Holiday Season Means Paid Time Off Season

With the holiday season here, employees are looking forward to time off with family and friends.  This means many workers are rushing to submit time-off requests for the prolonged holiday period, forcing human resources managers to scramble to accommodate the flood of work it takes to manage the process.

But talent managers can’t accept every single request for time off. Production doesn’t stop. Work still needs to be done. As a result, talent managers need a strategy to appropriately handle requests for holiday time off to avoid total pandemonium. How should talent managers balance employee and organizational needs during the holidays?

Vacation Communication

Sadly, not all employers offer vacation time. At small businesses especially, first- or even second-year employees may be working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year no matter the occasion. In such cases, time away from the office is marked as time off, which is generally unpaid.

Whether an organization’s new employees have unlimited paid time off or earned vacation after their first year, staff must be made aware of company policies regarding vacation time.

Still, don’t count on the fact that employees have read the company handbook. A survey by communication technology firm GuideSpark found that 43 percent of millennials and 30 percent of nonmillennials do not read most of their handbooks. What’s more, the survey showed that 36 percent of millennials don’t even know where their handbook is.

It’s the responsibility of talent managers to communicate vacation policies thoroughly with employees to avoid a disgruntled workforce.

According to a November 2014 article in The New York Times, Tribune Publishing Co. — owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times newspapers, among other media outlets —had this very problem. According to the Times report, after an abrupt change to the company’s vacation policy, employees became extremely dissatisfied with the new regulations. Instead of separating their vacation, sick and personal time off, the company removed most of its rules. Under the new policy, it would be up to the employee and their supervisor to agree on almost all time off.

While this isn’t a bad vacation policy, the problem lies both in the way it was framed — discretionary time off as opposed to unlimited time off — and in the lack of employee input and communication beforehand. At Tribune, employees were so unhappy about the new policy that some threatened to take legal action after it was announced, the Times report said.

Talent managers should communicate with employees early if there will be a change to the vacation policy. While it may not be easy to communicate with employees about changes that could be negatively received, the earlier, the better. 

Communication alone isn’t enough. When to communicate, and how, are other issues talent managers need to consider.

No later than October, talent managers should have an email ready to go out to all workers — both exempt and nonexempt — about expectations over the holidays.

Hopefully this has already been done; if not, there’s always next year. Include the correct way to submit requests for time off, and give clear parameters about when and how those will be approved.

Unlimited Vacation: Smart Play or Folly?

Recently, a number of organizations, like Virgin Group, have made headlines by announcing unlimited vacation policies.

Of course, employees love the idea of not having to count the number of days they have left for paid time off, or PTO, until the next calendar year. But what’s the effect on the company? How would it affect time off during the holidays? Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, wrote on the company’s website that it’s the best policy for both employees and employers.

He wrote that he wants a creative and productive workforce with a high level of morale. He views the unlimited vacation system as one of the perks that keeps employees excited about work. In 2010, after Netflix Inc. announced its vacation policy, Branson decided it was a program that would work for his company and his team, he wrote.

This isn’t a free-for-all, however. Employees still have to make sure they’re up-to-date on all of their work. They also have to make sure their absence wouldn’t be detrimental to the business.

In the post, Branson explains: “The policy-that-isn’t permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want. There is no need to ask for prior approval, and neither the employees themselves nor their managers are asked or expected to keep track of their days away from the office.”

Branson gives his company a remarkable amount of autonomy, entrusting employees and managers to make the best decisions when it comes to time off. They remain accountable for the time they take off and are not required to track the time they’ve taken away from the office.

They are urged, however, that they only take this time when they are 100 percent confident in their projects and the business.

Because Branson is more concerned with how much people get done vs. how much time it took them, his post suggests maybe that’s why it works for Virgin so well. The increase of workplace technology has increased exponentially over the past several years, no doubt helping in the success of vacation policies like those at Virgin and Netflix.

It’s with this technology that employees are able to take their work home and work remotely. This same technology also makes it difficult for managers to really track the time employees work, which is a secondary reason to Branson’s adoption of the policy.


To be sure, unlimited vacation won’t work for every company. Many employees might find it to be an attractive policy, but unless talent managers are hiring for that particular culture, it might not be a feasible policy for the organization. — Erin Engstrom

Encourage Foresight

Many companies take the first-come, first-served view on vacation time. These organizations have a maximum number of employees that can take time off at the same time, most likely because they require an employee on campus at all times.

Motivate employees to look ahead at their schedule and the rest of their team members’ schedules to find when other employees have already requested time off. This means making the company’s vacation policy and calendar publicly available to further facilitate coordination of employee time off.

Centrality is key when team leadership prefers employees to cover their own time off or scheduling vacation around co-workers’ plans. When these online or physical documents are hard to find, talent managers are likely to face more scheduling problems, so make it easy on them.

Moreover, talent managers working in a small business should keep the calendar in a central location online or on-site to help ensure overlapping vacation schedules don’t occur.

Also, note that employees may need time off around the holidays that isn’t necessarily holiday-related. Winter is the right time for employee absenteeism because of sickness in the family. So if possible, build in time for employees under the weather, as well as other possible reasons for missing work.

Have a Home Office?

Taking time away from the office doesn’t always have to mean time off. At many organizations, as long as you have Internet access, employees can take a pseudo-vacation and work from anywhere in the world.

Working vacations are also good alternatives for employees who don’t necessarily want to take vacation time but would rather be in their hometown during the holidays. This give-and-take scenario allows talent managers to glean their normal output from them while semivacationing employees still spend time with loved ones during the holidays.

This can be a great solution, but do keep in mind the potential for distraction. Even if it’s just a few days away from the office and working from home, employees’ focus has to contend with vacation-related or at-home distractions. In any event, working vacations are gaining steam as a flex-work option, according to a June report in The Wall Street Journal.

Between smartphones, laptops and other potable devices, most professionals can’t really disconnect from the office. It stands to reason that a working holiday is more or less inevitable, so talent managers might as well allow employees to work from home if they have the tools and capability to do so.

Preparing for Denial

Even with alternative options, talent managers will eventually have to deny someone their vacation request.

Although it’s difficult to tell someone “I’m sorry, you can’t see your grandma this Christmas,” talent managers still have a business to support. When talent managers do need to deny vacation requests, provide reasonable explanations for denied requests. Another option is to work with your employees to determine a different time to take vacation that would work better with the needs of the company.

Remember that while talent managers may feel the pinch of a team member’s absence short-term, in the long run it’s better for your business if employees take vacation.

Although vacation request denials don’t happen that often, employers and their team often don’t agree on taking time off. In its report “The Mind of the Manager: What Your Boss Really Thinks About Vacation Time,” the U.S. Travel Association noted the disconnect that exists between managers and their team regarding time off.

In a survey of 500 U.S. managers, 80 percent said vacation is important, and 69 percent said they encouraged the use of vacation time in their interactions with employees.

On the other hand, 67 percent of employees said they’ve either heard nothing or received mixed or negative messages about taking time off, the survey showed.

This perceived lack of communication results in employees lacking confidence to actually take time off because of their potential workloads. Employees want to believe they are committed to their work, so give them time off when appropriate.

Around the holidays, the office is filled with cookies and other baked goods. But for your staff, nothing quite matches up to Mom’s Christmas cookies. Do your best to accommodate everyone’s holiday wishes, but some companies simply can’t allow everyone to take off at the same time.

When the time comes to tell an employee they have to work over the holidays — and that time will come — there are some creative alternatives to consider. Coordinating coverage and work-from-home arrangements are both options.

Even if there’s no workaround and employees simply must come into the office the day after Christmas, make sure they’re able to take the time they need to relax and recharge at some other point in the calendar year.