7 Tips to Handle Employee Time-Off Requests Fairly

A young Black woman leads her team in a project meeting


INTOO Staff Writer



Time-off requests can be overwhelming to handle, especially during busy times of the year like summer and winter holidays. That’s why an established time-off policy and process for requesting time off are vital to making it easy for HR professionals to handle and simplify employee time-off requests. 

Handling requests in a fair and timely manner contributes to a positive company culture. While HR creates the PTO policy, team managers and leaders are responsible for following and carrying them out. Managing time-off policies includes creating boundaries so employees are able to take time off and ensuring consistency in how requests are processed so that employees feel they are treated fairly. Having an established policy and process for time-off requests in place means that when PTO requests come pouring in, your HR team and managers will be prepared to respond in a professional and unbiased way.

Creating a Successful Time-Off Policy 

A time-off policy helps ensure that HR professionals and managers are on the same page and turn to the same guidebook when making decisions about PTO requests. This creates consistency and fairness for employees. Making the policy transparent to the entire organization also ensures that every team member can properly plan time out of the office.

When creating a time-off policy, it’s important to consider both the business needs and employees’ needs. Employees need to get their work done to meet business goals, but they should feel they have the flexibility to use their time off. Some companies fall prey to proclaiming they have an unlimited PTO policy when in reality they make it difficult for employees to take time off. 

Regardless of the time-off policy, senior leaders set an example to the rest of the company in how they manage their own PTO. If senior leaders only take one week of vacation each year even though the policy allows them four weeks of vacation, junior employees may hesitate to take their full allotted time. 

7 Tips to Manage Time-off Requests Effectively

To set your team up for success, consider these 7 tips for creating a policy and handling time-off requests:

1. Create clear and transparent rules

Once HR and senior leadership have aligned on the HR policy, it’s important to write very clear and detailed rules so there aren’t any doubts or questions about what employees are entitled to. The time-off policy should include specifics about how PTO is accrued; blackout periods; where, how, and when the request should be submitted, and any other rules particular to your organization. 

For instance, if your business is busy during certain times of the year or days of the week, make sure to identify those periods as blackout dates. 

2. Choose a system for employees to submit requests

Once you have a policy, you’ll need a system to keep requests and approvals organized. If you let employees choose their own system, one employee might submit their request via email, the other with a written note, and the third during a meeting. 

You can create a form for requests or use a timekeeping software program. Whichever you choose, be sure to collect this information from employees when they submit a PTO request:

  • Employee name
  • Date the request is submitted
  • Dates and/or hours of time-off request
  • Reason for request
  • Notes or other information

3. Provide an employee guide to submitting PTO requests and make it easily accessible

Often companies suggest that employees check with their manager and team schedules first to ensure that the time off request doesn’t coincide with an important project or other team members’ vacations. Then employees submit their requests via the designated method. Make sure that the request process you choose works well for your employees and managers, clearly communicate the steps effectively, and make the information easily accessible in the employee handbook or on the company intranet. 

4. Get ahead of overlapping requests

When creating your time-off policy, include how overlapping requests will be handled to get ahead of any conflict. Clear and transparent policies can help avoid any confusion and frustration among employees whose requests you’re unable to approve. The most common policies for prioritizing time-off requests are:

  • First come, first served: This straightforward approach discourages last-minute time-off requests and is easy to understand.
  • Seniority: The most senior employee’s request is prioritized, which can encourage loyalty to the company but may be perceived as favoritism. 
  • Lottery: For high-demand time-off periods, employee requests are randomly selected. 
  • Rotation: Each employee gets a turn taking time off during popular days and time-off periods, with a goal to give everyone an equal chance. 
  • Reason: An employee who is requesting time off to volunteer or attend a date-specific event like a wedding is more likely to get their request approved than someone who has more flexibility. 

Asian businesswoman works at her desktop computer

5. Remove barriers to submitting and approving PTO requests

Consider creating a drop box for request forms so that an individual doesn’t need to be present to receive them. Online request systems remove potential barriers to submitting and approving requests since employees can submit them at any time and from any location. Managers can also process the requests at a time that works for them. 

6. Ask employees to have a plan for work coverage during their absence

Employees should prepare for time off by collaborating closely with their team members to ensure a seamless transition during their absence. This involves thoroughly updating colleagues on the current status of ongoing projects, sharing important documents, and clarifying any outstanding tasks. By organizing one-on-one meetings or creating detailed handover notes, employees can provide their teammates with the necessary information and context to manage responsibilities effectively. Additionally, designating a point of contact or assigning specific duties to team members helps to maintain productivity and address any issues that may arise. By routinely asking employees to make these preparations when they have a time-off request, you’ll ensure that business will carry on without hiccups while they’re gone.  

7. Encourage senior leaders to lead by example

Often, employees look to senior leaders and managers to know what the “right” thing to do is. This also applies to time off. If employees are not taking enough time off,  observe whether senior leaders are doing the same. Leaders should be able to properly manage their workloads so that they can be out of the office if they expect their employees to do so, too. They should also help employees address any issues keeping them from being able to take PTO when needed. This approach will help prevent team members from experiencing burnout. 

What Do You Say to an Employee Who Is Taking Too Much Time Off?

If an employee is taking too much time off, you should approach him or her and reinforce the time-off policy. With a good policy in place, he or he shouldn’t be able to take excess time off, assuming all requests go through manager approval. As the manager, you can reinforce the business needs and job requirements. Emphasizing that you need reliable employees who work predictable hours can be an effective way of enforcing the policy. 

Your policy could also include details on how much time off employees can request per pay period. Consider what works best for your business and employees. 

How Do You Handle Overlapping PTO Requests? 

When employees request time off at the same time, especially during busy vacation times like summer and winter holidays, it’s important to make sure your team members and business have enough coverage to keep the business going. You also want to show your employees you care and respect their time off. Therefore, your time-off policy should clearly communicate what happens in the case that too many employees request time off for the same period. 

As a manager, you should first look at the details of the time-off requests and then follow your policy’s rules. If you need to deny a request, it’s best to have a conversation with the team member to explain why you were unable to approve it and help them identify another period when they could take time off. Always be sure to approach these conversations with empathy.


A solid time-off policy is a surefire way to streamline the request and approval processes and enable better work-life balance for your employees. By taking the time to create these policies and processes, you will save time for managers and leaders and ensure business continuity while keeping your team members refreshed and productive. 

It is essential to train and coach new managers to ensure they are equipped to navigate employee absences, conflicts, and other challenges. INTOO offers workshops, leadership training programs, and career coaching for these team members and others in your organization. Contact us today to learn more.

INTOO Staff Writer

INTOO staff writers come from diverse backgrounds and have extensive experience writing about topics that matter to the HR and business communities, including outplacement, layoffs, career development, internal mobility, candidate experience, succession planning, talent acquisition, and more.

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