Denying an employee's request for a transfer, salary increase or just time off for personal or medical reasons probably ranks No. 2 – right after conducting a termination meeting – as the most difficult tasks for human resources staff. It's especially difficult if the employee submits a properly documented and timely request for leave, if you're confident the time off is necessary and would benefit the employee. Writing a letter to deny an employee's request, however, is necessary for consistent application of workplace policies, fair employment practices and, in some cases, required by federal or state regulations.
Let the employee know that you received his request, and if timing is an issue, include the date on which you received the request. Timing could be an issue when the employee failed to submit a timely request or didn't follow the procedure for requesting leave. In your letter, restate the basis for the employee's request, such as "Your request for six weeks of leave time under the Family and Medical Leave Act was received on Aug. 1, 2013."
If you have to deny the employee's request for leave based on company policy, cite the policy and where to find it in the employee handbook. Also, include the pertinent portion of the company policy that supports denying the employee's request. You could write, "According to the ABC Enterprises policy on requests for personal leave, employees are required to submit a written statement to request time off at least 30 days before the personal leave begins. This policy applies to non-FMLA personal leave requests. Please refer to page 30 of the ABC employee handbook for a complete explanation of the process."
Check your federal or state regulations regarding mandated leave. The FMLA regulations require that employers follow certain rules in providing written notice to employees who request leave. Also, some state laws on parental leave require that you follow certain protocols for notifying the employee about leave eligibility. For example, if you're in California, your company may have state-mandated employer notice obligations under the California Family Rights Act or the Pregnancy Disability Leave law.
In many cases, employee eligibility may be a factor in denying a request. Aside from pointing to the workplace policy, if there's a regulation that determines whether an employee is eligible for leave, cite that too. For example, the FMLA has specific employee eligibility guidelines -- the employee must have been employed for at least 12 months prior to the beginning of the leave period and during that time must have at least 1,250 hours of time. In addition, the FMLA has guidelines about who qualifies as a family member, which often complicates the leave eligibility conditions. In these cases, refer the employee to appropriate law or regulations, and if there's a fact sheet available, such as the one for FMLA leave, attach a copy to your letter.
Preserving the employer-employee relationship is an important consideration in all personnel decisions. If you're in a position to offer alternatives, do so to soften the blow of a flat-out denial. Reference another company policy that could fulfill the employee's request or suggest that the employee reapply for leave or modify her request so that it meets the requirements. For instance, if the employee's request doesn't qualify for FMLA leave, explain the company's policy on non-FMLA and personal leaves of absence.
You can also preserve the employer-employee relationship by compassionately explaining the reasons for your denial in a private meeting with the employee. If possible, review your denial letter with the employee in a face-to-face consultation. Doing so may help justify the decision and impress upon the employee that if you could approve the leave, you would. It also makes a world of difference to help the employee understand the company's position, and it prevents employees' perception that HR decisions are impersonal.