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Can An Employer Deny A Vacation Request?

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Vacation time can be a tug of war between employers and employees. Workers are entitled to request time off. But this can put employers in a tough position– especially if the request comes at an inconvenient time. When it’s the end of a quarter and the rest of the team is putting in the effort Rocky Balboa-style, what do you do when your lead supervisor suddenly requests a week off? Can an employer even deny a vacation request?

We’ve listed the answers to our most asked questions regarding denying a vacation request, including what an employer’s legal rights are when it comes to denying vacation and PTO denial best practices.

Can an Employer Deny a Vacation Request?

Yes, the decision to approve or deny the use of accrued vacation time is up to you. But you should have—and document—a legitimate business reason for doing so. This is also assuming you deny vacation requests in a consistent and nondiscriminatory manner.

It would be acceptable, for example, to deny a vacation request because approving it would leave you without adequate coverage or because the employee asked with less notice than is required by your time off policy.

Is it Legal for an Employer to Deny Vacation?

In general, yes. Just know that discrimination claims are a risk. Although denying vacation requests for legitimate business reasons will reduce the chance of a discrimination claim, you’ll also want to make sure you’re not denying vacation in a way—even unintentionally—that disproportionately affects employees with the same “protected characteristic,” (think gender, race or religion.) For example, if you deny vacation requests from employees in the customer service department—which happens to be mostly women—more than other requests, they might have a gender discrimination claim.

We also hear from employers who want to deny vacation requests when the employee is asking for time off for medical procedures or recovery—this clearly raises disability discrimination issues. See our separate post on what to do if your employee falls ill long-term for more information.

How to Avoid Discrimination Claims When Denying Vacation Time

The best approach to avoid these types of potential discrimination claims (ie. gender or religious discrimination) is to periodically crunch the numbers to see if employees who share a protected characteristic are significantly more likely to have their request denied than others and, if so, adjust your practices accordingly.

Best Practices When Denying Vacation Time

When you really must deny a request, do so carefully. When you’re thinking about denying a vacation request, consider the following: 

  • Show empathy. You never know what someone has going on in their life. They may be requesting PTO for something other than Pina Coladas on the beach and don’t feel comfortable discussing the reason they need emergency PTO. Try being empathetic to the situation. For business owners, empathy is crucial because it allows you to understand and explore problems your employees face and how to help them resolve them.
  • Thoughtfully discuss your side of the story. Stay focused on the fact that rejecting their request isn’t something you want to do—it’s something you must do. State the business reason you couldn’t approve the request.
  • Find an alternative time if possible. When it’s crunch time and you just can’t let your best supervisor take the week off, work with them to find an alternative time they can take off. Offering a solution can help to retain your top talent.

What to Expect From Your Employees When You Deny PTO

Denying vacation requests will undoubtedly hurt morale, especially if it happens frequently, and low morale leads to higher rates of turnover. If you find you are regularly denying requests when employees have a vacation planned, we recommend reaching out to an employment law attorney for additional guidance.