No one (okay, almost no one) wants to work during the holidays. Employees at all levels understandably want to spend time with their families and loved ones, and many employees save vacation days until the end of the year specifically because they want to spend the holidays at home. While it would be nice to give everyone some time off, for most businesses, this simply isn’t practical. Clients and customers still have their demands, and there is still work to be done.

So, what is an employer to do? You need to keep your office, store, or facility staffed, and you have more vacation requests than you can accommodate. You can’t afford to let your business suffer, but you are also concerned about the impact on company morale and employee satisfaction if you deny holiday requests for leave.

5 Tips for Dealing with Vacation Requests During the Holidays

Tip #1: Assert Your Company’s Position

Companies are not required to offer their employees paid vacation time. If you offer paid vacation, you have to honor any days that your employees have accumulated; however, this does not mean that employees are free to take off whenever they choose. Employees must request to take vacation time, and these requests are subject to company approval. You have a business to run; and, if you cannot reasonably accommodate a request for time off, then you are well within your rights to deny leave over the holidays – even if the employee has saved his or her paid time off (PTO) for the end of the calendar year.

But, no one likes an unhappy surprise, especially during the holiday season. So, if you are concerned that you may have to deny requests for vacation time during the holidays, it is best to get out in front of the issue. Develop policies and procedures for the submission and approval of holiday vacation requests (more on this below), and distribute these policies throughout your organization well before the season begins.

In this same vein, it is also worth considering whether you want to tell employees why your company has such a policy. If your employees know that the company does not (and cannot) shut down during the holidays, and if they know that employees in their respective roles are critical to the company’s day-to-day operations, then they may be more receptive to the notion that not everyone can take time off all at once.

Tip #2: Offer Incentives to Work During the Holidays

Another, possibly more effective, option for getting employees to work during the holidays is to offer incentives for doing so. This could be a direct financial incentive (i.e. additional pay), or it could be something less substantial. Maybe employees can clock out at 4:00 instead of 5:00 (which has been shown in many cases not to reduce productivity); or, maybe they get to have parties or eat lunch with company leadership. If this is an option you want to consider, examining your company’s culture will help inform your decision regarding the type of incentive to offer.

Tip #3: Adopt Policies and Procedures for Holiday Vacation Scheduling

Adopting policies and procedures regarding holiday vacation scheduling can be one of the most effective ways to avoid issues with employees complaining that they always get the short end of the stick. These can be company-wide policies and procedures – meaning that all employees are subject to the same rules and restrictions – or they can leave it up to individual departments to determine what makes the most sense. Will priority be given to more senior employees? Will time off be available on a first-come, first-served basis? Will employees have to rotate coming into work from year to year?

Whatever option your company chooses, the key is to communicate and be consistent. Any apparent deviations or favoritism will almost certainly lead to complaints.

Tip #4: Set a Cut-Off Date or Establish a Vacation “Blackout” Period

Another potential approach that may be used in conjunction with the types of policies and procedures discussed above is to establish a cut-off date or a vacation “blackout” period. With a cut-off date, employees have until a date certain to request time off during the holidays. This can allow sufficient time to address excessive requests, attempt to accommodate as many employees as possible and deal with the inevitable late request. If it is absolutely essential to have everyone working on a particular day (i.e. if you operate in the retail or entertainment industry), then blacking out certain days – again, well in advance – can help ensure that you have the staffing you need during the holidays.

Tip #5: Consider Allowing Employees to Work Remotely

If you have employees who are capable of doing their jobs out of the office, then offering the option to work remotely may be another alternative. Of course, this presents a number of potential challenges – from technology-related issues to concerns regarding data privacy and security. As with each of the options discussed above, the key is to develop documented policies and procedures, and companies must be prepared to respond promptly in the event that an issue arises.

What if an Employee Simply Refuses to Work During the Holidays?

But, what if your company has documented policies and procedures, and an employee still refuses to work during the holidays despite being told that he or she cannot take a vacation? This can be a challenging scenario, and deciding what to do requires a careful assessment of various practical and legal considerations.

If an employee refused to come at any other time of the year, what would you do? Do you need to set an example; and, if so, is the appropriate manner do it? Can you simply talk to the employee and explain the potential ramifications of his or her decision? Once again, it is best to try to plan ahead for this type of scenario, and companies should work with their employment law counsel to evaluate the options they have available.

Contact Gignilliat, Savitz & Bettis, LLP | South Carolina’s Labor & Employment Law Firm

If you have questions about how your company should handle holiday vacation requests, we encourage you to speak with one of our employment and labor law attorneys for employer counseling. To contact our offices in Columbia, South Carolina, please send us a message online or call 803-799-9311.