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Case Study: Fairness and Time Off Requests

Nahid is a manager for a 10 person team in a mid-sized company. She is well liked by her team and her bosses. Like everyone else, Covid has been a huge disruption. One disruption is that very few people took time off during the summer (after all, they couldn't travel anywhere) and now her team has a lot of unused vacation time. Nahid went to HR to see if her team could carry over any time and was told "no". The rule was very clear that this couldn't be done. Nahid addressed this in her next team meeting. She set the expectation that everyone would verify how much vacation time they had for the rest of the year and how they planned to use it by sending her an email requesting the days off by 5 pm on Friday.

As the requests started to appear in her email, she noticed that the requests were not spread out. In fact, there were quite a few days between Dec 10 and the end of the year when the entire team had requested the day off. There is a company rule that says that there must be someone from each department available each work day, unless they are at an all team meeting.

Nahid was now in the position of having to deny some people's requests. How would you make the decision?


While this is written as a Covid problem, this occurs in companies every year. Lots of people want time off during the holidays and sometimes everyone wants the same days.

Here is what I would recommend to Nahid:

  1. Go back to HR and ask again if they can carry over days. If they say no, ask for a very specific reason why ("it's a rule" is not enough). They may say it is because of accounting standards or such, but follow up. The easiest solution is to let them carry time over.

  2. Ask her boss why the rule is in place about someone from the team has to be there. That may be some old rule that no one really cares about. Her team doesn't deal with customer issues like in retail. I would push to not let that rule stop her. Of course, if it is every Friday or several days in a row, breaking the rule may not be feasible.

  3. Raise the issue with the team and come up with a solution together. Set the guidelines and tell them why the rules are in place. Explain that if the team can't work it out together, then she will make the schedule which means there is a chance that time off is denied.

Ideally, the team will work together and come up with a solution. If they do and everyone really works towards a solution (not 2 people giving in and the rest being demanding), take it as a sign that the team is functioning well. If they don't, it doesn't mean they are poorly functioning, but it might be.

If Nahid does have to make the decision, I would not use something like "first come, first served" or "seniority" to solve the issue. Those are guarantees to make at least several people, if not everyone, unhappy. Speak with everyone privately and ask about which days they really need. If someone is flying across the country to see family, it makes sense to give them that time off.

This makes things harder on Nahid - she will have to do a lot of research and will have to make some difficult decisions. However, if she explains her reasoning to the individuals and does her best, then it is the only way to be fair.

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