Can an Employer Deny a Vacation Request?

Andrew Buck March 27, 2024

In this article, we’re going to discuss whether PTO requests can be denied, what employers are allowed to do in regards to PTO requests, and how employers and employees can navigate this often uncomfortable situation.

While many businesses offer PTO, more than half of all US employees don’t use all their allotted vacation days. So it’s clear that the number shown on an employee’s contract does not always translate to reality.

Whose fault is this, if anyone’s? Are employers unfairly denying employees’ vacation requests? Or is an employer well within their rights to say no when someone asks for time off? Keep reading to learn more.

Can an Employer Deny PTO?

In most cases, employers are well within their rights to deny vacation requests.

In the US, there is no law against saying no to a vacation request. Federal law doesn’t entitle employees to vacation time in the first place (neither do most state laws). And there’s nothing stopping an employer coming back to an employee and saying their request for paid time off has not been approved.

The one exception is if the employer denies a time off request based on a reason that can be seen as discriminatory.

PTO cannot be denied based on a protected class, such as race, age, gender and more.

For example, it would be illegal to deny an employee’s vacation request because they are too young, or because of their citizenship or race.

When we go international, the answer may change depending on the location. In some countries (it’s common practice in many European nations), there’s a window where an employee is entitled to take their annual leave.

Finland, for example, has a “holiday season” lasting from the 2nd of May to the 30th of September. Employees have the right to take a 24-day period of leave at some point during this time.

In many countries, the law requires employers to give employees a reasonable opportunity to take their PTO during the leave year. However, they may still deny time off requests, as long as they allow the employee to take their paid time off at some point.

Can Employers Ask for a Reason for Time Off?

While it’s not best practice, employers can ask employees to give a reason when they request time off.

Employees may feel this is an invasion of their privacy. However, there’s nothing illegal about doing this.

The employee does not have to explain the reason, but then the employer does not have to grant the request anyway.

Do Employers Have to Give a Reason for Denying PTO?

Employers (in the US, at least) do not have to give a reason for denying a time off request. They are within their rights to simply say, “no.”

Best Practices for Employers When Denying Vacation Requests

Just because you’re legally entitled to deny an employee’s vacation request without reason, doesn’t mean you should. Laws should be seen as the bare minimum; as an employer, there’s much more you should do in this situation, above what you’re legally obliged to.

Explain the decision

Though you don’t have to give a reason, you should.

There should be a business reason behind the decision in the first place, such as a lack of coverage on the employee’s requested time off dates.

This will help the employee understand why their time off request has been denied, and understand that it’s not a personal or arbitrary decision.

Communicate blackout dates ahead of time

One of the most common reasons you’ll need to deny PTO is for busy times of the year.

For example, a retailer may need all their staff available during Black Friday or Christmas week, or an accounting firm may need everyone in the lead-up to the end of the financial year.

If this is the case, make sure everyone in the company knows that vacation time will not be allowed during these dates, so there’s no confusion or disappointment when employees make plans only for their request to be denied.

Offer alternatives

If you have to deny a PTO request because it’s a busy time of the year, or because there are too many people already on leave at that time, work with the person to come up with an alternative solution.

This could mean suggesting they take vacation the week before or after their intended date, or just asking if they have another time frame they can request.

By doing this, you reinforce that you value the employee’s need for time off, and help them to find a solution that works for everyone.

Don’t ask for a reason for employee time off requests

It’s not good practice to ask for an employee to give a reason when requesting time off.

Employee’s shouldn’t have to justify why they want to take their earned benefits. And you shouldn’t make decisions on whether to approve or deny PTO based on the reason given.

This gets into murky waters where you’re effectively adjudicating on what is and isn’t a legitimate reason for someone to take PTO, and opens the door to accusations of bias, unfairness and potentially discrimination.

If you need to deny a time off request, do so based on business reasons only.

Point to your company policy

Finally, your company policies should outline rules around applying for time off, which will help if you need to deny a time off request.

For example, your time off request policy may state that two weeks’ notice is required for PTO requests. 

This makes it easier to deny a last-minute request for PTO, as you can simply point to the PTO policy to justify such decisions.

Final Takeaways

American employers are well within their rights to deny time off requests, and don’t (legally) need to give a good reason for doing so.

It’s a little different in other areas of the world, but in general, employees don’t automatically have the right to take their PTO any time they want.

Yet as an employer, you should consider being more open and accommodating than what the law dictates.

The employee-employer relationship is a two-way street. You should respect your employees, and their desire for a positive work-life balance. In return, they’re more likely to respect the goals and ambitions of the company, put in their best work, and stay with the company longer.

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