Can I refuse or cancel an employee’s holiday?

There are some myths about annual leave that seem to linger no matter how untrue they are.

Two of the most persistent myths are:

  1. An employer cannot refuse a request for annual leave and
  2. They cannot cancel an employee’s holiday.

Employers have more of a say over annual leave than they may actually think. Let us dismiss these myths and tell you the law.

Refusing annual leave

An employer can refuse a request for annual leave. For example, many of your employees in the same team or department may wish to take holiday at the same time. This mighbe be over Easter, Christmas or summer. However, it may not be feasible for you to grant two or three requests. You need to ensure that business needs are met.

To say no to a request, you must give the employee counter-notice. The length of the notice must be equivalent to the period of leave that the employee was trying to book.

It is also possible that you oblige employees to take annual leave at certain times of the year, for example, if you close at Christmas time. Alternatively, there may be times when you may decide to prohibit employees taking annual leave at particularly busy times which require all hands on deck.

Cancelling annual leave

You may also find yourself in a situation where you have to cancel leave. For instance, a big project with a very tight deadline has just come in and you require all your employees to work on it to get it completed on time.

The law does allow an employer to cancel an employee’s annual leave that you have previously approved. To do this, you must provide the appropriate amount of notice.

But does this mean you can cancel an employee’s holiday at very short notice? The rule is that length of the notice must be equivalent to the period of leave that the employee planned to take. This means that if an employee was due to take a week of holiday and you wish to cancel it, you must provide a minimum of a week’s notice.


Before cancelling the leave, you should think about all the options. Make sure that before you cancel, you have a clear business reason and only do it if absolutely necessary. If you cancel someone’s leave which means they cannot take a booked holiday and they suffer financial loss, they may be able to argue constructive dismissal. They may claim that there has been breach of the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence.

You also need to be aware that you must not cancel annual leave if it means that the employee cannot take their full statutory annual leave entitlement.

Have rules in place

You should have rules about booking annual leave in the employee’s Contract of Employment or Employee Handbook. It may set out how much notice an employee needs to provide, how the leave must be booked and how many consecutive working days can be booked. You may also specify how many people can be off work at any one time.

Unless otherwise specified in the contract or handbook, the employee should provide you with notice which is at least twice as long as the leave that they are requesting. If they request one week of leave, they must provide you with at least two weeks of notice.

You should tell your employees not to book a holiday without first submitting a request and getting authorisation from their line manager. You should also encourage them to book early to avoid disappointment. Of course, if the leave is cancelled and then don’t attend work, that is a different conversation.

Our Employment Law Advisers are always on hand to help you dealing with difficult annual leave requests.

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