffed and ready to meet your customers’ needs. It also helps you keep top talent, foster a strong workplace culture, and keeps your business compliant with local labor laws.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about managing employee time off requests, including:

  • How to develop a time off request policy 
  • How to manage time off requests
  • How to handle overlapping PTO requests

Types of Time Off

Before you put together your official time off request policy, it’s important to understand the different types of time off. There are two main types of time off, paid time off and unpaid time off.

Paid Time Off (PTO) 

In the United States, there is no federal law that mandates PTO. However, certain states have their own regulations mandating paid time off. It’s important to understand the labor laws in your state so you can develop a clear time off policy that keeps your business compliant. 

Offering paid time off can be a great way to attract and keep employees, but it can also become costly. When receiving a PTO request, you need to consider the needs of your staff and the needs of your business.

By finding the right balance, you can create a PTO policy that works for your employees and your business. Different types of PTO include:

Paid Sick Leave

This category is primarily for employees who find themselves unable to work due to a health issue, whether it’s a seasonal flu or a more serious condition. Employers can ask for documentation, such as a note from a healthcare provider, particularly for extended periods of absence. Sick leave also often extends to instances where an employee needs to provide care for an unwell family member or has scheduled medical appointments. Since medical emergencies or appointments are often unexpected, many companies choose to implement a flexible approval process for sick leave.

Vacation Time

Employees value the ability to take a hiatus from work to rejuvenate, travel, or spend time with loved ones. Employers usually determine how much vacation time employees are entitled to, often based on their length of service. Some companies have a fixed system, providing a set number of days per year, while others have more flexible arrangements, like unlimited vacation policies, albeit with some managerial oversight. It’s essential to manage these requests fairly to ensure operational efficiency.

Bereavement Leave

This type of time off is granted for employees going through the loss of a family member. The duration and pay scale for bereavement leave can differ from company to company, but the goal is to give the employee time to grieve and to attend memorial services. Some businesses have extended their policies to include not just immediate family but also pets or more distant relatives.

Maternity/Paternity Leave

Recognizing the importance of the early bonding period between parents and newborns, many companies offer maternity and paternity leave. Some even go beyond the minimum legal requirements, offering additional weeks of paid or unpaid leave, or features such as ‘phased return to work,’ which allows new parents to gradually transition back to full-time hours.

Jury Duty or Voting Time

Civic responsibilities like jury duty or voting often come with legal obligations for employers to provide time off. While jury duty can be unpredictable and may last several days or weeks, voting usually takes up less time. Employers may request proof of attendance for either activity.

Unpaid Time Off

Unpaid time off is self-explanatory: it’s time off work that employees aren’t paid for. If your business doesn’t provide PTO, all time-off requests will fall under the unpaid category.

There’s no federal law that requires paid medical leave in the US. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires businesses to offer up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave every year for specific family and medical reasons.

Developing a Time Off Requests Policy

Have written protocols your employees can look to when submitting time off requests. This is where your time off requests policy comes in.

Your time off requests policy should be readily available in something like an employee handbook. This makes it easy for employees to access and reference at any time.

These are the things your time off request policy should include.

How Employees Can Request Time Off

Your policy should outline how you want employees to request time off. Don’t allow employees to make verbal time-off requests. This is not an effective way of tracking their time off.

Do you want to receive requests by email? Or do you prefer they submit using a time off request template? What about with a time and attendance tracking software like Homebase?

Whatever you choose, make sure you’re keeping a record of everything. This helps you avoid missing any requests or scheduling the wrong employees.

But even if you aren’t making obvious mistakes, manually requesting and tracking PTO requests can take a lot of time.

If you’re using Homebase, your team members don’t have to search for a time off request template online. They can easily submit their time off requests via the Homebase app.

All they have to do is log in to their Homebase account, choose the “request time off” option, and select whether they want to take the entire day off or a part of it. It’s a convenient and streamlined process that can save everyone time and energy.

HR and compliance servicesManage and approve employee time off requests directly through Homebase

How Much Notice Should Employees Give for Time Off Requests

Your policy should state how far in advance employees need to submit time off requests. This way, you can make sure that you have enough staff members available to cover shifts and maintain productivity. It also gives you time to make arrangements and adjust schedules as needed.

Some businesses require employees to give at least two weeks’ notice before taking time off, while others may have shorter or longer notification periods. With a mobile time-tracking app like Homebase, you can adjust the amount of notice required based on your business’ staffing and productivity needs.

HR compliance services
The Homebase app allows you to adjust the amount of notice required for your employees to submit time off requests 

How Often Can Employees Take Time Off

Make sure your policy outlines how often employees can request time off. This helps prevent scheduling conflicts and ensure that all employees have a fair chance to take time off.

You could have a flexible policy allowing employees to request time off as often as they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with business operations. Or your policy could be more rigid, stating employees can only request time off once a month or quarter.

It’s important to find a balance between allowing your team the flexibility to take time off they need, while also ensuring that your business is running smoothly. You can achieve this by setting reasonable limits on the frequency and duration of time off requests based on your business’ needs.

Including a maximum frequency of time off requests in your policy establishes clear attendance expectations and boundaries for your employees. This reduces confusion and misunderstandings on your team.

How Much Time Off Employees Receive

Your policy should include specific details on how much time off employees can receive. Include things like whether the amount of time off increases based on seniority or if there are any restrictions on time off during a probation period.

Communicate Blackout Periods When Employees Can’t Request Time Off

There are certain times of year when it might be difficult or even impossible to approve your employees’ time-off requests. The holidays can be an especially busy time for retail. Restaurants in popular vacation spots often experience their peak season during the summer as well.

It’s crucial for you to plan ahead and communicate these anticipated busy periods to your employees in your time off request policy. Everyone should be on the same page about the importance of being available during busy times.

How to Actively Manage PTO Requests

Now that you’ve developed your official time off requests policy, you need to know how to put it into practice. Here’s how to manage time-off requests in a way that’s fair, compliant with legal regulations, and easy for everyone on your team.

How to Handle Overlapping Time Off Requests

It’s not uncommon for multiple employees to request time off around the same time, regardless of whether or not it’s busy season. Accommodating overlapping requests might not be a problem if it’s only a few employees and it’s easy to cover their shifts.

But when too many staff members request time off for the same shifts, you may need to make some tough decisions about whose requests to fulfill. Here are some strategies you can use to manage overlapping time-off requests:

Use a First Come, First Served System for Time Off

This method provides clarity and fairness for your employees. It also encourages them to request time off well in advance, which can help you better manage your scheduling and workload.

Use a Seniority-Based System for PTO

This method grants employees who have been at the company longer priority over newer employees.

Use a Reason-Based System for Time Offs

If you have multiple employees requesting time off for different reasons, it may be helpful to compare the reasons and make a decision based on that. For example, if one employee is requesting time off to be at a family wedding while another is asking for time off to dogsit for a friend, it may be more appropriate to prioritize the former request since it appears to be more urgent.

Consider the Number of Prior Time Off Requests the Employee Has Made

Another policy to consider is the number of time-off requests an employee has made. For instance, if one employee has already requested off for three other shifts during the month, and the other employee is only requesting off for this particular shift, it may be more appropriate to approve the latter request.

This helps to ensure that time off requests are distributed fairly among your team.

Incentivize Employees Who Work Harder Shifts or Rarely Take Time Off 

It’s important to acknowledge the employees who go above and beyond with their duties, or who rarely take time off from work. While it’s understandable that some employees may need to take time off for emergencies or special events, those who consistently show up to their shifts are often underappreciated.

Consider implementing a rewards program that recognizes employees who go a certain period of time without requesting time off. Depending on the frequency of shifts, this period could range from a month to six months.

Rewards could include a bonus, paid vacation time, the opportunity to choose preferred shifts, or even a raise if it’s feasible within your budget.

This shows your employees that you value their loyalty to their job and their ability to balance their personal lives around work commitments.

Tracking Time Off Requests

Once your policy is in place and your employees understand it, you need to be able to effectively manage time off requests. Here are some tips for doing so:

  • Use software: Consider using a time and attendance tracking software like Homebase to manage time off requests. This can save time and reduce the risk of errors.
  • Respond fast: Respond to time off requests quickly. This gives employees the chance to make appropriate arrangements.
  • Keep accurate records: Keep accurate records of time off requests and approvals with a tool like Homebase. This ensures that you’re complying with your policy and any relevant laws.
  • Be fair and consistent: Apply your policy fairly and consistently to all employees. No one on your team should feel that they’re being treated unfairly.
  • Plan ahead: Plan ahead for times when you know you will need extra staff, such as during a busy season or for a big event.

Maintain Flexibility and Use Your Discretion for Time Off Requests

You should allow for some flexibility in how you grant time off requests to your employees. For example, to accommodate last-minute time off requests.

Use your best judgment to make sure your business is running smoothly while still respecting your employees’ needs.

For example, if you always need at least one server and no one’s available to cover the server’s shift, you might not want to approve their request.

It’s also important to keep in mind that denying every request might cause resentment from your top employees.

These are likely the most valuable members of your team and you want to keep them happy and on your team.

Create a Rotating Schedule to Manage Time Requested Off

Instead of looking at each employee’s time-off requests on a case-by-case basis, you can consider a rotating time-off schedule.

Sometimes, without even realizing it, we end up giving the same employees time off over and over again. This means others are stuck filling in for those less-than-ideal shifts.

Requiring employees to work undesirable shifts can leave a permanent impression on them. This can affect employee morale, retention and productivity.

By rotating schedules, every employee gets a fair share, which helps prevent feelings of resentment from forming.

You could start at the beginning of each year by assigning specific vacation time periods for each employee. Or, if someone needs time off outside of that schedule, they can find their own replacements.

If your business needs different shift times, you could also rotate those around, such as who has to work weekends, early mornings or late nights. It’s all about being fair.

Remember: This is not legal advice. If you have questions about your particular situation, please consult a lawyer, CPA, or other appropriate professional advisor or agency.

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