Prevent Employee Vacation Scheduling Nightmares

Some Simple Guidelines for Seizing Control of Employee Time-off Scheduling

Back in the 1990s, I worked for a non-profit in New York City and reported directly to the president. On my first day back after a business trip, I came in early for a breakfast meeting with him, and he gave me an exciting project.

“No problem,” I told him. “I’ll put my best person on it as soon as she gets in to work this morning.”

Except Sally, the person I was going to put to work on the project, never came in that day. She called in, but she was about to board a ship for a two-week cruise.

“Boss, don’t you remember we talked about it a while ago, in the elevator? You told me to go ahead and book the date, and you’d make sure it got into the vacation book!”

Of course I remembered, after she reminded me. I also remembered that before I got back to my office that day, something distracted me and I forgot all about getting the vacation recorded.

We worked around Sally’s absence to get the project completed, but I learned an important lesson, especially when I considered what the staffing situation would have been if, after forgetting about Sally’s vacation request, I’d approved vacation for someone else for those two weeks.

Routine Management Tasks

There are many components of a manager’s job whose importance becomes clear only when they’re overlooked or done wrong. Making sure that your team has the training, tools and supplies necessary to do the work you give them is one of these jobs. Managing time off is another.

No manager ever won an award for properly managing employee vacation time, but it’s a safe bet that managers have lost their jobs when their departments wound up being short-staffed at critical times.

Preventing Vacation Scheduling Problems

The error I made could easily have been avoided, even in an age when things like vacation schedules were maintained with paper records and little yellow stickies, if I’d established clear rules and stuck to them. Managers today have access to much more sophisticated tools for managing employee time off, but even so, they must establish ground rules for all to follow, including themselves.

1. Establish a leave management system on your company’s intranet that all employees can access.

In today’s world, no employee should have to take time away from the job to visit HR to find out how much time off they have coming. Likewise, paper forms lend themselves to mistakes and misinterpretation, and impose a significant record-keeping requirement. A good leave management program will accurately update entitlements on whatever basis you require – many do so on a daily basis.

2. Configure your leave management system to show what dates are and aren’t acceptable for taking time off.

Each department should have an adjustable tipping point of how many employees can be on vacation at any time, beyond which no further time off can be input. There will be conflicts and controversy arising from this, but that’s nothing new. Not everyone can take off Christmas week. Nevertheless, the more closely your system’s configuration reflects your firm’s policy for approving vacation time, the less you’ll have to step in and override it.

3. Permit employees to use the system to schedule their own time off, on a tentative basis.

Vacation requests should always be reviewed and approved by management, but having employees input their requests into a central scheduling system ensures that their managers see and can approve or deny the requests in a timely manner. Once approved, the employee is notified and the time off is automatically entered on the department’s schedule. In addition, the system can be configured to generate appropriate notifications to other departments, like payroll, as appropriate.

4. Require employees to use the leave management system exclusively.

You’ll be surprised at how much HR time is freed up by this simple requirement. Employees can still go to HR with questions or issues, but the system should wean them off dependency on HR.

And Finally . . .

These rules for employee behavior are all well and good, but there’s one more rule you yourself must follow if you’re going to eliminate vacation scheduling disasters altogether:

5. Follow the rules yourself. This is arguably the most important rule of all.

If, after installing the leave management system, you continue to take vacation requests in the elevator, you really have nobody to blame but yourself when the nightmares recur.


Written By

Dale Marshall

Human Resources Manager.