Work leave request policy conundrum. What's fair? What works?
February 7, 2014 5:06 PM   Subscribe

My growing office of 10 is thinking about developing a vacation scheduling/leave request policy, and I'd be responsible for managing it. Staff get about 3-4 weeks vacation every year, and we're in a student service office in a university setting in the US. Before now there were no scheduling snafus, because we closed over the holidays. BUt a new policy has come down - we'll be open over the holidays. So could you tell me how your office juggles vacation leave requests in general, and what you think of it? How do you manage leave over the holidays or other popular times? Do you think seniority is fair? Or should leave be first requested, first serve? What do you think is the best way to develop a leave request policy? I'd like to have a policy that is sensible and user friendly, based on a process that is transparent and fair. HR is giving us leeway on determining a policy and at the very least, I'll ask everyone in the office what they think. But I thought I'd also ask you, hivemind. All suggestions welcome.
posted by anitanita to Work & Money (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about what should be the official codified policy, but people need to know they'll be able to book flights and plan things in advance and if you're saying "well... I can't tell you until the people above you know what they're doing" then that really screws them over.

As a management strategy it's something you should discuss in advance every year (for Christmas I would say no later than early September) and see if people anticipate it being a problem and see if you can have someone voluntarily say they'll be there over the holidays (or 2 people or however many you need to count as open) so that it's not a problem.
posted by brainmouse at 5:17 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I worked in a university student service office where we needed to ensure coverage through the break. everyone put in vacation requests for the year by a set deadline and it went by seniority. If people wanted additional vacation through the year or were hired later, it was first come first served.
posted by SoftRain at 5:19 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

At my last job, with a team of about 15, we used google calendars. You'd talk to your manager about your request and they'd look at the calendar. As long as there weren't too many other people out then, you could take the time. We did it all first-come, first-serve. This worked pretty well. However, we were closed over the Christmas/New Year's holiday - you may want a policy just for that week - maybe something like the September deadline suggested above.
posted by lunasol at 5:29 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have a rotating schedule for who is on which months. Our staff is fairly static but the position moves forward a month annually. So if you had December as a "on call" staff in 2014, you have January in 2014, etc.

We ensure minimal staffing during holidays by that means. I'd suggest something set in place at the beginning of the year. If people want to swap, that's fine, but that is not your problem.
posted by arnicae at 5:30 PM on February 7, 2014

Mr MMDP also works in a student facing office; they are expected to take their main holidays when students are off rather than during term. I have never worked anywhere that gave preference to seniority, always first come first served with a broad expectation that there would be at least one senior officer in.
Certainly get as much advance notice as possible; in my current office a schedule is circulated before those times when people are likely to want / need leave at the same time, such as school holidays, whereby people can indicate what leave they'd like and the manager can then make an informed decision on the likely level of cover.
Yes to using electronic calendars available to view.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:43 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

At my (union) job, everyone is give a vacation form at the beginning of the year, with five slots. Employees have more weeks of vacation the longer they've been there. Vacation is allotted by a combination of seniority/first come. You fill in your dates in order of preference, and then if there is a conflict for first choice, it goes to the person who has been there longer. But if there is a conflict between someone's first choice week, and someone with seniority wants it as their second week, it will go to the first week person. So basically, first each person is given a first week choice, determined by seniority, then they go around for the second week with what is left over, and so on. Maybe I haven't explained this too clearly, but I think it's a pretty standard way of doing things, and seems fair.
posted by catatethebird at 5:54 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

(To clarify, there are two lines, for first and second choice, on each of the five week-choice slots.)
posted by catatethebird at 6:02 PM on February 7, 2014

At my job there is a two week call for vacation requests for the next year at the beginning of September. People submit their requests and they are decided by seniority. The people that had their requests denied then submit again on a first-come, first serve basis. One smart supervisor I know evaluated the requests as they came in and if she saw what would be an obvious denial she would let the person who's request would be denied to resubmit another one. We also have a big calender on the wall just for vacation requests. That way people can immediately decide if it is even worth putting a request in after that two week call (or, since we are a really close team, people trade vacation days).
posted by saucysault at 6:15 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was in that position, I asked everyone for wishlists well in advance of the holidays and did the best I could to make everybody happy. I had certain requirements and they spent a couple of hours with the calendar with very little further input from me. They were happy because it was collaborative and not by fiat.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:26 PM on February 7, 2014

First decide on the minimum staffing you require when you're open -- if you're usually closed over the Christmas break, that's probably not very many people, and the fewer people you have in the office over Christmas, the easier it is to schedule, because there's often a couple of people who are going to be around anyway and don't mind working.

Then, set a deadline for advance requests for time-off. In order to give people flexibility and cheap flights, you want this to be fairly far in advance. In some places, it's an entire year that has to be booked by a given date. Others do it in 6 month blocks with summer and Christmas falling in separate blocks. In either case, the deadline needs to be at least a month or two before the start of the block.

For people who have their vacation requests in before the deadline, let seniority decide who wins conflicts, with the added caveat, that for high demand holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, if they *had* to work it the previous year (ie, requested it off and didn't get it), they go higher up on the list the next year, so that it's not the same low men on the totem pole who end up screwed over every year.

After the deadline, people can still request additional holiday time for a given block. They just have to take it during whatever times are left over, on a first-requested basis.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:28 PM on February 7, 2014

A friend of mine works a job where they get extra vacation days for working Thanksgiving day, Christmas, or New Years, and they make a point of volunteering to work those days so as to get more total vacation.
posted by yohko at 6:29 PM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ask for volunteers who will get either time-and-a-half if hourly or comp time if salaried. When I made the rules, vacation requests could be made up to 9 months in advance (no, you can't book every 12/24 for the next 5 years) and no more than 25% of staff could schedule the same time off, 50% for major holidays, since they are usually quite slow. At a University, really busy times - 1st week of classes, or 1st week of open registration, etc., might be entirely unavailable for scheduled time off. Scheduled time off includes planned medical/ dental care; you can have your teeth cleaned at a less busy time.

Often it will work out that some people don't travel during holidays, so conflict is low. If there's conflict, then you have to start requiring people to work x number of holidays.
posted by theora55 at 6:35 PM on February 7, 2014

We just did our leave policy for about 50+ people. We use an excel spreadsheet with the year in columns (365), coloured for weekends and public holidays, every staff grouped by department/team in rows. Their total days and days taken are counted (1 or 0.5 for half day) in the columns next to their names so we can see how many days they have left. We have three categories for leave: annual leave, medical leave, special leave (like maternity, compassionate etc). We also track training days on this spreadsheet. The HR guys update it when leave requests come in, so it's a first-come first-serve because our guideline is to avoid having the majority of a team on leave at the same time. Some staff have specific times we need them in office, so they are asked to schedule their leave around that.

If you have a small team, google calendars is fine but after a point it becomes a sea of colours and no-one wants to track it. I would stick to a spreadsheet and publish the monthly leave calendar regularly as a printed poster or to an intranet. Otherwise look for a web service that handles this.

We have two major holiday times where we just close the entire office and have a skeleton staff for emergencies. For other holiday periods, it's a first-come, first-serve. In your case, I would list the top 5 big holidays and set up slots for each and ask people to put their names down now for them and then assign them by a simple sorting routine (17 people asked for Christmas, 5 for Labour Day weekend, so the 5 who did not get Christmas, get Labour Day) - people don't care how so much as if it's fair.

Seniority is a terrible way to do it in my opinion because it pulls down morale. We had that issue for an unpopular shift, with junior staff getting assigned always to it. Recently, we decided everyone had to rotate through that shift, regardless of status and did it alphabetically. Much easier.

We looked at labour laws for our area, then at the current practices, and then read through about a dozen leave policies at similar size organisations and picked out what we liked. We did a draft, discussed it, updated the draft and then signed it off.

You need to decide on hot topics in advance: do people with children get priority for child-oriented holidays? Do people with religious beliefs get priority for religious holidays? Can someone swap leave for a different benefit or 'donate' their leave to another staff member? What's your overtime policy for people who work on a scheduled holiday due to urgent work needs?

Oh, and be specific about what counts as annual leave, medical leave, compassionate leave. Our policy lists what relatives' deaths you get compassionate leave for, and for medical, what kind of doctor certification you need, and that if you come in after X-time, it's considered a half-day etc. It's better to be hardassed and very detailed in a policy and give managers leeway to be compassionate and flexible in practice, IMO.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:38 PM on February 7, 2014

Giving extra vacation days to the people working the holiday shift is good. Please remember that religion is important, as is family. A Christian mother of three should never be expected to work Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. And unless your company provides childcare, parents asking for time off during school holidays should carry more weight than a single person's cruise.
posted by myselfasme at 6:47 PM on February 7, 2014

Once a year we solicit for the main requests. And we decide our minimum staffing levels.
Most staff will request some of their most important dates and then leave it up to chance as to when they'll use the remainder of their time.

We issue a form with two lines for each request: Req. A: 1st Choice and 2nd Choice;
Req.B: 1st Choice and 2nd Choice.
Each choice shows the first day off and the first day back.
Some supervisors use the margin to note how many hours are involved with each request.

The departments then stack the paperwork by seniority and start plotting Req. A, 1st choice for the most senior person. then Req. B, 1st choice for the same person...then the Req. C...

When that is finished we plot for the next senior person.

Independent of that, as a supervisor, I will review the calendar and I will try to finesse the holidays. I don't like one person taking Christmas AND New year adjacent dates. And if I hear of a wedding or other special times I might go back and negotiate on their behalf with the more Sr. person.

I wish that the stack would still be by seniority, but that we would approve it Request by Request.
Most Sr. Person, Req. A 1st Choice;
Next Sr. Person, Req. A 1st Choice if we can, otherwise 2nd Choice.
Next Next Sr. Person, Req. A 1st Choice if we can, otherwise 2nd Choice;
otherwise Req. B 1st Choice...

We also have an unwritten rule that if you are asking for a Friday off [when we're half-staffed] you should be asking for the whole week off. It sounds weird but it then let's us plan for your absence better.
posted by calgirl at 6:58 PM on February 7, 2014

Please keep in mind that some folks really don't mind working over the holidays, so although this is a bummer, it may not be as bad as you're thinking. It's quieter and no one is around to bug you; I find it's a good time for filing and other easy tasks that ways get back burnered. I've volunteered to cover Christmas Eve and NYE with no additional comp time received (although I would have jumped at that if it had been available).
posted by samthemander at 7:00 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the late spring when we're working out a different part of the schedule, I give people a list of the four or five weeks when we are most likely to have too many vacation requests (Thanksgiving, Christmas, a conference that multiple people always want to go to, the last 2 weeks of August, etc) and ask them to rank them 1-5 in their order of preference. They don't HAVE to take those weeks but it gives me an idea of how many people are likely to want that time off, and it's easier if I have to deny vacation to someone to be able to point out that they have a higher priority at another time.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:16 PM on February 7, 2014

When you say "open over the holidays", do you mean "open the entire holiday season, including all major holidays", or do you mean "open while the students are on winter break, closed for the Big Days"? The latter is much easier than the former, though I think they can be dealt with more or less the same way.

I'd start by determining the minimum amount of staffing for days like Thanksgiving/Black Friday or Christmas Eve/Christmas, when things are likely really slow anyhow, and decide if there's an incentive you can offer people--extra vacation days, time and a half, catered lunches, whatever. Then you ask for volunteers. This can be several months before the big day--for Thanksgiving, you send out a notice in August, maybe. In my experience, this is often enough to get bare minimum of staff needed. It might help, too, if you offer split shifts--work nine to one, getting paid for a full eight hours, then go home to be with your family. Someone who celebrates in the morning can then come from one to five, again getting paid for the full day. There are a lot of creative ways to make this work.

If it's not enough coverage, you should first grant the days off to the people who worked those days last year and asked for them off this year. After that, first come, first serve is probably your best bet.

A Christian mother of three should never be expected to work Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Don't follow this advice. Not only will it open you up to claims of preferential treatment ("Julie got it off because she has kids and is overtly religious in the workplace, and I had to work a meaningful holiday because I'm childless and keep my religious beliefs to myself" sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen), but it'll breed resentment and destroy morale. It's inappropriate to consider what you know of people's family situations and personal beliefs for things like this, especially because holidays are loaded guns of complicated feelings anyhow.
posted by MeghanC at 7:37 PM on February 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

parents asking for time off during school holidays should carry more weight than a single person's cruise.

Oh hell to the no! +1 to MeghanC, please don't destroy morale and relationships in your workplace by doing this.
posted by arnicae at 7:51 PM on February 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

A Christian mother of three should never be expected to work Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. And unless your company provides childcare, parents asking for time off during school holidays should carry more weight than a single person's cruise.

No. Just no. This causes nothing but trouble and animosity in the workplace. A combination of first-requested and seniority works just fine.
posted by kimberussell at 8:01 PM on February 7, 2014 [13 favorites]

My workplace has three teams of five, plus a senior manager. The weeks after christmas, and January are the most popular holiday times - but also a time where we aren't crazy-busy but we have to maintain services. We handle it like this:

- All leave requests have to be submitted by mid-October
- the team leaders and senior manager look at the leave requests together on a calendar.
- leave is granted, based on the following criteria:
* For all weeks in January, either the senior manager and one team leader; or two team leaders need to be at work
* at least two people from each team need to be at work, and preferably three
* for Christmas Eve and the day before the long weekend (which we know from past experience is really quiet) the above numbers can be reduced to zero so long as all team leaders are prepared to check blackberries regularly, and answer urgent emails or calls.
* everyone who works during January can go home a little early or turn up a little late if there's no urgent work happening and they promise to answer their phone if called.

In the five years I've worked there, there's only been one occasion where we had to ask someone if they'd mind changing their preferred dates. I've also found that some people like to work during the quiet times because they can catch up on things, or because they don't celebrate Christmas.
posted by Gwendoline Mary at 8:21 PM on February 7, 2014

A modified seniority-first plan is fine, but make sure that dates get set well enough in advance that people can get reasonable travel costs. (I like at least 6 months.)

You might be surprised at people who are happy to come in on a slow time.

No matter what you do, be reasonable for major occasions, which will usually have a much longer lead time. People generally don't have a lot of them, but when they do happen, they'll want to know that this will be taken into account even given seniority issues.

If you prioritize one group (parents) over another group (non-parents), this will breed massive resentment. Everyone has family and obligations.
posted by jeather at 8:58 PM on February 7, 2014

Mod note: One comment deleted; Folks, please return to helping the OP with their question rather than reacting to the Christians/parents suggestion, which has already been addressed several times now. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:12 AM on February 8, 2014

Establish when the office is closed, establish minimum cover required during slow times and busy times, consider blocking really busy times for all holiday requests. Then first come first served, seniority (other than supervisory presence as part of minimum cover), faith or family commitments should not come into it. Then let people swap time off amongst each other as long as minim cover is maintained if they want to change their time off.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:40 AM on February 8, 2014

I once managed an office where we instituted a system that everyone loved.

If vacation was scheduled and set in stone by February for the calendar year, and year end came and nobody had changed their vacation, then everyone got a bonus. (We had to hire temps to cover for a lot of staff members, but also if everyone lined up vacation together, the dentist could also take time and close the office ... didn't always happen, but nice when it did.)

Now, the university is probably not going to provide bonus money, but maybe a party or some other incentive? This takes the headache out of juggling holiday scheduling while back to school stuff is getting underway, and it makes it clear waaaaaay early that the time to think about holiday travel is now. It gives people a chance to actually talk to each other about aligning plans, without the emotional stuff getting in the way. You might have people rank their vacation choices, first, second, third....or put everything on the board as it's requested and see if people want to make adjustments. But again, this has to be done early. Otherwise you might get people "forgetting" the change and buying their plane tickets before clearing their time.
posted by bilabial at 5:17 AM on February 8, 2014

We had a somewhat larger staff, but we did it based on seniority. People had a number of vacation weeks based on how long they'd been there, ranging from 5 weeks vacation (25 years +) down to 2 weeks (5 years or less). Before the beginning of the new year, everybody chose their vacation time for the whole year. First round picks: went down the list by seniority, everybody picks 2 of their weeks. Second round: down the list again, everybody with weeks left picks one more week. And so on, until the last person with weeks left has picked.

There were limits on the number of people who could be off on any particular week (it varied over the year, some weeks were more limited than others). If somebody needed to change a vacation week over the course of the year, the request would be posted for everyone to see and if it could be worked out, the change would go through. Any problems were sorted by seniority. The key to making it work was by absolutely sticking to the rules, and seniority was the most unchangeable sorting mechanism we could find. Once the vacation schedule was set, nobody could mess with it. If someone had to be off for bereavement or illness or family member illness, we just worked short-handed - no one was ever required to give up vacation time once it was booked for the year.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2014

With a first-requested, first-granted system, you will need some kind of upper limit on how far in advance someone can request time off. No one should be able to request the next six Thanksgivings off, for example.
posted by soelo at 9:02 AM on February 10, 2014

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