Boss Keeps Denying PTO? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I have been working for a company for a few years now. They moved to an Unlimited PTO policy just as I joined. It was heavily promoted in the recruiting stage.

Things went fine the first couple of years. I took the typical PTO breaks—December holiday time, a couple of days in the spring when my kids had a break, around 10 to 14 days in the summer—nothing that exceeded the number of vacation days I would have taken in the old model.

I work on a great team. We have always talked about time off and who would cover for the person who was out. We also have generally checked in and made ourselves available when we’ve been on PTO if there is potential for a problem. There has never been an issue.

 We got a new boss about a year ago. He is a stickler for clearing PTO, which is fine—except that whenever I put in for time off, he denies my request. This has happened a couple of times now.

He always has a different reason—the launch of a new project, heavy workloads, someone else had already requested that time (even though no one said they had). Everyone on our team has experienced this. It’s getting to the point that instead of asking, some colleagues are simply calling in sick when they need to be out.

This is stressing me out. My mother-in-law is planning a big family reunion late this summer, and my wife has made it clear that attending is not optional. But now I am afraid to even ask. Help!

Denied PTO


Dear Denied,

This sounds frustrating indeed. Some managers get very anxious at the prospect of a team member being out. If I have this right, it sounds like you would be asking for this time about two and a half months beforehand. It would be absurd for your boss to deny you.

So, I say, ask now. The longer you wait, the greater the risk of being denied. Make it clear that you need the time for a family event and that it will create a real problem if you don’t attend. Explain that the team has always been super cooperative when it comes to covering for each other when they take PTO, and that you will make sure to cover all contingencies before you go.

If that fails, the next step would be to have a conversation with your manager to understand the reasoning behind the denial. If he claims that somebody has already asked (unlikely), ask who it is, and maybe you can negotiate the dates with that person, if their plans aren’t set in stone.

If that gets you nowhere, it will be time to go to HR. The statistics show that employees tend to take less time under the new Unlimited PTO policies than they did under the old model that set the number of days off. The fact is that people need to take vacation. Not just taking time away from work but still checking in; I mean a real don’t-even-think-about-work vacation. Any decent HR group will know this and should offer proper guidance and support to your manager.

It is possible that your manager doesn’t understand the PTO policy or he worries that if his team appears to take too much time it will reflect badly on him. We can speculate all day long, but it would be up to the HR business partner to get to the root of your manager’s reluctance to let anyone take time off.

Based on what I have read, asking for time off with plenty of notice should work to get you the time you need. You can read here about your rights, but remember that every state and country has different laws.

Don’t let your previous experience delay your making the request. Ask now and get HR involved quickly if you are denied. Lean on the recruiting promises if you need to. If you get no joy, you might consider working for a company that sees their employees as human beings, not machines.

There are already enough reasons to get stressed out these days. Adding the potential wrath of your spouse and her family to it just makes no sense at all. If your company will not support your need to take care of yourself, find one that will.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

Leave a Reply