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Dealing with competing holiday requests over Christmas

A rota, ballot, or first come first served system could all help with multiple holiday requests over Christmas

At Christmas many employees will want to take time off to spend with friends and family. But businesses can suffer as a result, particularly those in retail and leisure who may need additional resources. So how do you deal with multiple requests for holiday over Christmas without damaging staff morale and, potentially, your profits?

The law and potential pitfalls

The legal position is fairly clear: employers can restrict when employees take holiday and can also stipulate when employees should take leave. Broadly, both employers and employees must give notice equal to twice the length of the leave requested. If an employer refuses a request they must give as much notice as the amount of leave requested. So an employee wanting to take two weeks off should give four weeks’ notice; the employer must give two weeks’ notice if they wish to refuse the request.

However, it’s important to bear in mind the implied duty of trust and confidence; employers should act reasonably and not turn down requests arbitrarily.

Consistency is also important. If employees request time off for religious or childcare reasons refusing their request could potentially amount to indirect discrimination. To avoid such a claim succeeding employers must show that the refusal was justified. Smooth running of the business is a potential legitimate aim, but the refusal needs to be proportionate in the circumstances. Have alternatives been considered?

There are also less obvious consequences of refusing requests: employees may call in sick on the days in question, leaving you short-staffed (and although this is a potential disciplinary offence it may be difficult to prove they were fit for work). Dissatisfied employees’ productivity is bound to drop, and workplace malaise can set in.

Dealing with requests in practice

Having a system in place for dealing with requests for holiday at Christmas can help avoid issues. Employees who know in advance what the system is are less likely to feel resentful if a request if refused. An objective system will also help to defend against any claims of discrimination.

Systems should potentially include:

A rota: This permits employees whose requests are refused one year to be given priority for holiday the next Christmas or during the summer.

First come first served: This is objective and hard to argue against. But less organised employees can feel resentful of others, and new employees will be disadvantaged.

A ballot system: Although no employees are given preferential treatment the outcome is random and there’s no guarantee that from year to year it will be fair.

Leaving it to the employees: Allow employees to agree who will take leave when, ensuring there is enough cover. This gives them a sense of control and responsibility and makes the process seem less formal.

Setting expectations early

Whatever system you adopt it’s important to make sure employees know about it well in advance. Ensure your contracts and policies make the process for requesting (and refusing) holiday clear, and that managers follow those processes.

Be reasonable and consider alternative solutions. Could the employee be given one week off rather than the two they’ve requested? Are they concerned about using their holiday before the end of the holiday year? If so, allow them to roll some forward (provided they have taken their statutory minimum). Consider whether they could work from home, or work reduced hours. Would temporary staff alleviate the burden?

It is after all the season to be merry, and employees will appreciate kind gestures, which will hopefully reap rewards in terms of increased morale and positive work ethics.

Keely Rushmore is a senior associate at SA Law