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Vacation Scheduling Methods

Companies use three basic methods for scheduling employee vacations.  The first I will call “strict seniority”, the second “relaxed seniority” and the third, first-come, first-served.  Companies will also use a combination of these methods.  Usually, after an initial scheduling period, they will finish vacation scheduling using first-come, first-served scheduling.

 Strict Seniority

 Strict seniority is often used in a union environment.  It is the most time consuming method.  Many times companies need to start scheduling in November for the following year.  Employees must plan vacations up to 15 months in advance. 

Strict seniority begins with the most senior person in a department.  That person must schedule his vacations before anyone else.  After those vacations are set in the schedule, the next most senior person is brought in to schedule his vacations.  This process continues until all employees are scheduled.

Oregon Coast

Oregon Coast

In some instances, employees are only allowed to schedule one or two weeks on the first scheduling pass.  Then, the cycle begins again. 

In small departments or organizations employees may be given 1-3 days, or more to decide what time to request.  This gives employees a chance to consult with their family and make up their minds as to what weeks to request for vacation. 

In larger organizations, employees may be given a 15 minute window on a particular date to make requests. 

While the strict seniority method ensures absolute fairness according to seniority, it also takes the most time.  Vacation scheduling can consume management time for months.  In some cases, where many of the employees are entitled to take many weeks of vacation, it is the prelude to an extended period of vacation swapping and trading.

 Relaxed Seniority

“Relaxed seniority” is a variation of the strict seniority process.  Just like a baseball game, an employee is given up to three times at bat for each week of vacation requested. If an employee, “strikes out” for a particular week.  They have to wait until the next inning, or scheduling pass, to submit more choices.

 Every employee submits 1-3 choices for each week of vacation they are entitled to take.  Requests are required to be submitted by a certain date.  Just like the strict seniority regime, requests are evaluated in a seniority basis by department.

 The human resource manager or department head starts with the most senior person.  This is the only person that is guaranteed to be granted his requests.

Next, requests for the person next in line are evaluated.  If this employee’s first request for the first week can not be scheduled, then his second request for the first week is checked.  If that request is not granted, then the third preference is evaluated.

If none of the three requests can be granted, then the employee’s first week of vacation is not scheduled at this time. This is the point at which there is a departure from the strict seniority scheduling scheme.

 The manager moves on to the employees choices for his second week of vacation.  These are evaluated as noted above. 

 This process continues for each week of vacation requested. Vacations that can be granted are set permanently in the vacation schedule.

 The manager moves on to the next most senior employee and continues until all employees have had their requests evaluated.

 At the end of the first scheduling pass, there will usually be a number of employees who “strike out” with at least one of their weeks of vacation requests.  In practice, 5% - 10% of the employees may have at least one week where this happens.

Next the “second inning” or second scheduling pass is started.  The vacations that have been granted are set in stone.  Those who need to schedule more weeks are shown what days are left to request.  Requests are gathered again.  These new requests are evaluated as described above.  Senior employees who lost out in the first scheduling pass cannot displace less senior employees who have been awarded vacations in the previous pass.  

This cycle of scheduling passes is repeated until all employees have been scheduled.

The advantage of the “relaxed seniority” method is that the time spent scheduling employees can be greatly shortened.  A manager can sit down and schedule 100 employees in 8 or 10 hours. Vacation scheduling software can shorten this time period to three hours or less.  Usually, at the end of the first scheduling pass 95%+ of the vacation schedule has been set for the year.  Vacation Scheduling can start at later date.

 First-Come, First-Served

Small companies and departments often use the first-come, first-served method.  Basically it is very simple.  Requests are evaluated in the order in which they come in.  If staffing needs permit, requests are granted.  If two requests for the same days are received at the same time, then seniority is used to break the tie.

Many larger companies use the first-come, first-served method in the later part of the year.  They use it after one, two or three scheduling passes using the strict seniority or relaxed seniority method.


There are many different ways to schedule employees for vacations.  Some schemes can be quite involved.  Companies need to think about these methods to insure fairness.  They need to be aware of staffing needs.  If too many people are scheduled out, production can suffer.  Organizations also need to evaluate the time staff takes to schedule vacations.


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