Extended leave — when to allow it and how to manage it

Leave issues are a problem — or can be if not properly handled. This is evidenced when people inconveniently want the same dates and argue length of service or family need to get their way, or ask to take their leave entitlement at times that are highly inconvenient to the employer. But when it comes to extended leave, the manager has to make a number of both objective and subjective judgments, any of which may cause outrage and bad feelings says Bob Patchett.

So, manager: take care. Be aware that you are dealing with something that is precious to your employees whose view of the work versus life balance may differ significantly from your own.

Every employee has a contractual leave entitlement that you should set out in the written statement of terms and conditions of employment. This must meet the minimum amount of leave specified by law, but you may provide a longer period of leave and are largely free to set conditions governing when it may be taken and how it should be booked. However there are two circumstances in which additional leave of absence may be taken; first when it is provided by law, for example, maternity leave or time off for public duties, and second when the employee requests it for whatever reason and the employer grants it.

An increasingly common event these days is for employees to request a fairly long period of extended leave, say one to three months, in order to visit family abroad. Partly this is a result of our multi-ethnic society when people have immigrated to this country and found work, but have wished to visit family they have left behind. But also families are becoming increasingly widespread, and relatives put down roots in other continents so, not surprisingly, their relatives in the United Kingdom have an urge to visit them from time to time. There is no entitlement to leave for these purposes beyond the employee’s contractual entitlement; therefore you are within your rights to refuse all such requests. However, these requests are increasingly common, your refusal is likely to jeopardise good employee relations, and in any case the employee is likely to take the leave and risk the consequences, or just leave your employ.

Assuming that you wish to accede to a request for extended leave of several weeks to enable the employee to visit relatives abroad, you need to consider the conditions you will impose, the most likely being that the absence will be without pay. However, two considerations are paramount. First you must not discriminate unlawfully, for example by agreeing to the request of a member of one ethnic group, but refusing someone from another. You may well not do this deliberately, but even though you have refused the one because the reasons given are so different, nevertheless the appearance is direct race discrimination, therefore you must have a sound reason — which may not be as easily defensible as you think. Second, partly to avoid unlawful discrimination and partly to make your decisions appear fair to your workforce, you need to have a sound policy and set of criteria that ideally you publicise. This may encourage more people than you wish to apply for extended leave, but it helps you make decisions and does give you a good defence against employee complaints and challenges at law.

You may decide to restrict the benefit to employees with a minimum period of service, say two years. Anything longer could put you at risk of accusations of age discrimination. Older people with grown-up families living abroad are more likely to ask for extended leave, but young people may have the same issues and therefore should be treated equally fairly. You may put a limit on both the frequency and length of these absences; certainly it would seem reasonable to refuse to allow a pattern to develop whereby an employee has several weeks extended leave each year, albeit without pay. On the other hand you may find it convenient to lose a few people during an annual slack period, and could well indicate that this is a time when extended leave is likely to be granted.

By all means emphasise to people going on extended leave the importance of coming back to work on a specified return date, but on no account promise a sanction if they fail to do so. If they do return to work after the set date, treat them as you would for any absence. Investigate as thoroughly as you can, then make your decision on the balance of probability. Considering the evidence and the employee’s record of working for you, do you believe him or her? If the decision is difficult, you would be better to give the employee the benefit of the doubt, but bear it in mind if there is a subsequent late return. Also be sure not to discriminate against foreign medical certificates, but treat them as you would ones issued locally.

Requests for extended leave may not be for the employee’s leisure but on more noble reasons such as self-improvement by attending a one week course, a university short course lasting a whole term, or an Open University residential course of a couple of weeks over a two or three year period. This may require you to consider two questions — do you allow it and do you pay for it? If the employee asked to go on a short course that clearly would benefit him or her in the job, you would treat it as though the course had been suggested by your training specialist. But if the benefit to the company seems marginal, you may do a deal by, for example, agreeing to pay only a proportion of the fee and/or making a payment only against satisfactory results. If the course would not benefit your organisation, you clearly would not wish to pay and would have a sound reason for refusing time off. Although you may have the odd client in Spain, you may need to suggest that the employee finds an alternative method of learning Spanish to the one month total immersion course in Marbella.

Employees are of course entitled to ask for extended leave that is their entitlement at law, for example, maternity leave. The best way to manage this is to make qualifying employees fully aware of their rights, help them make appropriate decisions such as when best to start leave, and be as co-operative as you can be because you need to maximize the chance of their co-operation in return. And be generous with people who take time off for public duties since they really are helping the community. A member of a water and sewerage board is unlikely to bring any benefit other than goodwill to your organisation, but it is always useful to have someone on the local council or police authority who can point you towards the right department if you need help or advice.

Extended leave can be disruptive, but if you manage it well you can use it create a happy and productive workforce. Just be sure to get your own leave entitlement in.