In what has been an unprecedented year, with intense pressure on both staff and businesses, the everyday task of managing employee leave and absence has become a charged activity. Effectively managing staff absences, particularly during the coming busy peaks of Christmas and New Years, is a challenge for all businesses. In addition to managing the increasing complexity that penalty rates bring, businesses must juggle staff availability and leave requests, while maintaining customer service and demand. With these pressures in mind this weeks HR Highlight will explore the question, can the business say no to a leave request?
All businesses have policies and procedures for the staff to follow around leave. These may not be explicitly written down (ideally they should be) but they will be living actions within the business, a set of communicated expectations, commitments and repercussions.
An ideal leave policy outlines the employees entitlements, how the business expects the employees to access their entitlements (leave requests, notice etc) as well as any evidentiary requirements (doctors certificate, statutory declarations etc). What many Leave Policies do not clearly address is the exceptional situations, such as annual shutdown, disaster response and the operation of stand-down. Most Leave Policies also fail to address how, when and why the business will approve or reject an employees leave request.
It is important at the Policy level for the businesses expectations and actions to be clear to the employees, and for the exceptional situations that may not be commonplace, such as what will happen in the event of a major equipment failure, or an extended blackout, to be explored so that the staff have an understanding of how they will be dealt with.
While it is uncommon for a business to reject an employees leave request, particularly when it has been submitted in the manner proscribed by the Leave Policy and with appropriate notice, it is possible and it is done, and the Leave Policy should outline not only the possibility but the process.
Considering Leave Applications
Ideally Leave Applications should be made in writing and should be formally responded to, even when the leave request is approved, but especially when the leave request is being rejected.
When assessing if the Leave Application will be approved the business should review; the likely business needs at the time of the requested leave (based on historic patterns), the likely business resources and staff available which would include identifying ‘difficult to replace’ or ‘core critical’ skills and staff (which may change over time and may increase in importance seasonally) and the leave pattern of the requesting employee. The last element is reviewed to ensure that leave requests from staff who have not taken a break from work in some time receive preference in the approval of leave requests.
Rejecting Leave Applications
Where the business finds that the employee has not followed the Leave Policy, such as applying for leave without the proper notice, and the business considers that there is no way to arrange coverage of the requesters allocated time without damaging service, rejecting the application is straightforward. The business would respond in writing to the effect of ‘due to the lack of required notice in the leave application the business does not have the capacity to ensure that your allocated tasks will be appropriately covered and service maintained for customers, as such this request for leave is rejected at this time’.
Where the business finds that the employee possesses critical skills or that the business will be experiencing a ‘busy’ period during the requested leave period the rejection is more complicated. The business would still respond in writing but should outline clearly that the leave request is being rejected and detail why. The why should be based on clear business reasons.
It is vital that any leave application is not “unreasonably” refused. There must be a valid reason for refusal which is considered and articulated in the context of the fact that taking leave is the employees right, and it is a vital element of safety to take a break from work occasionally.
When the business rejects a leave application, for a failure of procedure or for business reasons, alternatives should be suggested and explored. Where the business can accommodate the leave request they should, but where genuine business needs will mean rejecting the request alternatives should be explored with the employee.
What these alternatives will be will depend on the actual situation and the reasons for the leave being requested. They could include flexible hours or working arrangements that allow the business to meet its needs along with the employee to achieve the aim of the leave requested.
In a relevant case before the Fair Work Commission it was highlighted that the businesses busy season (from June to December) placed real pressure on the business to ‘minimise leave’ and that as such it was reasonable for the business to reject an employees request for a day off to travel to a conference.
However, the case also highlights the need to explore alternatives, with the Commission recommending that the business release the employee an hour early so that they could make a flight in order to attend the conference the next day.
In discussing the case the Commission noted that the request for leave is just that, a request and while the business should not unreasonably refuse such a request, there are grounds for refusal.
Here to Help
HR Highlights are things to consider, implement and watch out for in your business. They are provided as general advice and you should seek further advice on your situation.
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Elisha Radwanowski BCom(HRM/IR),
Executive Manager: Employment and Training,