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You can, in the words of Zammo, “Just say no!”

Can employers decline an annual leave requests?

With most employees’ holiday balances resetting every January it can feel like all you’re doing is approving a mountain of leave requests.  But what happens if you aren’t able to approve a request – can you actually say no?

The legal bit you need to know

Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, all workers are entitled to a minimum of 5.6 weeks paid annual leave determined by their normal working week.  So, for a full-time employee who works 5 days a week this normally equates to 20 days and 8 bank holidays making a total of 28 days.

The need for time off just keeps adding up

You also might have a shutdown period to cover Christmas which will need to be deducted from the employees’ holiday balance.  Add in family holidays, the wedding that has been booked on a Thursday, the long weekend trip away, you can start to see why getting holiday requests in quick can become important to your team!

It is a common misconception that employees can take holiday whenever they want, with employers just being obliged to say yes.  However, employers can decline holiday requests where they have a business reason to do so.

Establish the rules

To make the process clear and simple, we always recommend the process for booking holiday and the associated rules are set out clearly in either the handbook or that you have a leave policy.  Be clear about how someone can book leave, it is first come first served?  Do you rotate seasonal dates to be fair so it’s not always the same people booking time off?  Be clear that no holiday arrangements should be confirmed until the holiday request has been granted to avoid unnecessary disappointment or cost.

If you have clear rules about holidays, you’ll then have clear business reasons to use when rejecting a request.  For example, if you want to have a cap on how many employees from each department are able to take annual leave at the same time to ensure service levels are maintained, you can justify that.  It’s even more important in smaller departments as there are fewer members of staff to cover workplace duties.

Another rule to consider is having a maximum length of annual leave that can be taken at one time to prevent staff having long periods of absence from work. Most employers put a limit of maximum of 2 weeks of continuous leave from work, with any requests in excess of two weeks usually being declined. Employers can always use their discretion and decide to approve requests for longer periods of holiday under certain circumstances, however doing so may create an expectation from employees that these requests will be approved in the future.

It’s worth keeping in mind that although employers may reject annual leave requests under certain circumstances, employees must be permitted to take their minimum holiday entitlement as failure to reasonably allow this could result in costly tribunal claims.

Understand your responsibilities

In addition, we have seen rulings in recent employment tribunal claims that suggest it is no longer enough to have a holiday process and to be clear on the leave year.  It’s now becoming as important that you actively encourage staff to use their leave throughout the year and not leave it to the last month.  Ideally holiday should be taken through the year to ensure your employees are well rested and refreshed to carry out their work.

We recommend from a best practice point of view that you issue periodic reminders and speak to staff about their holidays to encourage them to make requests for periods where they are permitted to take leave.  This will help to avoid disappointment later.

During the discussions about their holidays and in the reminders you issue, it’s worth explaining that should an employee not have enough holiday to cover a request or if the request is denied, the option to take the time off as unpaid is not an automatic right.  That’s a whole other story!

The simple take is: Avoid arguments over having to decline annual leave requests by having a clear process on how to book leave and the rules relating to time off.  However, if there is a business need to refuse, you can… in the words of Grange Hill ‘just say no’.

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