Can my boss refuse to let me go on annual leave?

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week, a question about whether a boss can keep refusing leave requests, discrimination from bosses, and the give and take of annual leave.

I am desperate to go on leave and have a break after a really full-on few years of intense work. The problem is, whenever I try and make plans to have someone cover my role, my boss always says that person is not as competent as me and so he can’t afford for me to go on leave at that particular time. I have suggested we hire a specialised temp in the past but he says that won’t work. I feel trapped and while he says I can go on leave, whenever I try and actually make it happen he finds a reason to say no. I don’t want to upset him or risk losing my job. What should I do?

There needs to be give and take over leave, but your boss really can’t refuse reasonable requests to let you go.Credit:Dionne Gain

You are entitled to take your annual leave and your boss can only refuse on reasonable grounds. Repeatedly refusing your request for leave, just because he can’t bear to be without you, is not reasonable. I suggest you speak to someone in HR or even someone else in the business you trust to ask their advice. If you belong to a union, you can also ask them. It should not be for you to have to craft a complete solution whenever you need to be away. You need to be able to take annual leave to recharge and your boss needs to facilitate this. I know this is going to feel difficult to broach with him, but please rest assured in knowing he is doing the wrong thing by not helping you take the time away from work you need. Find any support you can at work to help you have that conversation with him.

I have recently completed diversity and anti-discrimination training at work. Unfortunately in our workplace, all long-term senior roles are taken by gay white men who hire and fire junior female executives at will. If I were a woman I would be appalled by the lack of opportunity and the condescending tone of the video training, including a scenario where one woman is blocked from promotion and accused of being homophobic. We have numerous queer and straight women more competent than our male senior management and they never get an opportunity for advancement. As a man in a junior role I am not sure what to say or do.

OK, lots here to unpack here. Let’s start with the training. It sounds like it is ineffective even if well-intentioned. It would be worth passing that feedback on to whoever coordinates the training at work. No boss can fire someone “at will” so that is a pretty major red flag about your workplace’s processes and culture.

The nub of your question though seems to be about how to protect or speak up on behalf of the women you work with. My first thought, always, is that a competent woman in this situation will be well-placed to speak up for herself. If she is afraid to speak up without negative consequences, my recommendation would be to move to a workplace where her skills are valued. If you see direct examples of discrimination, you can definitely speak up and also be someone who listens to those experiencing discrimination and support them as they decide how they might like to proceed and whether they might be best to move on.

I have recently had COVID and had to take the usual days off for isolation. During that time I was too unwell to tackle any work-related tasks. I work in a busy office and no one is really able to pick up and carry on with my role. When I returned to work I advised my boss that as previously discussed, I would be going on three weeks of annual leave. My boss said I now couldn’t take the leave as intended as it was not ideal to have yet more time off so soon. I was able to negotiate a shorter period of leave but did I really need to?

Annual leave needs a bit of give and take on both sides to make it work. Yes, you are entitled to take your annual leave but your employer also needs to be able to ensure the business can continue to operate. They can’t be unreasonable in refusing any request you submit but they can talk to you about what is going to work best to see what is possible. The complication in your situation is that because you were sick, you were away from the office much longer than planned. That is not your fault of course, and nor is it the fault of your employer. It sounds like they are having to deal with staff shortages over a much longer period than they probably planned for and there may have been others away sick when you were too.

I reckon this is just a case of having a conversation with your boss to clarify you were able to change your plans this time but the longer period of leave is important to you and you would like to plan to take it in the future. If you have a good boss, they will be grateful for your understanding and cooperation and will do what they can to make sure this combination of things happening at once doesn’t impact on your leave again.

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to [email protected] Your name and any identifying information will not be used. Letters may be edited.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a non-executive director, author and regular columnist. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the QUT Business School and former Deputy Chair of the ABC.

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