12 Tested Ways to Manage Time-Off Requests around the Holidays

12 Tested Ways to Manage Time-Off Requests around the Holidays

12 Tested Ways to Manage Time-Off Requests around the Holidays time off request policy request time off policy

For most HR practitioners, trying to coordinate a pile of time-off requests for the upcoming holiday season is hardly your favorite part of the job. No one really wants to be the one to tell employees that their request to spend time with their families during the holidays is being rejected, but depending on a whole slew of factors—industry, company size, production schedules, client demands, staffing levels, or even job specific duties—sometimes the reality is, the work has to get done.

To help avoid too many surprises during this unpleasant conversation, make sure that everyone from the executive team to supervisors on the floor to individual staff members know exactly what to expect long before the holidays arrive. While each organization should take into consideration what type of policy/practice will work best for their industry, managerial structure, culture, etc. the following 12 policies are a sampling of some the options cited in the annual ERC Holiday Practices Survey when employees make overlapping time-off requests.

1. First come, first served

Consistently the most common method from the Holiday Practices Survey “first come, first served” helps both employees and employers know well in advance who will be around during the holidays. However in practice, this policy rarely stands alone as written.

Instead, “first come, first served” is typically the starting point and other factors (many of which are described below) are taken into consideration before a final decision is made.

2. Seniority

A more traditional way to approach this question of overlapping time-off requests, employees should be made aware that seniority typically does not operate in a vacuum either.

For example, sometimes a well-seasoned supervisor may be needed during a certain shift over a less experienced line worker.

Ultimately, even if these two employees are requesting the same day-off, organizational need may come trump tenure with the organization.

3. Managerial discretion

Letting the managerial team make decisions about granting time-off to multiple employees on the same day can be an excellent way to ensure that the work that needs to get done does get done.

A good, involved manager should be able to effectively assess whether or not it is feasible for multiple employees to be out of the office on the same day.

They may also have insights into the personal needs of various employees that could get lost on a basic time-off request form submitted to HR. Of course there is some risk of complaints of favoritism or other challenging employee vs. manager conflicts if the reasons for granting time-off to one employee over another are not made clear to all parties.

4. Organizational need

This factor is fairly straightforward – what needs to get done and who needs to be here to make that happen? Who makes this determination can vary, with managers typically involved in making the assessment.

Make sure that employees with essential job functions are aware that they may be turned down for a time-off request and why.

If they are truly “essential” to the success of your organization don’t let a dispute over a day off alienate a great employee. Instead, leverage turning down their time-off request as an opportunity to recognize them for their efforts some other way, even if that can’t be in the form of a day off right now.

5. Rotating schedule

Often used at organizations like hospitals where employees are required to work on the holidays themselves, tracking which holidays each employee works each year requires a well-organized tracking system, but not much else.

Simply rotating the schedule of holidays worked is an easy objective determination to make, but lacks the flexibility that so many employees want.

Offering employees the option to switch holidays with co-workers may add a bit to the logistics of tracking these days off, but can go far in keeping employees happy.

6. Team decision making

A fairly progressive option, and one that likely works best with smaller organizations or those with close knit teams of employees, letting the team decide who takes what days off around the holidays can be a great way to encourage team building and empower your employees.

However, some oversight by management or HR (at least at the beginning) may be helpful to ensure no one on the team is being bullied or singled out in any way.

7. Industry specific demands

Depending on the industry this could mean requiring a certain percentage of the workforce to be present to keep up with demand (manufacturing), or maintaining minimum staffing levels for the sake of patient safety (healthcare).

Are you in retail during the busy holiday season or maybe an accounting firm at tax season? Make sure employees are aware of any blackout periods for time-off requests from the outset of their employment.

8. Reason for the request

Taking into consideration why each employee is requesting time off sounds like it could be helpful and in certain circumstances it may be. But relying solely on “reason for the request” can quickly become a nasty game of subjective favoritism and should be used with great caution even in conjunction with other objective factors.

9. Previous requests

Much like “rotating schedules” taking into consideration “previous requests” for days off can be burdensome in terms of tracking, but nothing a well-organized system can’t handle. Instead of looking specifically at past holiday time-off requests, this method looks more broadly at both when and how much time employees have taken.

Of course deciding to grant a time-off request based on the total time-off requests is far less objective than “rotating schedules” and should be used cautiously to avoid conflict with employees who may feel they are being treated unfairly if their request is turned down.

10. Union contract

If the decision about granting time-off to multiple employees on the same day was negotiated in a union contract, the decision is pretty much done for you.

While this keeps the decision objective, unless the language in the contract allows for special circumstances it is also probably the least flexible option.

11. Deadline driven

Although it is somewhat uncommon, some organizations set a date by which request for time off around the holidays must be submitted—after that date, it is first come, first served or based on company need.

While this can work well at organizations that have predictable busy seasons, other organization may find it challenging to grant time off months in advance.

12. Shut-down

In the traditional sense, a “shut-down” technically avoids any conflicting time-off requests around the holidays, because no one is working or getting paid. More recently, a “shut-down” could also mean employers are offering their employees a few extra days off around the holidays, but counting them as true “holidays”—with pay.

View ERC’s Holiday Practices and Paid Holiday Survey Results

These surveys report on which holidays Northeast Ohio organizations plan to observe as well as holiday parties, gift giving, and more ideas for the holiday season.

View the Results


  • Allison Kenney

    Allison is ERC’s Manager, HR Advisory Services. In her role, she oversees the HR Consultant team that provides services to ERC’s HR Help Desk. She ensures members are provided with the most current information and professional guidance on a variety of HR and general business-related topics. Allison also delivers consultation on HR projects to ERC members and clients.