What to do when workers won’t take their vacation

While the COVID-19 crisis brought HR leaders many long-term challenges, one of the biggest short-term issues they’re now facing is how to convince employees to take a vacation. 

Related: Time off in the COVID era

Employees typically use their paid time off to travel, but with travel bans and potential health risks, the typical use of PTO is no longer a viable option; employers have financial skin in the game, as unused PTO is considered an accounting liability. Given that, HR leaders are looking at ways to encourage employees to take their paid time off now rather than waiting until travel becomes more readily available or during the holidays. 

According to a Zenefits study of 3,000 companies recently cited in the Wall Street Journal, requests for vacation in April and May were significantly down compared to the same period last year—63,000, compared to 120,000 in 2019.

LuAnn Heinen, vice president at the Business Group on Health, says leaders need to set the example, even while businesses are still operating remotely.

“Leaders can model by taking their own vacations as well as communicate existing company policies and how they are or are not changing in light of COVID-19 and business needs, continuity and financial liability,” she says.

Depending on the company’s existing policies, she says, HR leaders can take varying approaches in making adjustments for this year to create more motivation for employees to use their paid time off while working virtually.

Related: Difference between paid leave benefits and PTO system 

“Where no carryover is typically allowed, [HR leaders] can make an exception this year for a limited number of hours [or] require use of eight or 16 hours of PTO per pay period,” Heinen says. 

According to Heinen, another option could be for organizations to allow employees to cash out vacation days without taking the (typically required) days off or implement a leave-donation program.

However, businesses and HR leaders also have to take into account the ethical ramifications of requiring employees to take their PTO within a certain period. 

Peter Cappelli, the professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, realizes that the employees have earned their PTO to use when they see fit.

“It is their PTO, they have accrued it through their time at work, and the arrangement is for them to take it when they need it,” he says.

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However, Cappelli notes, there are some ways to incentivize employees to use their paid time off now.

“You could say, ‘It would really help us to take it now because we are hurting,’ which has the advantage of being truthful,” Cappelli says. “Maybe you could give them more incentives, such as, ‘We will give you 1.5 days for every one you take.’ ”

A more forceful approach may be necessary in some cases due to the financial stress that some businesses are currently facing. “You could threaten, ‘We may not be able to afford this when business picks up again; we may take [your PTO] away,’ ” Cappelli says. “However, they might feel that they had better take it now or lose it, in which case they resent you for doing that.”

While there are many approaches for how to tackle the challenge of configuring paid time off, it is clear that HR leaders have to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the employees.

Related: Why upgrading the employee experience will boost business

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