Managing time off requests around the holidays can be daunting for employers, particularly for those who must maintain certain production standards or whose busiest time may be during the holidays. There are several practical and legal considerations at play. Companies must be able to maintain productivity, but do not want to hurt employee morale. For legal purposes, employers have to consider consistency and reasonable accommodation issues. Inevitably, some employees may be left disappointed because they have to work on a holiday (whether it be Christmas or a different religious holiday they observe) or were not able to take the time off they wanted. However, employers can take several steps to minimize this effect and avoid being cast in the role of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Require Requests in Advance and Respond Quickly

You may recall that Grinch watched the merry and warm-hearted Whos of Whoville engage in various holiday celebrations leading up to Christmas, waiting until Christmas Eve to steal their presents, trees and food. While it turned out that the Whos’ holiday spirit was not diminished by the diabolical timing of the Grinch’s heist, employees are unlikely to break into Christmas carols if their holiday time off is denied at the last minute.

Both employers and employees are better served where policies clearly spell out how far in advance employees must request vacation, PTO or other similar leave, and such requests receive a prompt response. While one or two weeks’ notice may normally provide sufficient time for management to respond and ensure adequate coverage is maintained, that may not be the case for the holidays (and other prime leave times) for which there is likely to be multiple overlapping requests. Employers should consider establishing earlier deadlines for leave requests during these high volume periods.

Establish a Fair Procedure for Handling Time Off Requests

Next, in determining which time off requests companies grant, employers should take steps to avoid arbitrary decisions by establishing a transparent procedure for handling requests that utilizes objective factors. This will help to avoid the perception by employees that employers may be engaging in favoritism or making decisions on any improper basis.  

Employers may decide to utilize a single objective factor in determining which requests to grant, such as looking to seniority or taking the “first come, first served” approach. This will maximize consistency and be relatively easy to administer. However, it may not be viewed as the fairest approach by all employees. For example, if the employer only considers seniority, this may mean that the same few people receive the time off they want around the holidays each year, leaving the newer staff feeling frustrated. Or, an employee who has used zero vacation hours for the year may be left feeling demoralized if her time off request for the two days after Christmas is rejected, while an employee who already took off two weeks of vacation at Thanksgiving is granted those two days because that employee requested it first. If the same employees find themselves working every holiday, they may be feeling pretty Grinchy themselves.

Employers might instead consider an approach that takes into account several objective criteria, such as: who submitted the request first; seniority; how much vacation the employee has already utilized that year; and which employees already received time off they requested for other holidays. While this may maximize fairness, the challenge here is maintaining consistency. Additionally, because this approach is less straightforward, it may take longer to respond to requests.

On the topic of fairness, keep in mind that not all employees celebrate the same religious holidays or celebrate holidays at the same time of year. If employers are particularly generous around Christmas with time off, this sets a precedent for other requests for a similar amount of time off for different religious holidays. If the employer does not exercise the same generosity, this raises potential religious discrimination issues.

Further, employers should consider whether employees are requesting time off specifically so they may observe their religious beliefs. Under federal law, employers with 15 or more employees are generally required to provide reasonable accommodations of employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. When accommodating the employee’s request for time off would mean inadequate staffing or require other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work, this may be enough to establish an undue hardship. However, the undue hardship analysis is a case-by-case determination. Employers should consult with counsel if they feel granting such a request would cause an undue hardship.

Provide Incentives or Perks to Work During the Holidays

Finally, employers should consider providing incentives for employees who work on holidays or other days they may have wanted off. Providing incentives, such as bonus pay for work on major holidays, could help to avoid receiving as many overlapping requests in the first place. Additionally, for employees who do not receive the time off they want, extra perks may help with morale. These perks could include, for example, providing a lunch or dinner for those working on or around the holidays (Who pudding, Who hash or some roast beast!). Where possible, employers might also allow their employees to work from home. Or, for employees who did not get their preference for time off around the holidays, employers may provide those employees priority in asking for time off in January.

In sum, while managing employee time off around the holidays may be challenging for some employers, planning in advance, being fair and consistent and providing perks can help employers and employees alike in managing this busy time.

If you have questions regarding time off policies, please contact Kayla Ernst or another member of the Ice Miller LLP Labor, Employment and Immigration Group.

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