Employee time-off requests: Your top 10 questions answered

As a business that cares about employee wellbeing, of course you want to build a company culture that encourages people to take time to recharge. But not every request for time off is going to allow your business to run smoothly and remain fair to the other members of your team. Far from boosting team morale, being too casual in how time off is requested can be a misstep for everyone.

No matter the size of your team or which industry you’re in, a smooth leave management system is vital. Here’s how to create, implement, and stick to a time-off request policy that will help you retain top talent and keep your team happy and motivated.


What is a time-off request? 

A time-off request is when employees seek permission to take a specific amount of time away from work, either paid or unpaid. 

Managers or business owners can either approve or deny the request based on the company’s time-off policy, taking the rest of the team’s availability into account.

What is a time-off policy? 

A time-off policy is a written guideline on your rules and regulations surrounding time off. 

It’s your management approach to approving or denying requests from employees, including how to manage last-minute time-off requests. 

Paid time-off policy

PTO, also called paid time off, or personal time off, is when employees can take leave from work while still earning wages. Paid time off gives your employees the chance to take personal time if they’re sick, want to go on vacation, or simply need a day off. A paid time-off policy is usually limited to a set amount of PTO hours each calendar year, which may or may not carry over to the next year if they go unused.

Unpaid time-off policy

Unpaid time off, or UTO, is time away from work without being paid wages. An employee may opt for this kind of leave because of illness, family or personal obligations, or to take an especially meaningful vacation. Some companies may choose to allow only unpaid time off, while others let their employees ask for unpaid time off after they’ve used up their allotted amount of paid time-off requests.

Unlimited time-off policy

An approach that’s becoming increasingly popular is an unlimited paid time-off vacation policy. The worker can request as much personal time off as they choose, as long as they get their work done. Unlimited time-off policies work best for results-focused organizations like startups, where flexible scheduling is easily manageable.

Floating holidays

Some companies offer their workers floating holidays, which are days off that can be taken—as long as proper notice is given—at any time of the year. Unlike paid vacation days, these types of time-off requests don’t carry over into the next calendar year if left unused, and there’s no increase in allotment over the years. 

What is a time-off request policy? 

A time-off request policy is typically the section of your employee handbook that tells your employees exactly how to submit a request for paid or unpaid leave. 

An effective policy should go through your company’s rules in detail. It will often include:

  • How many days of unpaid or paid time off are permitted, and how often
  • How far in advance requests need to be submitted
  • Any specific instances or times of the year when employees aren’t allowed to request time off
  • What your process is for overlapping time off requests
  • Whether employees are asked to swap shifts or help find someone to cover their work in their absence
  • How and where employees should submit their requests

With clear rules and consistent enforcement, you can avoid the awkward conversations that arise when employees misunderstand what your company expects. That way, you’ll avoid an employee thinking their time off is approved and just not showing up

Your time-off request questions, answered 

So which time-off arrangements will work best at your company? Let’s look at the top time-off request questions that you as a manager or business owner should consider.

1. When are hourly workers entitled to time off?

An hourly employee (someone who is paid by the hour and not a salary) is sometimes only paid for the hours they work. However, paid time off for hourly employees can provide benefits for both your team members and your business, adding to productivity and producing higher-quality work. If your company chooses not to offer paid time off to hourly workers, you should set up an unpaid time-off policy for these employees.

2. What are the paid time off laws I should be aware of?

No matter your policy for time off, it needs to follow the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as state and local laws. Check our Homebase state labor law guide to learn more about what’s required in your area.

When you sign up for Homebase, you can easily stay compliant with all relevant labor laws. You’ll receive email notifications alerting you when minimum wage is increasing, or if any new laws are taking effect in your area soon so you can make any needed changes quickly.

3. What should be included in a time-off policy?

When you’re sitting down to write your time-off policy, there are key things you’ll need to include to keep your business compliant and your employees informed. 

Must-haves for your time-off policy include:

  • The deadline for requesting time off
  • How many days of paid and unpaid time off employees can take, and in what period
  • Your process for overlapping time-off requests
  • How paid time off is accrued or designated
  • What paid time off can (and can’t) be used for
  • Any blackout periods, like summer, the holiday season, or school breaks
  • How you’ll handle unused PTO, whether rolling it over or paying it out

In a shiftwork organization where any individual can cover another’s shift—for those who only need one or two shifts covered here and there—you may want to leave it to your employees to talk amongst themselves and find their own shift replacements, without you needing to intervene. An all-team communication tool can make this super easy. If this is the case, make sure it’s mentioned in your policy.

And alongside the dates when employees can’t request time off, be sure to list the times that they can. Put it in writing which times of the year are fair game, and encourage your employees to make use of them. As per the Washington Post in 2023, the vacation rate of working Americans has fallen from 3.3% to just 1.7% since 1980. Do your part to buck this trend, and make sure you’re building a company culture that encourages employees to take time to recharge.

4. What does an effective time-off request procedure look like? 

An effective time-off request procedure uses clear, concise language that can be easily understood, explaining all scenarios that might come up. 

One approach is to make your policy flexible, bundling together all types of leave (paid sick leave, vacation time) into one bank and allow your employees to take the days off when they need them. The flexibility will convey your trust in them, showing that you don’t feel the need to have control over this area of their work. Take a look at the culture of your team and how your industry works to determine which type of time-off policy would work best for everyone involved.

No matter how well thought out your procedure is, it’s ineffective if it isn’t widely shared and understood. Add it to your employee handbook, make sure every manager and employee is familiar with it, and review it with new hires during onboarding. This will go a long way toward helping managers treat employees fairly, while at the same time helping employees understand the rules.

5. What should I do about last-minute time-off requests?

Beyond sick days, childcare issues and emergencies, there are times when an employee just wants to seize a last-minute chance to get away. We’ve all been there—sometimes things just come up. In these cases, you’ll want to have a conversation about your employee’s specific situation, then decide from there if it’s worth making an exception for them.

Keeping an eye on the time-off history of each individual employee is key. To keep morale high and maintain fairness, make sure you’re not unknowingly granting the majority of days off to the same employees. When a certain person is always taking impromptu time off, it can put an unfair burden on their teammates who are left to pick up the slack, making certain employees feel like they’re carrying more than their share of the workload. This can sometimes contribute to a toxic workplace.

When this is the case, consider having a talk with the frequently absent employee, helping them understand the effects of their sudden absences on the rest of the team. As always, try your best to make them feel respected, even when a time-off request is denied.

6. How can I manage time-off requests fairly? 

Overlapping time-off requests are going to happen. Sooner or later, more than one employee will ask for the same period of time off, and you’ll have to decide whose request to grant. Make sure you have a clear system in place for handling this situation.

Some popular approaches include:

  • First come, first served: Approve employee time-off requests in the order you receive them
  • Reason-based: Weigh your employees’ different reasons for time-off requests, then prioritize according to greatest need
  • Prior request history: Give priority to those employees who have taken less time off in the past
  • Seniority: Priority goes to the employees who have been at the company the longest

7. How can I better organize time-off requests? 

There’s nothing worse than an approved time-off request going astray, leaving you to scramble at the last minute when someone doesn’t show up. If you’ve ever tried to keep track of a combination of written requests, emails and Slack messages, you’ll know it’s way too chaotic.

Pick a uniform way for all employees to submit their time-off requests. If you’re still using printed forms or emailed requests, keep careful track of them in a consolidated folder or spreadsheet, add dates to your calendar as soon as you approve them, and set reminders for yourself to find a replacement employee if one is needed. 

Of course, you’ll probably find you’re losing time unnecessarily using Excel, Google Sheets, or a paper system to manage time-off requests. And the other problem with any manual leave request system? Human error. An automated time-off tracking software like Homebase can eliminate both these problems. Homebase’s time clock app reduces the amount of time you spend keeping track of things. It lets employees request time off—and lets managers approve or deny time-off requests based on your staffing needs—easily and smoothly.

8. What should be included on a time-off request form?

A good time-off request form is formal but simple. Have the employee fill out their name, job title, team or department, the dates or times of day being requested off, and the reason for the request if that’s part of your policy. You can also include a space for managers to approve or deny the request.

9. How far in advance should time off be requested?

A key part of handling time-off requests is making it clear how far in advance you expect them to be submitted.

Depending on your business, this can range anywhere from two weeks to two months. The amount of advance notice needed may depend on how much time off employees are asking for. Two weeks’ notice might be all that’s needed for a couple days off, while a longer vacation may require advance notice of a few months. However you decide to do it, make sure you communicate your requirements clearly.

10. Under what circumstances can I deny a time-off request? 

If an employee needs to take unpaid time off for a reason that’s covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, you’re required to approve their request if the asked-for leave is under 12 weeks in length. But if an employee wants to use their paid time off in a way that doesn’t comply with your time-off policy—or if you can see that someone is abusing the policy—then you can deny their request. This is when you’ll rely on your policy the most, following the decision-making path you’ve already laid out.

If a request comes through right when a big promotion is coming up or it’s a particularly busy time, and you’ve already approved another team member’s request, follow your policy for overlapping time-off requests.

If someone is taking too much time off at once, try not to give them a blanket discouragement from taking a long vacation. Explain when it is and isn’t feasible for your team, and encourage an alternate arrangement if it’s a no-go this time.

General practices regarding time-off requests

Suspect that someone is abusing your time-off policy? Take a look at that employee’s time-off track record. Maybe there’s a pattern to the sick days they’ve been taking: do they always fall before or after a weekend? This is a great place to start a conversation about what that employee needs from you, and see if there’s a way you can be a part of the solution for them.

Any time you’re denying a time-off request, always try to err on the side of respect for your employees. Be clear about explaining why you’ve made your decision, and strive to be fair and compassionate.

With Homebase, denying a request is a straightforward process. Your employees’ requests appear in your dashboard. When an alert is received, you can either approve it by clicking the check or deny it by clicking the X. With such an easy management solution, you and your employees can get the requests handled in a timely manner, which means more time to get back to business.

Homebase: your tool for managing time-off requests

If you don’t have an HR department to help manage time-off requests, consider using time and attendance tracking software like Homebase.

From customizing your PTO policy to implementing it, Homebase lets you streamline everything. In our mobile app, managers can track employee availability, time-off requests, and approvals. You can see how your team’s time-off schedule is trending and get a complete view of time off across your business. Track accruals and balances for sick and vacation leave so you have more control over time-off requests. Homebase also makes it easy to set limits and blackout periods. Plus, you can automatically add paid time off to timesheets to easily incorporate in payroll. 

Homebase makes it all simple—so you can take a break from managing time off.

Save time with smarter time clocks. Try Homebase’s time clock tool for free.

Time-off requests FAQs

What is a time-off request?

A time-off request is a way for employees to submit a formal request to take time off work in the future. It could be paid time off (PTO) for vacation time, or unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

What is a time-off request policy?

A time-off request policy is a written arrangement telling your employees how to submit a leave request. It works for either paid or unpaid leave. Typically a section of your employee handbook, it goes through your company’s rules in detail. A good policy explains exactly how requests are submitted.

What is a time-off request form?

A time-off request form is your formal process for collecting time-off requests. It can be a printed paper form, an email, an online form, or an app like Homebase. It should ask the employee for their job title, team or department, the dates or times they’d like to take off, and the reason for their request if your policy requires one. 

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