Although workers are legally entitled to a certain amount of paid time off each year, employers reserve the ability to approve or refuse holiday requests.
But dealing with requests for annual leave can easily become problematic for managers. Last-minute requests, employees making holiday arrangements before receiving permission and clashes when multiple personnel want to take the same time off can make it difficult for managers to ensure adequate staffing levels and avoid disruption to operations, while averting staff disputes and damaging team morale.
This makes it important to be organised and transparent about the rules for requesting and taking annual leave, and for managers to be consistent when considering requests.
Workers’ rights to time off work
Most workers in the UK are entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday per year, which should be compensated in the usual way. This is a statutory right that applies to those working fixed or irregular hours, agency workers and zero hour contract workers. Part-time workers’ holiday entitlement is calculated on a pro rata basis.
Employees on maternity leave, paternity leave, adoption leave and sick leave also continue to accrue annual leave in the usual way during their period of leave.
For employees working five days a week, this statutory entitlement equates to at least 28 days of paid leave per year. Many employers offer workers ‘enhanced’ annual leave, over and above the statutory minimum. Any enhanced entitlement should be written into the employment contract.
Bank holidays can also be included within this statutory leave entitlement, but this time does not have to be paid.
In practice, many employers opt to provide bank holidays as additional, paid time off over and above the statutory entitlement as an employment perk.
As with full-time employees, part-time employees are also entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid holiday per year, however, their specific entitlement is calculated based on their part-time hours. For example, an employee who works three days a week must be given at least 16.8 days off per year; this is calculated as 3 [days] x 5.6.
Dealing with holiday requests
Employers have to ensure that all holiday requests are handled openly, fairly, consistently, and in accordance with employment law.
When and how holiday leave requests are allowed and made, or the procedure for requesting and allowing annual leave, should be documented, such as in the employment contract or the organisation’s annual leave policy or staff handbook.
When an employee has followed the correct holiday request procedure, has enough leave to take, and the business is adequately covered, it is good practice to grant their request.
Employers can also instruct their employees to take vacation time, such as for bank holidays or Christmas, and regulate when vacation time is taken, such as by limiting vacation time during busy periods.
If an employee is sick and unable to work, an employer cannot force them to take annual leave. This time off should be dealt with under the organisation’s sickness absence procedure.
Refusing a holiday request
An employer has the right to refuse a holiday request under the Working Time Regulations 1998, but they must have good reason for doing so. For example, it may be reasonable to refuse a request to take time off during a peak period for the organisation, when the employer expects the business to be busy and requires employees to work.
If an employer consistently refuses annual leave, preventing an employee from taking their full statutory entitlement or contractual leave allocation over the course of a year, it becomes a health and safety and employment issue that is protected by legislation.
Cancelling an approved holiday
An employer may find themselves in the position of having to cancel a holiday request that they had previously approved. For example, a large and unexpected project may have been awarded with an extremely tight deadline, necessitating the participation of every employee in order to complete it on time. In this instance, it may be reasonable to cancel the period of leave, but a number of conditions apply.
First, when cancelling a pre-approved holiday, the employer has to give at least the same amount of notice as the period of leave cancelled plus one day. This means if an employee requests five days off, the employer must give six days’ notice (five days matching the length of the leave booked, plus one day).
In addition, an employer cannot cancel a period of leave if it means that the employee will not be able to use all of their statutory leave entitlement during that leave year. Otherwise, the employee may be able to file a grievance or claim against the employer if there is no clear business reason for the cancellation.
Should parents’ requests be prioritised during the summer vacation?
Requests for holiday time should be given the same weight and treated fairly and equally. Employers who treat their employees unfairly or give some requests more weight than others may face complaints and potential claims of unlawful discrimination.
Dealing with disputes over holidays
Rejecting holiday requests can easily lead to resentment and tension in the workplace and disgruntled employees if not handled well.
Taking a proactive approach to fostering positive working relationships and cultivating an engaged and motivated workforce is beneficial when managers have to make difficult decisions, such as denying holiday requests.
Managers should be trained to understand employees’ rights and the organisation’s annual leave policy, to ensure they are complying with the statutory and organisational requirements. They should also be trained and supported to deal with potential disputes. When issues like refusing holiday requests are handled correctly from the outset, it can help to avoid an escalation and the associated resource drain of managing a workplace dispute.
Most annual leave disputes can be resolved informally, through discussion with the affected employee(s), to explain the reasoning behind the decision and how it follows company policy. Should the matter escalate further, there are a number of options for resolving disagreements over annual leave requests, including:
If an employee is unable to resolve their complaint informally, they should follow the organisation’s grievance procedure to make a formal complaint.
If an employee takes annual leave without permission, depending do on the facts, it may be appropriate to follow the disciplinary procedure. There should be a written disciplinary procedure that includes the rules, the performance and behaviour that may lead to disciplinary action, and any action taken by the employer, as well as the employee’s right to appeal.
When formal negotiations have failed, mediation may be beneficial. This is a process in which a qualified independent mediator assists both disputing parties in resolving their differences without the use of a tribunal or court.
Any benefits of mediation should be weighed against the prospect and estimated costs of the case being taken to an employment tribunal.
In most cases, the proceedings begin with a joint session in which each party presents a summary of its case. The mediator will then meet with each party individually to discuss the claim in greater detail, make settlement proposals, and use that information to try to reach an agreement.
Annual leave policy
If an employer refuses a holiday request and the employee still takes time off, it may be considered a disciplinary offence and subject to disciplinary action under the company’s disciplinary policy. As a result, it’s critical that employees understand how to request time off for annual leave and understand how holiday requests are decided.
The annual leave policy is critical in establishing the standards and procedures for employees to request and take holiday time, as well as for managers and supervisors to handle all requests and time off correctly and consistently. A typical annual leave policy would include the following:
- Define the period that annual leave entitlement is managed, eg calendar year? April through to March?
- Format for making holiday requests eg through specialist HR software?
- Who is responsible for making the decision on holiday requests?
- Notice required to make a request for annual leave.
- Minimum cover levels and any limits on the number of employees that can be on leave at any one time.
- Define ‘busy periods’ during which leave is either prohibited (except in exceptional circumstances) or restricted to a specific number of employees.
- Are leave requests decided on a first-come first-served basis, or requests accepted and authorised during certain periods eg on an annual basis?
- Rules on carrying over holidays into the next year.
- Do employees who have worked for a certain amount of time get extra holiday?
DavidsonMorris’ employment lawyers support employers with all aspects of workforce management, including reviewing policies and resolving workplace disputes. Through our fixed-fee employment law service, Triple A, employers benefit from access to unlimited advice from a dedicated lawyer on your everyday employment law issues. For guidance on a specific issue or for more information about Triple A, contact us.
Can employers refuse holiday requests FAQs
Can an employer refuse my holiday request?
An employer can refuse a holiday request or cancel leave, but they are required in law to give as much notice of the refusal or cancellation as the amount of leave requested, plus one day.
On what grounds can an employer refuse annual leave?
An employer can refuse an annual leave request if it is not practical, convenient, or will negatively impact the business, for example, if it is a busy time of year or would cause understaffing.
Can my employer refuse my holiday request UK?
Although employers can refuse to sanction a holiday request at a certain time, they are prohibited from refusing to let employees take the leave at all.
What is an unreasonable refusal of annual leave?
Holiday requests should only be turned down in good faith and on reasonable grounds. But if refusal of annual leave cannot be justified on clear business grounds, then an employee is entitled to raise a grievance.
Last updated: 6 June 2023