Saying no to holidays, even if they’re booked

  • Leave and Absence
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Picture this.

It’s Monday morning. An employee asks to see you.

They hand you a slip of paper marked with dates, and explain it’s the time they’d like to book off.

You check your staff holiday diary.

“I’ll need you in work on those days,” you say, “so I can’t let you have them off.”

There’s a brief moment of silence as your worker’s eyes widen.

“But I’ve already paid for flights and a hotel!”

Now what?

Is it legal to say “No”?


The UK Working Time Regulations (1998) say that you can refuse a holiday request, even if your employee has already paid for travel and accommodation.

It doesn’t mean you’re cruel. It just means you’re looking after your business.

But rejection can leave your staff upset, especially if they feel they’ve earned the time off and could lose a large sum of money.

So what’s the best way to let them down? And how can you avoid the situation in the first place?

Let me explain…

How to say “No”

If a staff member is naïve enough to book a holiday without checking they can actually go, you need to reduce the fallout that the rejection may cause.
Here are a few tips on saying “No”, without ruining morale:

  • Give a specific reason, preferably a business one, why you need them at work and why it’s nothing to do with performance.
  • Be firm and confident with your answer, so your employee is clear that the decision is final.
  • Suggest alternative dates or give them an extra day off later in the year as a thank you for being so accommodating.
  • Don’t apologise. It’s a business decision, not a personal one, and saying sorry invites the worker to blame you.

But the best course of action is to avoid the situation altogether. So read on for five ways you can do so…

1. Write clear policies

To make sure your staff follow the rules from the start of their employment, you need to write watertight annual leave policies into your employee contracts.

This way, workers know where they stand before they start dreaming about holidays.

And when they sign the contract, you’ll have proof that they understand and agree to its terms, which strengthens your case if a worker threatens a tribunal.

But it’s tricky trying to cover everything in one document. So if you want new contracts or to update your current ones, it’s worth getting professional help from Peninsula’s experts.

2. Use ‘first come, first served’

If too many of your staff members are on leave at once, your business won’t be able to maintain its normal level of service. And that’ll affect profits.

So it’s a good idea to cap the number of staff that can be away at any one time.

You should organise the cap on a first-come, first-served basis, so whoever asks for specific dates off first can have them. Simple.

This method reduces the chances of favouritism and discrimination accusations, and it teaches your workers to be more organised with their holiday planning in the future.

3. Set up seasonal restrictions

If your business becomes extra busy at certain points of the year, such as a surfboard shop during the summer, you can also stop staff members from taking any time off until the busy period is over.

Conversely, you can make your staff take a holiday at certain dates. This could include Christmas and New Year if your workplace closes at those times.
Setting clear, non-negotiable dates where staff must, or must not, take time off will save you from the hassle of rejections.

4. Limit the length of leave

You can also curb the length of time that someone can take off in one go.

Many companies use two weeks as their limit, as any longer without an important employee can stop a business functioning properly.

It’s completely up to you, of course, if you ever want to make an exception. But just bear in mind that this exception could set a precedent and other staff might expect the same treatment in the future.

5. Use online software

Managing staff holidays with software can make the task faster, easier and more convenient.

Tools such as BrightHR work out staff holiday entitlements so you don’t have to.

They flag any holiday clashes and keep track of all employee leave so you can plan for busy periods.

And with their smartphone apps, you can check calendars and sign holiday requests off in seconds—from wherever you are.

Find out how BrightHR can transform staff holiday management. Start with a free demo today.

Book my demo.


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