Answer from Jenny, SPHR, SHRM-SCP:
In general, yes. But you should have—and document—a legitimate business reason for doing so. Denying vacation requests will undoubtedly hurt morale, especially if it happens frequently, and low morale leads to higher rates of turnover.
Discrimination claims are also a risk. Although denying vacation requests for legitimate business reasons will reduce the chance of a discrimination claim, you’ll also want to make sure you’re not denying vacation in a way—even unintentionally—that disproportionately affects employees with the same protected characteristic. For example, if you deny vacation requests from employees in the customer service department—which happens to be mostly women—more than other requests, they might have a gender discrimination claim. We also hear from employers who want to deny vacation requests when the employee is asking for time off for medical procedures or recovery—this clearly raises disability discrimination issues.
The best approach to avoid these types of discrimination claims is to periodically crunch the numbers to see if employees who share a protected characteristic are significantly more likely to have their request denied than others and, if so, adjust your practices accordingly.
When you really must deny a request, do so carefully. It’s important to show empathy in these situations. You never know what someone has going on in their life. Stay focused on the fact that rejecting their request isn’t something you want to do—it’s something you must do. State the business reason you couldn’t approve the request and work with them to find an alternative time they can take off.
If you find you are regularly denying requests when employees have a vacation planned, we recommend reaching out to an employment law attorney for additional guidance.
Over her 20 years of experience, Jenny has specialized in helping small to mid-sized businesses across a variety of industries reduce their risks and manage employee relationship issues. Jenny holds a Bachelors of Business Administration (BBA) degree in Human Resources Management from the University of Georgia and a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree with a concentration in Human Resources Management from Georgia State University.