‘Tis the Season to Deny Holiday Time Off

For many managers, the holidays don’t just usher in the hustle and bustle of decking the halls and eating delicious food. Sometimes the season brings on the stress of deciding who should get holiday time off. And telling employees they won’t get what they want doesn’t exactly create a workplace full of good cheer.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. As a leader, you can turn a potentially volatile situation into one that puts employees in the driver’s seat. You can give employees decision-making power.

Check with Your Executive and HR

First, consult with your executive and human resources (HR) experts to ensure they’re on board and have no concerns. Success hinges on the specifics and the details. Also, if you’re part of a large organization, keeping your executive and HR informed helps promote consistency across the enterprise.

If you get the green light, here’s one way to move forward with fairness and transparency.

Establish a Time Off Maximum

Determine what percentage of staff you can allow off each day of the holiday season. Consider how many people you need to operate comfortably, and factor in how many may call out based on prior years’ data trends. You can determine this percentage by division, office, section, and even by team.

In my tenure as a manager, I pooled together teams with transferable skills to optimize the number of people I could approve. While I didn’t want to put a damper on the holiday spirit, I had to balance flexibility with delivering results.

Ask Staff for Their Time Off Requests

Email employees asking them to submit their leave requests for the holiday season. Establish a reasonable deadline to give them sufficient time and opportunity to reply.

Track Time Off Request Data

Assign someone to collect, file, and record time off requests.

At a minimum, note the:

  • Names of people asking for time off each day,
  • Number of people that may be out,
  • Number of people that will cover operations, and
  • Percentage of people requesting time off.

Don’t Be the Judge

Employees can be emotionally vested in these requests. Whether they want to visit a family member, participate in a wedding, spend time with a pet, or cook for a holiday event, these reasons mean a lot to them.  Don’t get into the position of judging whose request is more important or urgent. You’ll have a hard justifying how you rendered your judgment.

Empower Employees to Make the Cuts

If there are days where you can’t accommodate all the time off requests, empower employees to make the necessary cuts.

This may sound counterintuitive and risky, but involving employees in the decision-making when you need to deny holiday time off gives them control. This is engaging and empowering for them and eases some of your pressure.

Sylvia Melena

However, it can be tricky because you don’t want it to turn into bickering. This would be counterproductive. While the pressure is not all on you, you’ll still need to facilitate the process to ensure a positive approach and outcome.

Compile Time Off Requests for the Problematic Dates

To help employees make an informed team decision, provide them with the necessary data. Make a list of problematic dates where you need to trim down the number of people taking off. The intent is to provide the list to staff at the team decision-making meeting.

Proceed with Caution

Be careful when you bring employees into the meeting. If anyone needs the time off because of medical reasons or other sensitive situations, consider these requests separately. Again, work with your HR experts. Consider the team decision-making option only for routine vacation requests. This process is not appropriate for time off related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Workman’s Comp, or other sensitive circumstances.


To mitigate risk,
work closely with your executive and HR before you proceed with team decision-making for holiday time off. If either admonishes you not to move forward, heed the warning.


Hold a Team Decision-Making Meeting

If you have the green light from your executive and HR, bring the impacted employees into a comfortable conference room. Explain the dilemma—more people are asking for time off on high demand dates than you can accommodate. However, you don’t want to decide who should get the time off, because you know how important it is for everyone. Therefore, you need them to solve the problem. They have two options:

  • Option 1 – They can engage in a team decision-making process.  If they chose this option, you’ll hand out a list of impacted dates and the names of the people requesting time off. Then, they’ll discuss and decide who will get approved.
  • Option 2 – You can draw names to determine who gets time off.  This is the safest of the two options because it strictly involves the luck of the draw, which you have no control over.

If you wish, you can skip sharing option 1 and simply draw names. It’s a matter of how much risk you can tolerate.

Also, the success of this strategy is largely dependent on the amount of trust you have already established in the workplace and the strength of the supervisor-employee relationships.

Care About People

I have experienced instances where, after we had already approved time off requests for the holiday season, people needed to take off on high demand days because of serious issues. In these cases, if I needed to drop down coverage to percentages below optimal levels, I did.  I also safeguarded people’s privacy. Upholding people’s rights and ensuring their well-being has always been non-negotiable.

When I have used this strategy, it has garnered positive feedback. Supervisors and their staff have indicated they love the transparency and fairness. Of course, not everyone has been happy. You won’t always make everyone happy when you manage a large workforce.

Your ultimate goal is to ensure empowerment, fairness, and transparency. These three levers will drive engagement, commitment, and strong organizational performance. They will also help you reduce some of your holiday-related pressure.


SYLVIA MELENA is the Founder and CEO of Melena Consulting Group and the author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance.

Sylvia is also the architect of the Supportive Accountability Leadership™ Model that helps leaders engage employees and improve performance.