Can you refuse or cancel a holiday request?


Employees have the right to a certain amount of paid time off work. It is a common mistaken belief that an employer cannot either refuse an employee’s holiday request, or even cancel it. But in reality, employers reserve the legal right to refuse leave requests as they see fit.

Employers and managers have to take a number of considerations into account when approving holiday requests from team members. Issues can arise, for example, where staff want to take holiday at the same time, creating issues with team cover.

In this guide, we look at employers’ obligations when approving or refusing holiday requests, and share best practice for managers and supervisors when dealing with annual leave requests.

Employee holiday entitlement

In most cases, employees who work a 5-day week are entitled to 5.6 weeks’ paid leave per year. This is also known as statutory leave entitlement. The right extends to:

  • Employees with fixed and irregular hours
  • Agency workers
  • Employees on zero-hours contracts

This means that employees who work 5 days per week will generally be entitled to at least 28 days’ paid leave per year. Bank holidays can be included as part of the employees’ statutory leave entitlement but they do not have to be given as paid leave. Statutory paid leave entitlement is limited to 28 days in any one leave year, although an employee may have additional, ‘enhanced’ holiday entitlement provided under the terms of their employment contract.

Part-time workers are entitled to the same rate of 5.6 weeks paid holiday per year, but their specific entitlement is calculated based on their part-time hours, which is typically less than 28 days due to the number of hours/days worked. For example, if the employee works 3 days a week, they must receive at least 16.8 days’ leave per year (3 x 5.6).

Employees who work irregular hours, such as shift or term-time employees, are entitled to paid time off for every hour they work. This is calculated on the average number of hours or days worked in an average week.

Employees also have the right to:

  • Build up (“accrue”) holiday entitlement during maternity, paternity or adoption leave
  • Be paid for annual leave
  • Accrue holiday entitlement whilst off work on sick leave
  • Request holiday at the same time as sick leave

Can employers refuse holiday requests?

Employers have the right to:

  • Instruct their employees to take leave, e.g. bank holidays or Christmas
  • Regulate when leave is taken, for example restricting leave during busy periods.

An employer cannot, however, compel an employee to take annual leave if they are sick and off work.

It is good practice that where an employee has followed the correct holiday request procedure, has sufficient leave to take, and the business is adequately covered, to grant their request. An individual’s employment contract or the organisation’s annual leave policy may stipulate when and how holiday leave requests are allowed and made, or may state the procedure for requesting and allowing annual leave.

However, under the Working Time Regulations 1998, an employer has the right to refuse holiday requests, but they must not do so without a good reason. For example, if the request is to take time off during a peak period for the organisation when the employer expects the business to be busy and require staff to work, it may be reasonable to refuse that particular request.

If an employer consistently refuses annual leave, resulting in the employee being unable to take their full statutory entitlement, or contractual leave allocation over the course of a year, this becomes both a health and safety and employment issue protected by legislation.

Additionally, an employer must ensure they deal with all holiday requests openly, fairly, consistently and in accordance with employment law practices.

Can employers cancel holiday requests?

An employer could find themselves in a situation where having previously granted a holiday request, they have to cancel it. For example, a large and unexpected project may have been won with an extremely tight deadline, which has resulted in every employee being needed to get it completed within the time frame. This would likely constitute reasonable cancellation.

The law allows employers to cancel holidays that have previously been approved, but they must give notice of at least the same length as the period of leave cancelled plus one day. For example, if an employee books five days leave, an employer must give six days’ notice (five days matching the length of the leave booked, plus one day).

That said, an employer cannot cancel a period of leave if it means the employee cannot take their full statutory leave entitlement in that leave year.

There must be a clear business reason for the cancellation, otherwise the employee may subsequently be able to bring a grievance or claim against the employer.

Cancelling or refusing holidays because of COVID-19

In normal times, employers must not cancel annual leave without a good business reason, particularly where it means the employee cannot take their full statutory annual leave. To relieve this obligation during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has amended the Working Time Regulations to allow carry-over from one leave year to the next.

Should parents’ requests during summer holidays be given priority?

Holiday requests should carry the same weight and be considered fairly and equally. Employers who treat employees differently, or whose requests carry more weight than others, may find themselves subject to grievances and potentially claims for unlawful discrimination. Whilst giving employees with childcare responsibilities this may be unintended, it will nevertheless amount to discrimination.

For example, an employer may grant leave requests to parents during the school holidays. However, favouring employees with childcare responsibilities could mean those without children feel they have been treated unfairly.

Annual leave policy

If an employer refuses a holiday request and the employee takes time off anyway, it could constitute a disciplinary offence, actionable under the business’s disciplinary policy. This makes it important to ensure employees are aware of the process to request time off for annual leave. Employees who are unaware about the way in which they request holidays are arguably more likely to arrange their holidays the wrong way round. It is extremely common for employees to book and pay for a holiday before requesting and receiving approval for the time off from their employer. This can leave an employee in a difficult situation if an employer subsequently refuses their request.

The annual leave policy plays an important role in setting the standards and procedures for employees to request and take holiday, and for managers and supervisors to handle all requests and time off work consistently and correctly. An annual leave policy would usually include:

  • How leave is requested – is this done in a written or electronic format? Who deals with holiday requests? To avoid confusion, it is probably best to settle on a single channel for leave requests. This prevents miscommunication and also makes it easier to resolve a dispute.
  • Consider limiting the number of employees who can take leave at any one time. This is particularly important in a small business where roles intersect across the business.
  • Define busy periods, when leave is either completely prohibited (except in exceptional circumstances) or limited to a certain number of employees.
  • Think about putting a first come, first-served policy in place. Then, if another employee requests holiday that has already been granted to someone else, it is clear why their request has been denied.
  • Define how much notice of leave is required from the employee – most companies require at least a week’s advance notice. But this could be longer depending on the number of days’ holiday required. If this is not specified in the company handbook or the employees contract, employees should give notice at least twice as long as the leave they are requesting. For example, if they are requesting one week’s leave, they should give two weeks’ notice.
  • Do employees need to reserve holiday – some businesses close down between Christmas and New Year, so holiday may need to be saved to cover it.
  • Consider whether leave can be carried over from one year to the next, and any limits on doing so.
  • Do employees with a certain length of continuing service accrue additional holiday? If so, how much? What length of service is rewarded? Is it capped?
  • Include leave in employee contracts, information such as holiday entitlement, whether employees are paid extra for working certain days or receive days-off in lieu. Doing so avoids potential conflict arising.

Resolving disputes over holidays

Rejecting holiday requests can be a source of dispute if handled poorly, causing resentment and tension in the workplace. Managers should be made aware of employees’ rights and the alternative ways in which employment disputes can be resolved. If matters such as refusing holiday requests are dealt with appropriately in the first place, it can save a great deal of time and effort further down the line when a disgruntled employee takes further action.

There are several options available to employers and employees for resolving disputes relating to annual leave requests, including:

  • Using the company’s grievance/disciplinary procedures
  • Using ACAS conciliation services to reach a settlement
  • Using professional mediators
  • Training line managers to avoid disputes in the first place


This may be used by an employee if they have not managed to resolve their complaint informally. The grievance procedure should be set out in a company handbook, employment contract, obtained via HR, or on an intranet site.


If an employee has taken annual leave without permission, then they might face disciplinary action. There should be a disciplinary procedure set out in writing, containing the rules, the performance and behaviour that might lead to disciplinary action, and any action an employer might take together with their right to appeal.

The role of ACAS

Anyone who may be thinking about making a claim to an employment tribunal needs to notify ACAS first, although there are a few exceptions to this rule. It is a free service and is called Early Conciliation. Only with an EC certificate from ACAS can an employee file their complaint with the employment tribunal. A tribunal will not accept a case unless it has been through this process first and the claim form contains a unique reference number provided by ACAS found on the Early Conciliation certificate.


This is a process where a qualified independent mediator assists both parties who are in dispute to resolve their conflict without resorting to a tribunal or court. Mediation can be particularly useful when formal negotiations have broken down. And because it takes place in private, the risk of adverse publicity is avoided.

There is usually an opening joint session where each party sets out a summary of its case. The mediator will then meet with each party separately to discuss the claim in more detail, put forward propositions for settlement, and use that information to try to facilitate an agreement.

The costs of preparing for and attending mediation can be substantial, so it is important to weigh any benefits of mediation against the estimated costs of the matter proceeding to an employment tribunal.

Positive working relations

Taking a proactive approach to building positive working relations and fostering an engaged and motivated workforce builds trust and respect, which can help when difficult decisions are made by managers, such as having to refuse holiday requests.

Consider offering flexible working, for example, introduce staff benefits, or reward and recognition programmes. Perhaps organise a series of summer social events. Even though these incentives are not days off, a company culture of making employees feel valued goes a long way in retaining morale. Small gestures can be a huge boost, and it has been found that employee happiness helps to increase productivity.

Can employers refuse holiday requests FAQs

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Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.


Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing & Content Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.