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How to allocate annual leave fairly

Helen Mayson

How to allocate annual leave fairly

While most annual leave can be signed off without second thought, what do you do when employees request holiday at a particularly busy time, or several staff want to take their leave simultaneously? Our experts investigate the fairest system for deciding who can take time off and when

Lara is often overwhelmed with holiday requests around bank holidays and big events. Next month, several staff want to take their annual leave in the same week, which would leave her short staffed. Should she operate a ‘first come, first served’ policy on leave, or is there another way to fairly decide who gets what holiday?

Joanne Varey, managing director, Granby Marketing Services

If there’s a holiday request clash, ultimately it’s at the manager’s discretion which employee gets what holiday. If push comes to shove you can take into consideration things such as importance (eg one-off events such as weddings), length of employment or even employee performance. However, steps should be taken well in advance to minimise the chances of this situation ever arising in the first place.

Every company should have a policy on annual leave in place, clearly outlining the procedures for booking time off and rules dictating when employees can and can’t take holiday to ensure there’s adequate cover across the business. For example, you may restrict people on the same team taking time off at the same time or have a minimum number of employees always required to ensure the operational side of the business is never compromised. It means that if any employees do query management’s decisions you always have something formal in writing to fall back on. But there has to be the caveat that management has both the final say and the discretion to authorise holiday that may not comply with the policies set out. There will also be times when you’ll have to make exceptions, such as authorising extended breaks for honeymoons.

 

The most obvious and usual policy to operate is first come, first served. Often, however, certain employees will always be the first to get their requests in at the expense of the usual suspects who get their requests in on the deadline. If Lara is concerned that this is the case, she could introduce a rota system, whereby, for example, employees sacrifice their first choice holiday in the summer in order to get their first choice over the festive period.

I’ve found that one of the most successful ways of organising annual leave is to get your team together and let them work it out for themselves. If they are all clear on the guidelines, it’s a much more efficient way of planning holidays for the year in an open and transparent environment. This way any potential clashes are identified early on and staff can negotiate and barter between themselves about who gets what, without management having to get involved. It empowers your staff and means they are less likely to question the final decision.

Management needs to proactively plan holidays each year, particularly if you are in a small company where you don’t have the luxury of having ample cover. Some industries have distinct demand cycles, where activity peaks and troughs during specific times of the year; if this is the case then you should encourage your staff to take time off accordingly. This way you can adjust the size of the workforce to avoid having overcapacity and minimise the need to employ additional temporary staff during the busier periods.

Likewise, you need to monitor and track your staff’s holiday entitlements to nip any issues in the bud. In most companies as the holiday year draws to a close there’s the tendency for staff who haven’t taken their full holiday entitlement to suddenly want to book the same time off in order to avoid losing any annual leave if it can’t be rolled over. Obviously, this can prove to be a bit of a nightmare if too many staff are wanting the same time off. By tracking annual leave you can encourage individual employees to get their requests in early to avoid disappointment.

Matthew Kelly, partner, Thomas Eggar

During holiday periods it is not unusual for employers to face an increased demand for annual leave from employees. Employers, particularly smaller organisations, may find it difficult to facilitate such demand without seriously impacting on their business. There is no denying that refusing requests for leave can result in disgruntled employees and it is therefore imperative that any policy on leave is transparent and fair.

It is important that Lara does not to fall into the trap of inadvertently favouring certain groups in what would otherwise seem a fair policy. For example, giving priority to employees with young families over the summer or festive season may seem reasonable, but has the potential to give rise to accusations of age discrimination or sexual orientation discrimination. Such practice could be seen to disadvantage older women or gay and lesbian employees who are less likely to have young families.

Similarly, prioritising holiday requests from Christian employees over the Christmas period appears to be reasonable. However, Lara risks allegations of indirect religious belief discrimination if employees from other faiths are not given such preferential treatment during relevant religious holidays.

The most obvious and usual policy to operate is first come, first served. It does not easily lend itself to the pitfalls outlined above as granting holiday to the first to ask is overtly not drawing on any other criteria. Crucially, Lara would not be drawing on any criteria that could be associated with a protected characteristic for discrimination purposes.

Often, however, certain employees will always be the first to get their requests in at the expense of the usual suspects who get their requests in on the deadline. If Lara is concerned that this is the case, she could introduce a rota system, whereby, for example, employees sacrifice their first choice holiday in the summer in order to get their first choice over the festive period. So long as the rota system is transparent and fair and applies to all employees, it has the potential to ensure that all employees get their first choice of holiday at least some of the time.

Sue Binks, programme director, Roffey Park

Organising annual leave is a common problem that can present a real headache for managers. Everyone wants time off at the same time, particularly during school holidays, Christmas and events such as the 2012 Games – less than 12 months away now.

As a manager, it’s your job to manage these requests so that your department continues to function, avoiding any subjective judgments about who can or cannot have leave. These can create ill-feeling and team conflict especially when emotions run high – as they will do when holiday requests are turned down.

There are some very practical things you can do to make life easier. If not in place already, introduce a request form system so that you can easily keep track of who is taking time off and when. Set up a virtual calendar or pin up a wall planner and ask people to bear it mind when considering leave requests.

When it comes to holiday hot-spots, encourage your team members to collaborate with each other and resolve any leave conflict. Often this happens informally but in giving them the responsibility and control you avoid being just a referee.

As a team, discuss what criteria you are going to use to decide before the requests are evaluated. It also makes the system more democratic and transparent.

Try to avoid a reactive approach – make sure that you communicate clear expectations around staffing requirements and involve your team in planning out the year so everyone is aware of crucial dates. Then stick to your guns and lead by example.

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