It doesn’t matter how hard-working or committed to your company an employee is. At some point, every employee—including the most hard-working and committed—will need a vacation. And as an employer, you want to do everything you can to give your employees the time off work they need to rest, relax, and recharge.
But there might be times when an employee’s vacation request clashes with your business’s needs—and in those situations, you may need to deny certain PTO requests.
Many employees will accept that their vacation time has been denied and make alternate plans—for example, by requesting different vacation days. But others may ignore it and decide to take the time off anyway—which leads to the employee taking unapproved vacation.
But the question is, as a business owner, how do you handle these unexcused absences—and, just as importantly, prevent them from happening in the future?
What is Considered Unapproved Vacation Time?
Unapproved vacation time is when an employee takes time off work without asking permission or after they’ve already been denied PTO. This may include:
- Taking vacation time when it wasn’t approved by a supervisor: Let’s say an employee requests time off for a vacation. For whatever reason, the employer denies the employee’s request (for example, because they didn’t give advance notice or their vacation request falls on a week when too many other employees are already using their PTO). If the employee takes PTO anyway—either leveraging other types of PTO (like sick days) to get paid or taking the time away from work as unpaid leave—that would be considered unauthorized vacation.
- Not telling an employer about upcoming time off: An employee not telling their employer that they’re planning a vacation—and then taking the time off without letting the employer know they’re planning on being absent from work—could also be considered unauthorized work or unapproved vacation time.
- Leaving work without permission. The same goes for if an employee leaves work without permission—for example, leaving work early on a Friday to get a head start on a weekend trip.
In some companies, unapproved vacation time may also be known as unapproved time off, unauthorized PTO, or unauthorized leave.
Is it Legal to Deny an Employee’s Request for Vacation Time?
In most situations, yes.
Currently, there are no federal laws in the United States that require employers to give employees PTO (including vacation days) as part of their employee benefits package. At the state level, there are a few state laws that require employers to give their team paid sick time—but not vacation.
And so, because you’re not legally required to give your employees paid vacation, as an employer, you also aren’t legally required to approve your employees’ vacation requests.
That being said, there are certain PTO requests that, if possible, you should consider granting. For example, whether you offer employees paid sick leave or not, if an employee is genuinely sick, you don’t want them at work—and, as such, should give them time off if they request it. Or, as another example, if an employee requests vacation time off for a big life event—like getting married—as an employer, you should do everything you can to grant that request.
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When Are You Legally Not Allowed to Deny Time Off?
Some situations where you may be legally obligated to grant employees time off include:
- FMLA leave: Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), eligible employees are legally allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with a qualified health or family issue (including a personal medical issue, the birth or adoption of a child, or taking care of an ill family member). As such, any time off they take during their FMLA leave would not count as unauthorized absences.
- Disability: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities—and in certain situations, that might include taking time away from work.
- Religious reasons: Not allowing an employee to take time off for religious reasons could be viewed as discriminatory (and could potentially lead to legal issues).
- Bereavement: While there are no federal laws around bereavement leave, five states—California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, and Maryland—require employers to give their employees bereavement leave following the loss of a loved one. And even if you’re not in a state that requires bereavement leave, you should aim to give employees the time away from work they need to grieve (even if it’s unpaid).
If your employee is experiencing any of these situations—and requests PTO to deal with them—it’s important to understand when you’re legally obligated to grant those requests.
It’s also important to understand if and when you can take disciplinary action (for example, legally, you’re not allowed to take any sort of disciplinary action against employees that exercise their right to FMLA leave).
If you’re unsure whether an employee’s request could be considered vacation (and, therefore, able to be denied) or protected time off, seek legal advice.
What Can You Do if an Employee Takes Unapproved Vacation?
You know what unapproved vacation requests are (and, just as importantly, what time off wouldn’t qualify as unapproved vacation). Now, let’s talk about how to deal with an employee that takes a vacation—even though you denied their request.
There are a few steps you’ll want to take when an employee takes unapproved vacation, including:
- Get ahead of it if possible: Sometimes, employees will tell you they’re planning to take vacation, even though their request wasn’t approved. And when you have advance notice, you can work to get ahead of the situation so it has a minimal impact—both on your business and your employee. If you hear an employee is planning to take unapproved leave, try to connect with them and understand the reason. For example, do they have an important event that they need to take time away from work for—like a birth in their family? If so, try to find a way to approve their request. Or are they just feeling burned out and need time off? If the days they requested don’t work for your business, offer them an alternative vacation schedule so they can get the time off they need—without having a negative impact on your operations. The point is, if you can deal with the situation before an employee takes unapproved vacation, you can often solve it before it becomes an issue—so if you can deal with it ahead of time, do so.
- Refer to your vacation policy: Ideally, you have a PTO policy that clearly outlines your company’s approach to vacation—including how to request time off, what happens if a vacation request is denied, and any disciplinary action the employee may face if they take unauthorized vacation days. Since your employee has received a copy of the policy (for example, in the employee handbook)—and, ideally, has signed it—they should be in the loop on the potential consequences they might face for taking unapproved vacation. So, if you find yourself dealing with this situation, refer to your policy and use it to guide your next steps—as those steps shouldn’t be a surprise to your employee.
- Talk to the employee... While your policy should outline the steps to take if and when your employees take unauthorized time away from work, before you do anything, talk to the employee in question. Ask them why they felt the need to take vacation days—even though they were unapproved. Make sure you understand the full story before you take any additional steps.
- …and consider the circumstances: Once you understand why your employee took the time away from work, you’ll want to consider the circumstances before you take action. For example, did your employee request vacation time for their wedding months in advance, only for their manager to reject it at the last minute—after their entire wedding was planned and paid for? That’s a very different situation from an employee that decided they wanted to take time off on a Friday, didn’t follow your procedure for requesting vacation, and just didn’t show up for work on Monday. Before you decide how (and if) to take action against an employee, consider the circumstances—and act appropriately.
- Take action as necessary: Once you’ve talked to the employee, understand the situation around the unauthorized vacation, and have considered the circumstances, it’s time to take action. Depending on the situation (and the disciplinary actions outlined in your vacation policy/employee handbook), that may include giving them a verbal warning, writing them up (and placing the letter in their employee file), or suspending them from work.
Also, keep in mind that at the end of the day, if your team member is an at-will employee, you can terminate them for any reason—including taking unauthorized PTO. (And just remember, the flip side of that is also true; as an at-will employee, they can leave their job for any reason—including a vacation request being denied.)
How to Prevent Employees from Taking Unapproved Vacation
The best way to deal with employees taking unapproved vacation is to prevent it before it happens.
So how do you do that? Here are a few tips to minimize unauthorized vacation at work:
- Approve vacation requests as often as you can: Most employees don’t want to take unauthorized days off and put their job in jeopardy. Generally, they’ll only do so when they feel like they absolutely need to take the time off—but have been unable to get their request approved. That’s why, as a business owner, if you want to minimize unauthorized vacation issues, aim to approve vacation time off requests as often as you can. When your employees know that you’ll work to approve their request (and, if you can’t approve it, offer them an alternative option, like taking the same number of days or number of hours off during the following pay period), they’ll be less likely to take time away from work without authorization.
- Create a clear time off policy… Again, having a clear company policy on all things vacation—including how to request days off, how much advance notice to give when requesting PTO, and what to do if your request is denied—is key in minimizing unauthorized absenteeism.
- …and review it with your employees: Once you have your policy in place, make sure to distribute it to all employees—and then (this is the important part!) review it with them. Hold a meeting with human resources to review each aspect of the policy. Open the floor for employee questions. Make sure they understand the policy—and the consequences for not following the policy and taking unapproved days/hours off—and then have them sign off on it. That way, if you have to take disciplinary action later, you have documentation that the employee was aware of the policy and the potential consequences they might face for taking unauthorized time away from work.
Use These Tips to Better Manage Unauthorized Vacation
In a perfect world, your employees will follow your PTO policy—and only take vacation days when they’re approved.
But now that you know how to deal with unauthorized vacation, you’re prepared for if and when an employee decides to violate that policy—and have the information you need to effectively manage the situation in the best way for your business.
Can you dismiss an employee for taking unapproved vacation?
Yes, you can dismiss an employee for taking unapproved vacation if they are an at-will employee and they are not protected under the FMLA, ADA or other government policies that give employees job-protected time off.
What should you do if PTO is denied?
If you’re an employee and your PTO request is denied, don’t just take the time off—as you could face disciplinary action. Instead, refer to your PTO policy and then take action to resolve the issue—for example, by talking to your manager, asking why your request was denied, and coming up with an alternative solution (like, if there are already too many PTO requests for the week you want to take off, moving your vacation to another week).
What should you do if you’re entitled to leave—but your employer denies it anyway?
If you’re legally entitled to take a leave of absence from your job (for example, FMLA leave)—and your employer denies that leave anyway—you have a few options. You can bring up the issue with your human resources department. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, you may consider filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor.