Time Off: A Management Dilemma
by Jonathan Presson
Time off, whether paid or not, can be a major concern for any company. While the United States has no legal PTO or vacation minimums, a study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research seems to indicate that such “luxuries” are key to productivity and financial success. On the other hand, the absence of key employees can be a major, temporary blow to productivity, particularly for a small business. Furthermore, approval or failure to approve of a time-off request can have many ramifications for both the employee and the business. Approving of an employee’s request without forethought may lead to shorthandedness on the part of the team, while failure to approve a request may result in anything from mild dissatisfaction to failure to retain a good employee. That said, requests can be made at times that can be described as anything from, “perfect timing,” to, “the most inconvenient request ever.” It’s a difficult balance to strike, for sure, but a firm grasp on a few basic principles can go a long way toward making that balance a little easier to find.
The first principle in any question of time-off is that “policy is policy, except when it isn’t.” What does this mean?
Essentially, your policy handbook should be your first guide for any question, but when policy is insufficient or overly rigid, judgement calls must be made.
In addressing policies, there are two major levels of management to be considered; Policy Makers (upper management) and Policy Implementers (lower and middle management). Each level of management has its own individual concerns to be addressed.
If you are a policymaker, remember to make the policy as simple as possible and to make it as widely known as possible. Determine a timeframe within which requests must be made (i.e. 2 weeks prior to starting date of vacation/PTO), how many days are acceptable per request period, and how many requests can be made a month/quarter/year. Furthermore, you should consider your stance on family emergency leave, mental health leave, and paid/unpaid holidays and ensure that you are compliant with local and federal laws. Once you’ve determined the above, develop a system of hierarchy for requests and put it all into clear and concise writing. This should not be a document that requires a lawyer to translate – the simpler the better. Large, convoluted policies will often leave lower management confused and base level employees frustrated, opening doors for poor morale, accidental policy violations, and loss of productivity or staff due to attrition. Finally, if you are a policy maker, remember that policy is policy. While we will be covering this more in-depth in future posts, it is important to remember that employees will often work harder for a good boss in a bad job than they will for a bad boss in a great job. Good bosses consider themselves equally under the policy and lead by example. Good bosses also do not change the rules on a whim. Failing in either area can result in lower morale than even refusing all vacation time. If the rules are the rules, then they should be predictable and repeatable. Any changes made to your policy should be published company-wide and have a period of implementation.
If you are a policy implementer, you have little to no influence over the writing of the policy and must do your best to follow the policy as closely as possible. However, as previously stated, policies are often insufficient and convoluted. In these situations, policy implementers have numerous considerations to take into account. In an attempt to better help with these, they will be categorized as Internal Considerations (areas that directly and clearly affect the company) and External Considerations (areas that directly affect the employee and may abstractly affect the company itself).
Most members of management may jump to the conclusion that they have a firm grasp on Internal Considerations and would likely boil the category down to one word, “coverage.” They couldn’t be more wrong. While coverage would be the most obvious internal consideration, a few minutes with some good scheduling software can answer most coverage questions quickly. Less obvious internal considerations may include things like budget, morale, productivity, and deadlines. While items like budget and deadlines are also quite easy to track with the right software, productivity and morale can be a little more abstract.
Productivity can be a difficult item to pinpoint, and really has one foot in “Internal” and the other in “External.” While knowing that a certain employee is particularly productive might be a simple task; knowing if they are as productive now as they were previously may be more difficult. “Why does this matter?” you may ask. This can speak to an employee’s need for a break. As shown in the aforementioned CEPR study, employees who take vacation time seem to have improved productivity. If an employee’s productivity seems to be waning, granting a time-off request may be more than just, “nice.” It might actually be a great business strategy. Depending on the employee, it may even be worth taking a palpable temporary hit in productivity for the gain you’ll receive on the other side. This is really where engaging with the “Human” in “Human Resources” is vital. While datasheets can aid you in determining productivity levels, it becomes the job of a manager, supervisor, or HR team member to determine the “why,” which is where we enter “External Considerations” territory.
While productivity is certainly an Internal concern, the how and why of it are likely rooted in the employee (External) and will likely require an external solution. If the employee in question is notoriously unproductive and has simply slacked off more, time-off may not be the answer (or it may be the permanent answer). However, if the employee in question is usually highly productive but seems to be less and less so lately (showing up late, making unusual mistakes, or simply working evermore slowly) you should probably take this into account. Workplace burnout is a very real thing and signs indicating its presence should be taken into consideration when approving a time-off request. If burnout is preventing productivity, then time away from work may actually be the business booster you need from your employee. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the immediate “needs” of a business sometimes have to be placed second in order for the long-term goals of a business to be reached, and retaining a good employee by temporarily losing a small amount of business will likely prove a winning decision in retrospect.
In light of both Internal and External Considerations of Productivity, we find our second principal, “Sometimes business has to come second in order for business to come first.”
Morale is even further removed from the territory of “data” and moves far into the abstract realm of “intuition.” There is no device or software made that can rate morale, at least not that I can find. This is where keeping a solid finger on the pulse of your business’ cultural atmosphere becomes a truly necessary endeavor. Morale has great effect on productivity and even customer expectation. Employees like to work in a positive environment and customers like to buy from positive people. While denying an employee vacation because you know they raise morale would be a tragic failure on the part of any manager, planning in advance can ease the effects of their absence. This becomes an area wherein supervisors and management will likely need to step in more actively, taking up portions of the employee’s work and engaging with the other employees in new ways, but not attracting attention to the absence more than necessary.
Physical and mental health can be major external considerations.
By this time in history, you would probably assume that time off for physical illness is a given. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. While there are laws in place to protect employees under certain circumstances, many businesses create an environment wherein workers feel ashamed of calling out sick. Some management teams may see this as a win, but research indicates otherwise. According to one study “presenteeism” actually costs American companies $1.5 trillion dollars a year! When including the possibility of spreading illness or creating an environment of low morale due to ignoring an employee’s clear physical needs, this number may be even larger. In short, it is probably best practice to just let that employee with the cold or sprained ankle have a little time off to recover. Employees with persistent illnesses may even need a program specifically tailored to their needs. While this can be very difficult for small businesses to accomplish, it could be argued that retaining the best employees through the best possible treatment is a key step toward dropping the word “small” from your title and beginning to expand.
Mental health is often a bit harder to pin down. People suffering from mental health issues, whether acute or chronic, will not be as easily diagnosed as an individual suffering from an infection or injury; nevertheless, there are signs. Employees with specific mental health needs can be equally as productive as their unencumbered peers but may need more time to recharge. Many employers would likely think of this as a large burden to take upon themselves, but the likelihood is that such employees would show higher levels of loyalty and work all the harder for employers willing to work with them through their needs. On the acute spectrum of illnesses, you will likely only need to grant the employee a short hiatus to re-center themselves, but individuals with chronic mental health needs (just as individuals with chronic physical health needs) may require more specialized arrangements than those with acute symptoms. This may include allowances for regular medical appointments, shortened workdays, flextime, or planned micro vacations to aid them in achieving the rest they need to continue to be productive employees. You will likely find that your flexibility will result in higher than average productivity levels from these workers while they are in the office as you will foster a sense of gratitude and loyalty within these employees. Remember that maintaining an open door policy and fostering a sense of understanding within your HR culture can not only aid you in preparing for these eventualities, you may also reduce the felt stress of these employees, reducing the need for such absences.
The easiest of all External Considerations to take into account is emergency family leave. While it may be inconvenient, it is more inconvenient to lose employees due to the refusal of such a request. If you’ve worked in management for any length of time, you likely understand the general concept of public relations, but you may not have thought much concerning employee relations. Nevertheless, refusing Bill his request to go home for his grandmother’s funeral, or to see his sick brother will definitely result in poor employee relations that can have far-reaching ramifications, and letting Bill go is not likely to fix the mess. Beyond possible legal actions (dependent upon circumstances and state laws), many employment sites allow former employees to leave reviews which could affect future recruiting attempts, customer attainment, and general public relations, not to mention internal morale amongst remaining employees. Under such circumstances, it may be worth going so far as to ignore related policies if they would prevent such requests.
So, our third principle is perhaps the oldest of all, “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
Finally, remember this, “say yes whenever reasonable and say no with grace and reluctance.”