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Can you be forced to take annual leave or to work over Christmas?

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As the Christmas period draws near, businesses are starting to plan their work over the holiday period. And while December tends to be a quiet month in the industry, there are still posts to schedule, projects to complete and deadlines to meet. This can force some businesses to remain open over Christmas, or, depending on the workload, to close for a few weeks and have a well-deserved break until the New Year.

Often, this means that employees like you will be forced to use their holiday entitlement to book some time off in the weeks surrounding or following Christmas – or even be asked to work during that time. But can an employer really force you to take Christmas off your annual holiday entitlement? Is there any leeway for you to negotiate paid leave?

Check your contract

The short answer is that, unfortunately, they can do whatever they want – unless your contract states otherwise. No one expects you to remember every single clause in your contract of employment, especially if you’ve been with your current company for a while; you should double check your final terms of employment to ensure that whatever your employer is doing is lawful.

As a general rule of thumb, however, chances are you won’t be able to influence their decision much. As holiday entitlement is often a pain point in a contract of employment, employers have taken a good habit of clearly spelling out whether you are entitled to paid leave on national holidays. According to ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, “Your employer does not have to give you time off on a bank holiday or at Christmas if they're not included in your holiday entitlement. This is the same whether you work full time or part time. Your employer can also make you take your holiday on bank holidays or at Christmas.”

However, if this is the case, it should be well specified on your contract of employment.

There is also no automatic rule or law preventing employees from working on Christmas Day. If the business requires so, you may have to go the extra mile and put in that (hopefully paid) overtime on Christmas. That said, many employees will have booked holidays around that period, so it is extremely unlikely that an employer will be able to force you to work around Christmas – unless they open for the public holidays or they give you appropriate notice.

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Image credit: Five by Five Global

Ensure the notice is right

The one weapon in your toolkit is the notice period. Whether your employer is planning to cancel your holidays or have you take some over Christmas, they need to let you know with reasonable advance. In the UK, according to specialised employment solicitors Landau Law, such advance is at least twice the amount of booked or pre-approved holidays .

In other words, if you have pre-booked 2 weeks of leave over Christmas, your employer must give you a 4 weeks notice before cancelling your holidays. Conversely, if they want you to take annual leave around Christmas for, say, 4 days, they need to give you notice 8 days in advance.

This is the same on both ends, of course. If you wish to take one week over Christmas (or any other time of the year, really), you need to let your employer know at least 2 weeks in advance. Think of your holiday period and make it double; this is how you can work out the appropriate, lawful notice period.

With that in mind, you are still in time to play smart and book way more days than you thought over Christmas – especially if you have the holiday allowance.

How to get 11 days off at Christmas with just 4 days of leave

Considering the notice you are required to give your employer before booking your holidays, you have plenty of time to start planning ahead and line up at least 11 days off, while only using 4 from your holiday entitlement.

This year, Christmas falls on a Saturday, and Boxing Day on a Sunday. This means that there will be two substitute bank holidays on Monday 27th and Tuesday 28th. If your contract does not require you to book paid leave on public holidays, you’re in for a treat.

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Image credit: Neil Watts

All you need to do is book off Christmas Eve (the 24th) and the days going from 29th to 31st December. That amounts to a total of 4 days of booked leave, but with all the public holidays in the middle, you’re actually going to be off for a whopping 11 days – almost triple the annual leave you’ll take off your entitlement. And because you’re only booking 4 days, you only need to give a 8 days notice!

If you haven’t used up all your holiday entitlement yet, this means you can still have some more days to book before the end of the year. Be careful with that, however – unless your contract says otherwise, you must use them all up before the end of the year. No employer is required to pay you unused holiday leave (unless in termination of employment), and most won’t let you carry over your unused days into the New Year.

What to do if things don’t look right?

Unfortunately, some of you may have to be confronted with last-minute changes to their holiday plans, unreasonable notice or holiday cancellations. Others will be forced to use up their remaining holidays over Christmas – and with so many bank holidays in the middle of the week this year, those days can become quite a lot.

If your contract clearly states the terms of your holiday entitlement, unfortunately there isn’t much you can do at all. Any lawyer will simply tell you the same. If things don’t look right, however, or you feel like you’ll have some space to negotiate, don’t run to a lawyer straight away. This will hurt your relationships with your current boss or company, and if you’re not planning to leave any time soon, some managers may take it quite personally.

There is always the chance to discuss such issues in a civilised manner. Book a meeting with your boss or manager to discuss your needs and concerns, and if there’s any way the two of you can meet in the middle, by all means, go for that option. Perhaps they will let you take a few days in the new year, or you will find some compromise to help both get through a period as unpredictable as Christmas.

The holidays are about sharing and showing kindness to one another, after all. Why make them more dramatic than they need be?

Header image: Niv Cohen for Samsung

Five by Five Global

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