PTO request policy: A comprehensive guide for employers

We all need a break sometimes, and that’s why employees need to receive and use paid time off. Taking a few personal days or a vacation can help employees relax, unwind, and fend off burnout. Paid time off is also an integral part of most employee compensation plans, so it’s only fair for them to use it.

Employers must have a straightforward PTO request process to grant paid time off and promote a positive work-life balance. You want your employees to be able to put in for the days off they need, while still providing notice so that your team can plan for coverage in their absence. Keeping track of all of these requests, ensuring they don’t overlap too much, and maintaining a fair approval process can be tricky. Find out what should be included in a PTO request and how to create an effective PTO policy.

What Should Be Included in a PTO Request

Here are the essential items to include in a time off request.

The Date(s) Requested

The most important information is when the employee wants to take time off. List the specific dates when requesting time off. All consecutive dates requested should generally be included together on one PTO request.

Whether It’s a Full or Partial Day PTO Request

The PTO request should note whether the date{s} requested will be a full or partial day off. If a partial day off is planned, the request should clarify which part of the day the employee will be missing.

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Many employers no longer require PTO requests for short absences, such as a long lunch for a doctor’s appointment. However, half-days will typically require a PTO request, especially for non-salaried employees.

The Type of PTO Requested

The PTO request should clearly state what type of leave the employee is requesting, such as vacation or sick leave. Many HR and payroll software programs will already have this built into the PTO request workflow. This allows employers to ensure they pull from the right PTO balance when subtracting the time off used.

Even if your company offers unlimited PTO or uses a singular time off bank that covers vacation, personal days, and sick leave, it’s still a good idea to collect this information (or to provide it if you are the employee making a request). Most companies have different policies for approving sick leave and vacation because the employee can’t reasonably foresee when they’ll get ill or injured, so the notice required should be minimal.

Other forms of time off, such as leaves of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), may have more involved request processes with additional advance notice or verification requirements. These leave requests should generally go to the human resources department rather than the standard time-off request form. However, the exact processes may vary based on your company’s policies.

Coverage Needs

This may not be included on your paid time-off request form, particularly if PTO requests are entered into your payroll or timekeeping software. However, it is something to collect from the employee. It’s ultimately the manager’s job to find and assign coverage when an employee is out. The employee can provide input on the needed coverage.

For example, if a social media manager plans to schedule posts to go live during their absence, they may want someone to log in on specific dates to check on the comments or share the new posts to the company’s story. Create a game plan outlining what tasks can be adjusted, prepared in advance, or temporarily reassigned. This proactive approach ensures a smoother transition for all team members during any absences or shifts in responsibilities.

Should Employers Ask Employees What They Intend to Use PTO For?

Employers should take note of the kind of PTO the employee intends to take. Differentiating between medical or sick leave, vacation days, bereavement, and other types of time off is helpful for payroll and administration purposes. Beyond that, it’s generally best not to pry too much. Employees will often volunteer the information if they’re excited about their vacation plans or want to express how important their reason for needing time off is.

If someone calls out excessively at the last minute, a conversation is warranted, but scheduled time off and occasional sick days don’t require much investigation. Ultimately, it’s not particularly pertinent how someone spends their day off if they follow the proper communication channels and have an adequate PTO balance to cover their absence.

Asking for a detailed reason can also create friction and the appearance of unfair treatment when you cannot approve all PTO requests. Employees will notice and become frustrated if you’re consistently approving requests from people with children. Then declining requests from those without them. Your personal experiences and biases will also influence what reasons you deem most important. This can lead to the prioritization of requests from employees who share your culture, religion, or interests.

How Should Employers Decide Which PTO Requests to Approve?

If you don’t ask for a reason for a request, how do you know which ones to approve or decline? Ideally, you should approve all of them unless doing so would cause an undue hardship to the business or a particular team.

The leave category will often give you enough information to know how to prioritize requests. For example, it would be odd and inappropriate to ask someone to reschedule a loved one’s funeral or a medical procedure. So you’re probably not going to want to reject bereavement or medical leave requests. Employers cannot reschedule jury duty or religious holidays based on work needs.

When multiple people ask for a week or more of vacation on the exact dates, you may have to decide which requests to decline. In this case, it’s ideal to try to make it work when possible, and use an objective approach when someone’s PTO request has to be denied.

Using a first-come-first-serve or seniority-based approach is generally a fair solution that doesn’t leave much room for accusations of discrimination or favoritism. Approving requests in the order they come in also makes the process run more smoothly and efficiently. You don’t want to leave employees hanging and hold up their travel planning process.

How to Create A PTO Request Policy

Having a precise, written time off policy makes PTO requests easier for everyone involved in the process. Here’s what employers need to consider when building their own PTO policy.

Create an Organized PTO Request and Approval Process

You’ll want to use a software system to collect, approve, and track PTO requests whenever possible. This keeps the process organized and consistent throughout the company and ensures that things don’t fall through the cracks.

PTO request emails are a bit less organized, and a busy manager may miss them in their inbox. If your company does go this route, ask employees to include “PTO REQUEST” or “TIME OFF REQUEST” in all caps in the subject line so that it sticks out and is easily searchable within their inbox. Encourage employees to follow up in person or over your team’s remote messaging program if they haven’t received a response within a few business days.

You may also use a Google Form that automatically sends an email notification to the manager upon submission. Then, all of the information is in one place. Some teams also use a PTO calendar where they record approved requests so the manager and the team can easily see upcoming time off. Whatever your process, ensure it’s as organized as possible, and employees know where to put in their requests.

Make Sure That Employees Understand Their PTO Balance

Before they request PTO, they generally need to accrue it. Provide a quick breakdown somewhere in your PTO policies on the following:

  • How is PTO accrued?
  • Where can they check their PTO balance?
  • Can they request PTO before it’s earned?

Employers often allow employees to submit PTO requests even if they don’t have the balance to cover it. Some employers allow employees to go slightly in the negative by one or two days.

Others allow advanced requests with the understanding that the employee will accrue enough PTO by the time of their scheduled vacation. Employees can plan time off for weddings, concerts, graduations, birthdays, or end-of-year holiday travel reasonably far in advance. Hence, a request for time off six months in the future does not necessarily depend on the employee’s current PTO balance. Just be clear on how this is handled and any limitations.

Set Clear PTO Request Deadlines

If you’d like to set a cutoff or notice requirement for requesting vacation, such as two weeks before the start date of their vacation, be sure to include that in your written vacation policy. A cutoff for more prolonged absences like vacations gives managers time to plan for the employee’s absence. A one-off personal day or health-related absence typically doesn’t disrupt workflow too much because employees can usually make up the work the next day. A week-long vacation will often require managers to reassign tasks to other team members.

Warn Employees Of Any Blackout or High Demand Dates

Mention somewhere in your PTO request policy if there are any periods where time off approvals will be limited. Your industry often dictates these limitations. For example, companies often do not approve vacation time for accountants or tax preparers in late March and early April. Retail stores may warn employees that they will limit time off approvals around Thanksgiving due to heightened demand on Black Friday.

Being transparent about the periods when you cannot approve time off will help employees plan their vacations and personal events. Hopefully, it’ll also lead to less pushback if you have to reject some PTO requests during certain busy periods.

Decide How You’ll Choose Which Requests to Approve

You’ll want to choose a method of evaluating and prioritizing requests and stick to it. Give employees a brief rundown to plan for how it may impact them.

For example, if the company approves vacations on a first-come-first-served basis, this will incentivize employees to plan and give you as much notice as possible. If those with more seniority get priority during popular request periods like the summer or holiday season. Knowing that ahead of time will help newer employees adjust their plans.

Have Multiple Policies For Different PTO Types

Typically, several different forms of paid and unpaid time off are available to employees. Many of them require separate policies and procedures.

Sick leave and vacation are the most common forms of PTO. The two categories generally have different guidelines and approval processes, but similar request submission requirements. Employers often combine sick leave and vacation policies into one document with guidelines for both. However, many employers do have separate policies and request processes.

Your employee handbook should also have policies for bereavement leave, FMLA requests, and time off for jury duty. Certain state laws offer specific guidelines for time off in unique situations. These situations may include voting, supporting victims of domestic violence, organ donation, and other circumstances outlined in state legislation.

Having separate policies will help employees understand how to submit PTO requests in different circumstances. Often, the HR department handles time off approval beyond the standard vacation requests and sick call-outs.