HR 101: How to Fairly Manage PTO Requests

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Mar 25, 2019

As companies continue to fight for top talent, corporate benefits can set one job offer apart from a competing one. One such common perk is paid time off (PTO).

Employees and job candidates often correlate PTO policies to a workplace’s quality of life balance, as generous policies suggest employers provide its staff with the freedom to maintain a healthy personal life away from work. Companies that have restrictive time off policies may struggle to find great job applicants, while those with who make it difficult to get time off will be challenged in retaining their employees. Neglect to make a policy and staying staffed during peak vacation times will prove problematic.

Note: As enticing a generous PTO policy may be, few employees use all their time off. Research by the U.S. Travel Association shows that annually (and for many years back) American workers have failed to use all their vacation time. In 2017, more than half of Americans left vacation time on the table, a total of 705 million days.

As supervisors and human resources professionals, it’s important to know how to handle requests in a timely and effective manner and develop a company-wide method of managing requests. Here are some ideas on creating a time off request policy that works for everyone,

Set expectations upfront

It’s no longer enough for companies to expect new hires to read and remember every detail of a handbook. While a manual is important and should clearly define all policies and benefits, PTO policies and expectations should be clearly articulated during the interview and onboarding process. This includes how PTO is accrued, time frames for submitting requests, if there are designated sick/personal days, and any carry-over restrictions for unused time.

If employees don’t know the boundaries for requesting and taking PTO, companies will be left with two results:

  1. Some employees are going to ask constantly, for any reason, to take time off, which leads to resentment among the other employees.
  2. Some employees are going to be too hesitant to ask out of fear their request will be denied or reflect poorly on their overall performance, leading to frustration and burnout.

Require advance notice

Even if your organization offers time-off flexibility, such as unlimited PTO or generous work from home policies, the last thing any supervisor needs is to be left without a team due to poorly articulating notice periods or managing request.


Unlimited paid time off is trending, especially at larger companies. Read how Indeed made the program work. It was one of our most requested posts: Indeed’s Unlimited PTO Is a Win For Everyone


To ensure that work is distributed fairly, especially during popular vacation times when multiple team members are off, require a deadline for when time off requests can be made, such as two or three weeks notice. This helps manage time off requests for the same time.

Documenting who took off when can be the starting point to building a rotational holiday PTO schedule that’s shared with the team. For those who want to switch PTO shifts during popular vacation times (for examples, when one colleague wants Christmas off every year when another only cares about Thanksgiving), all you’ll need to do is approve the request without worrying about coverage.

Follow a process

When it comes to managing PTO requests, the most common method employers use to manage time off is the first-come-first-serve approach, followed by seniority.

  • First come first serve — Whoever submits their request first is granted the time off.
  • Seniority — Time off requests are processed based on one’s longevity at the company or employment level. This is best used when there are time off requests that, for all other reasons, are equally valid and conflicting. However, it can sometimes appear as favoritism.

While process and policies are important, they are not always fair. Be wary of putting too much weight on requests from those who always seem to put in their requests six months out or those who have been at the company 10 or more years. It is discouraging for new employees to feel as if they will always work the graveyard shift or never see their family for the holidays due to being the new kid on the block. If they feel penalized due to their seniority status (or lack thereof) it could cause them to find a job elsewhere.

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