sitting in a coffee shop with a laptop

8 Expert Tips For Handling Time-Off Requests

Time-off requests, like scheduling, can be a huge headache just waiting to happen. It may not be the most difficult part of your job, but it’s certainly close to the top of the list. Trying to keep everyone happy while making sure your business runs smoothly can be a Herculean task.

But you don’t have to be the mythical son of Zeus to conquer all your time-off requests. There are simple ways to handle this many-headed beast. This article shares 8 tips for handling time-off requests and shows you the best solution for making the process much simpler.

time off requests

1. Define The Rules Of Time-Off Requests

Transparency and clarity of process are very important when dealing with time-off requests. Everyone—employees, management, and ownership alike—should know and understand the rules you set up to govern the business’s time-off requests.

Keeping your time-off process clear, and making sure everyone understands it, helps everything else run smoothly by avoiding conflict among you and your staff. Additionally, establishing rules for time-off requests shows that you respect both your employees and their time.

Rules for time-off requests should include:

  1. How requests should be submitted
  2. When employees can request time off
  3. When employees can’t request time off (e.g., special events)
  4. How far in advance a time-off request needs to be made
  5. How often time-off requests can be made
  6. Considerations that are specific to your business

Let’s look at each one of these individually.

Rule 1: How Requests Should Be Submitted

You should establish one procedure for all employees and then stick to it unwaveringly. This is especially important if you are instituting a new policy. Employees who are used to the old way will likely fall back on these habits and ask you to make an exception “just this once” which often turns into “again and again”. Pick the procedure that works best for you and make it the new norm.

The form that the procedure actually takes is entirely up to you. Again—and we can’t stress this enough, make sure the submission process works well for you. You’re the one who has to deal with it on a daily basis. So if submitting requests via paper slip helps you streamline the process, make it so. That said, make sure your submission procedure isn’t overly difficult for your employees to the point that it begins to affect their morale. We’ll discuss this in a bit more depth in point four below.

Rules 2 & 3: When Employees Can And Can’t Request Time Off

Consider this scenario: March has always been an extremely busy month for your business. Sometimes that activity even spills over into April and May. But now imagine that the majority of your employees request time off for varying days (or weeks) during these three months. That leaves you between a rock and a hard place during a very important time for your business.

Instead of struggling to keep up, make it a policy that no time off can be taken during March, April, and May. This may also apply to special occasions like the NFL’s big game, opening night in the theater district, and other regularly-occurring events that directly impact your business. Be sure to list those specific days, weeks, and months as times when your employees can’t request time off so that you avoid conflict and bad feelings.

At the same time that you list the dates when employees can’t request time off, be sure to list the times that they can. Continuing with the scenario from the first paragraph above, if everyone must work their scheduled times during March, April, and May, put it in writing that June, July, August, September, and November are fair game. Seeing that the majority of the year—barring holidays and special events, of course—are open for time off makes it easier for your employees to plan their own personal lives as well as accept the three months when work is mandatory.

employees serve customers at a crowded coffee shop

Rule 4: How Far In Advance Time-Off Requests Need To Be Made

This depends in large part on how often you create your schedule and how much advance notice you need to incorporate requests. A minimum of two weeks lead time is a good starting point for most businesses, although you can change that to fit your particular needs.

You could also set a date each month after which requests will not be accepted. Let’s say that you need to finalize September’s schedule by the fifteenth of August. You give yourself the week prior to work on the schedule and you don’t want new requests coming in at the last minute. That means that you should require that all requests be submitted by the first of August. That gives you plenty of time to get everything worked out and you don’t have to worry about surprises the night before you send out the schedule.

Rule 5: How Often Time-Off Requests Can Be Made

Every employee is unique in several important ways, including (but of course not limited to) their work ethic, their personal life, and their financial obligations. Some members of your team may love to work and will want to pick up every shift they possibly can.

And then there are employees who…well, let’s say that they don’t love to work. Perhaps they’re a college student. Or maybe they’re a part-time employee who has another full-time job and is just picking up a few shifts to earn some extra cash. Whatever the case may be, we’ve all seen employees who seem to request time off every week.

It’s crucial to establish a rule for how often employees can make time-off requests. This prevents members of your team from asking for too much time off. You need employees who want to work and are dependable.

You may consider implementing rules for how much time an employee can ask off per pay period, as well as how often they can make such requests. For instance, your rule might be that employees are allowed to request up to 20 days off per year, but they may not submit more than two time-off requests per month. But remember, this is just an example. Choose whatever kind of rule suits your needs and the needs of your business.


Rule 6: Considerations That Are Specific To Your Business

Every business is different and only you know the ins-and-outs of what yours needs to run successfully. If you see a situation or a time of the year when time off is affecting productivity, figure out a way to remedy the situation and then make a rule that keeps the situation from happening again.

Perhaps, for your business, time off can only be scheduled from noon on one day to noon on another day in order to avoid problems. Perhaps time off can only be taken in increments of five days not counting weekends. There are a myriad of different considerations you can incorporate into your time-off policy, but the important thing is that they need to work for your business regardless of what other businesses are doing.

These rules should be clearly outlined in your employee handbook. If you encounter problems along the way or see a need for new rules, don’t be afraid to make changes. There might be some grumblings at first, but team members will eventually get used to it. You can also ask your employees what they would do to make the process simpler. This can help you see the time-off request procedure from a different perspective.

2. Establish A Policy For Overlapping Requests

Policies for time-off requests

Inevitably, there will be overlapping time-off requests, especially around the holidays. This rush of time-off requests can cause friction between you and your employees, and between the employees themselves. This friction can then filter down and affect your customers.

A simple way to defuse these problems before they happen is to establish a policy that outlines how overlapping requests will be handled. That way, everyone understands why employee A got her time-off request approved while employee B didn’t.

The policy you establish for your business may be different than other businesses but that’s okay. It’s important to always do what’s right for you and your employees. Popular policies for overlapping time-off requests include:

  1. First come, first served
  2. Reason for the request
  3. Seniority-based
  4. Employee flexibility
  5. Managerial discretion

Here’s why these policies work.

Policy 1: First Come, First Served

Everyone understands this policy because we use it in so many situations in our everyday life. Want to go to a movie? Get in line. If you aren’t close enough to the front of the line, you might not get a seat. Want to buy the new mobile device that comes out tomorrow? Get in line. If you aren’t close enough to the front of the line, the store may run out of devices and you won’t get one. It’s all first come, first served, so your employees are used to this criterion for making decisions.

Keep in mind, though, that this one policy may not be enough to govern all time-off request situations. First come, first served is often the starting point, but other factors can play an important role in influencing the decision.

Policy 2: Reason For The Request

Considering why an employee is requesting time off can help you make a decision when conflicts arise. But this policy should be one amongst many because it can quickly turn into favoritism. Sure there are times when a time-off request involves taking a loved one to the hospital or building houses for the homeless. But more often than not, time-off requests are going to involve some form of recreation/vacation. How do you weigh one over the other when employee #1 is going to Cancun and employee #2 is going to Disney World?

It’s easy to see how volunteering to assist with flood relief would trump following the Grateful Dead for a week, but the situations aren’t always that clear. You should certainly take into account the reason for the time-off request, but it shouldn’t be the only criteria on which you base your decision.

Policy 3: Seniority-Based

A seniority-based policy is a variation on the first come, first served idea that we’re all so familiar with. People just naturally understand that with seniority comes some semblance of “rank”. That, in turn, means that, when conflicts do occur, someone with more seniority would have their time-off request honored before someone with less seniority.

Your employees should be made aware that a seniority-based policy doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Other considerations are taken into account as well. For example, an experienced server may be needed during a certain shift over a less-experienced server. So if they both asked for that shift off, seniority would have little to do with the final decision to grant the less-experienced server her request.

Policy 4: Employee Flexibility

All time-off requests will include the same basic information—the employee’s name, the dates they’re asking to have off, etc. However, there’s one thing that very few of these requests will mention: how flexible the request is.

Employees neglect to include this key info for two good reasons. First of all, many time-off request forms don’t ask about the flexibility of the dates the employee is asking off. Second, employees always want their requests to be approved, so they won’t voluntarily note when the dates could be changed if necessary.

While employees might not always disclose how flexible their time-off request is, you can always ask them! You might be surprised how willing employees will be to re-adjust their plans if you explain the dilemma you’re faced with.

Let’s imagine three employees all request the same weekend off, but you can only grant two of the three employees’ requests. You could speak to each staff member individually to gauge how flexible their time-off request is.

Start by telling each employee that three people have requested time off but that one person will still need to work that weekend. It might be the case that one person can easily shift their plans around. They may even be happy to help you (and your business) out.

If all three employees seem reluctant, consider offering an incentive if someone can change the dates of their request. This incentive might include guaranteed time off on a different weekend or allowing them to choose their own schedule for a month.

Policy 5: Managerial Discretion

Allowing managerial discretion to influence your decision on overlapping time-off requests is an effective way to ensure that the business continues to run smoothly. As the manager, you know if it’s feasible for two people to take the same time off. In that case, there would be no conflict so you wouldn’t have to choose one over the other. But when overlapping requests do occur and it’s not a good idea to let them both go, managerial discretion can help inform the decision.

You, as the manager, probably have insight into the personal needs of each employee. Maybe employee #1 needs time off every few weeks or he’s more apt to burn out, while employee #2 can go longer without time off and still perform at her best. These personal needs and abilities may get lost on your standard time-off request form. But you, as the manager, can take them into account when making your decision.

If your final decision is influenced heavily by this policy, be sure to make your reasons clear to all parties involved. That way, you can avoid complaints of favoritism or other conflicts between you and your employees.

As you can see, one policy all by itself isn’t enough to govern all your overlapping time-off request conflicts. The most flexible and effective policy may be a system that combines all four considerations, and others, into an overarching procedure.

3. Make A Form That Everyone Should Use

Organization is key when it comes to scheduling time-off requests. Having one employee tell you directly about an upcoming time-off request, while another employee scribbles their request on a piece of scrap paper, is a recipe for confusion.

Manager trying to organize time-off requests

To make the time-off request process as standardized as possible, create a form that everyone will use. Your form should, at the very least, include:

  1. The employee’s name
  2. Date request is made
  3. Time-off requested (date range or hour range)
  4. Reason for time off
  5. Employee’s signature
  6. Manager’s signature
  7. Approval/denial confirmation
  8. Date request approved or denied

You may find that you need more information on your time-off request form. That’s fine. As long as you have all the information necessary to make an informed decision. If you’re having a hard time getting your form ready, you can look online for templates that make the process easier.

4. Make It Easy For Employees To Submit Their Request

Making it easy for employees to submit their time-off requests is paramount for their happiness and yours. If your rules state that the employee needs to fill out a time-off request form and hand it to you directly, make sure you are available during work hours. If that’s not always possible, you might consider installing a time-off box (like a suggestion box) where employees can drop their request forms. Be sure to check the box often so you don’t miss a request.

As effective as manual submission can be, the simplest solution is often a digital one. Using a cloud-based submission system gives your employees (and you) the option to access time-off requests from anywhere and at any time. This is especially useful if an emergency arises and the employee has to leave immediately. The ubiquity of computers, tablets, and smartphones means that employee can still submit a time-off request and avoid any major conflicts from his absence.

Employee submitting time-off request

Apps like Sling are the ideal choice for this situation. Sling is built specifically to handle situations like these, so the important features for requesting time off are already there. And the cloud-based nature of Sling makes it available at all hours of the day, pretty much anywhere on Earth.

By simplifying the way your employees submit requests (via a cloud-based platform like Sling), you also streamline the entire scheduling process. That’s because Sling monitors those requests as you schedule and informs you if you’ve forgotten one, or if an overlapping request exists. That takes a great deal of the burden off your shoulders and allows you to focus on keeping the business running smoothly.

5. Keep All Your Time-Off Requests In One Place

There’s nothing worse than having an employee come to you wondering about their time-off request while you have no idea what they’re talking about. With paper copies of time-off requests, it can be extremely difficult to keep track of them all unless you are very well organized.

If you’re using paper request forms, a binder, folder, or index card box can keep everything in one place. Better yet, use a digital solution like Sling which keeps everything online in one easy-to-access place. Best of all, an online tool for organizing time-off requests is always just a few clicks away. If you’re so motivated, you can work on the requests even when the restaurant is closed. That makes for a much less stressful and time-consuming schedule creation process and can leave you with more time to address other pressing business issues.

6. Plan For Emergencies

The ideal plan for these types of situations includes a group of trusted and reliable part-time workers that you can call on in an emergency. These part-time workers can help fill in when time-off requests are at their highest or when an employee has to leave to attend to a sick child while all your other employees are either working on unavailable.

7. Allow Employees To Find Their Own Replacements

Allowing employees to find their own replacements (shift trades) can make the time-off request process so much easier—on them and on you. If you allow shift trades, you should establish in your employee handbook the guidelines for this responsibility.

Example of shift trade

First, all trades or replacements should be approved by you or a manager. This is to ensure that the right skill mix is present during all shifts. Second, make sure that employees understand that there’s more to finding a substitute than just having a warm body present. The replacement should be someone who can do the same job—not a cook subbing for a waiter, or vice versa.

As employees learn to identify the criteria you use when approving a replacement, they will get better at finding the right substitute on the first try. When that happens, your responsibility is drastically reduced and the time-off request process gets easier.

8. Consider Your Business’s Needs

When time-off requests come in, it’s important to always consider your business’s needs along with your employee’s needs. First and foremost, you, as the manager, have to ensure that certain things get done on every shift. That means that you also need to ensure that the right people are working to get those jobs done. Perhaps you need employee #1 on a specific day for a specific shift because you’ve already scheduled employee #2 for a different shift. Because of those business needs, a time-off request may need to be turned down or delayed.

Make sure that all employees are aware of this caveat—business needs trump personal needs—but don’t go overboard and use this as an excuse not to approve time off. Doing so can alienate good employees. If you find yourself constantly denying a certain employee time off because of a function only they can fulfill, it may be time to train someone else to do that job as well.

Use The Right Tool To Keep Everything Organized

working at a table with a laptop and tools

The easiest way to handle time-off requests is by using the right tool. The best tools satisfy a large number of the above suggestions and remove the difficulty inherent in scheduling time-off requests.

Sling, for example, makes it easy and convenient for employees to submit their requests online. Sling also stores all those requests in one, easy-to-access location (online) so you can get to them day or night. To further simplify the process, Sling makes all requests look the same so you don’t have to make up your own form. Sling also allows employees the ability to find and schedule their own replacements right online. You sign off on the substitution, but you don’t have to do the searching. The employee does it for you.

Additionally, Sling does what other apps don’t. Because it is built for restaurants (and a number of other industries), Sling notifies you if you’ve scheduled conflicting time-off requests and can even offer suggestions for how to remedy the situation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sling makes the entire scheduling process—not just time-off requests—easier, more streamlined, and less of a headache for you.

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This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal, tax, HR, or any other professional advice. Please contact an attorney or other professional for specific advice.

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