Can an employer refuse to give you unpaid leave?

In this guide we will discuss “can an employer refuse to give you unpaid leave?”, the most common scenarios for unpaid leave, unpaid leave rights, how to raise a formal grievance and some additional considerations.

Can an employer refuse to give you unpaid leave?

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The employment law gives you the right to take some time off under certain circumstances, but you might not get paid for this time off.

This is why we recommend you check your contract of employment since it might give you additional rights.

Moreover, depending on the reason you are requesting unpaid leave, your employer might still say no. 

The truth is there is very little information and laws that regulate or talk about unpaid leave.

For instance, in certain circumstances such as being an employee aged 18 or over, you do have the right to ask for unpaid time off to train or study.

You could refer to the Employment Rights Act 1996 for more information.

However, if you don’t have a written contract of employment, still you may be entitled to some extra rights.

This might have been verbally agreed upon with your employer, or come about because of the way things are handled at your workplace.

You may be aware or have a vague idea about your employee’s rights for paid annual leave but not much about when (and if you are entitled to) you could ask for unpaid leave.

There are actually certain circumstances that will make you consider taking time off without being paid. So let’s take a look at the possible scenarios and what they mean.

Most common scenarios for unpaid time off

Public duties: “If the employee is a local councilor or school governor, for example. As an employer, you must give a reasonable amount of unpaid leave.”

Jury service/duty: “You must allow time off for jury service. Failure to do so could result in a fine for contempt of court. If jury service has come at a particularly bad time, the employee can postpone their service, but they will have to do it eventually.”

Emergencies: they are also known as “dependant leave” and employees do have an entitlement to take time off to deal with unexpected problems related to family members or dependants.

Your employer won’t pay for the time off and there is no fixed amount of time, but 1-2 days is considered reasonable (depending on the situation and personal circumstances). 

Doctor/dentist appointments: your employer is not legally obliged to give you time off to visit your doctor or dentist, and they most likely will suggest you make those appointments outside your working hours or make the time up later on.

However, there are some exceptions such as being pregnant (who can actually take paid time off work or a leave of absence for antenatal care).

In addition, if you have a disability and you require time off for reasons related to your disability but your employer refuses then you may be discriminated against (Equality Act 2010). 

Unpaid parental leave: this is not the same as maternity, paternity or shared parental leave.

This type of leave refers to when an employee needs some time off to take care of their child or make arrangements for them.

According to Amanda Beattie from ‘Croner’, “The dependant is a child up until their 18th birthday. Employees can take up to 18 weeks in total until the child reaches that age.”

However, you must meet some requirements such as being in the company for at least a year and you should take the leave in 1-week blocks.

Compassionate leave: it can be paid or unpaid and it is up to your employer.

Legally, your employer doesn’t have to pay for it or even offer you bereavement at all.

However, it’s usually a benefit for you and your employer to do so.

Make sure you do some research on any compassionate leave policies your employer may have.

Unpaid leave rights

Many employers ask if as an employee you have a right to unpaid leave.

Well, it is worth mentioning that it is better to refer to each particular and individual reason for time off such as the ones we have mentioned above for a more specific answer.

In fact, since there is very little information in the employment laws about unpaid leave then most of the time it comes down to employer discretion.

However, most of the unpaid leave rights and rules are in the employment contract.

This means that you may or may not have the contractual right to unpaid leave if not specified in your contract or by your employer under a verbal agreement. In the end, it is really up to the employer mostly.

Additionally, if it is stipulated in your contract, you may ask your employer for unpaid leave if you have run out or you don’t really want to use your annual leave (holiday pay) to have some time off work.

As we have discussed, it is up to your employer to accept or reject your request even after you have explained the reasons why you need it.  

Can my employer force me to take unpaid leave?

Your employer may force you to take unpaid leave if there is not enough work available for you, also commonly known as “laying an employee off”.

However, this must be pre-established with a contractual provision in place.

In terms of the time, your employer doesn’t really have a limit to how long they can send you on a forced unpaid leave, but if you have been off work for four weeks in a row or six weeks within a 13-week period (where no more than six weeks are consecutive) you can apply for redundancy pay and resign from your position.

Your employer won’t let you take time off?

Always consider having an informal discussion first with your employer and let them know why you need the time off (hopefully for a valid reason).

In addition, you could get help to make your case from a trade union rep if you have one.

If it still doesn’t work or your employer is still refusing to give you time off, you should raise a grievance with your employer. 

You can raise a grievance if you have a problem or complaint at work.

You might want to raise a grievance about things you are being asked to do as part of your job, the terms and conditions of your employment contract (e.g. your pay), the way you are being treated (e.g. unfair treatment, harassment, etc.), bullying or being discriminated at work (e.g. celebrating Ramadan).

How can I raise a formal grievance?

As ‘Citizens advice’ mentions, “Your employer should also have a formal procedure for raising a grievance. You should try to follow this, where possible. You should be able to find details of your employer’s grievance procedure in your Company Handbook, HR or Personnel manual, on your HR intranet site or in your contract of employment.”

In case that your employer doesn’t actually have a formal procedure you can follow the Acas Code of practice, which sets the standards of fairness and reasonable behavior that employers and employees are expected to follow when dealing with a dispute. 

Flexible working and unpaid leave

We all have our reasons to consider requesting our employer for unpaid leave or unpaid time off, but some employers are not into the “employee’s well-being” mentality, instead, they are thinking about productivity and money.

However, this has been slowly changing due to the fact that as pointed by a YouGov study, “flexibility is important to people and those that worked flexibly said it improved their motivation and loyalty.”

Businesses are reconsidering how employee well-being has to be a very important aspect of their business culture.

We live in a world where we never seem to end working, not even when we get home and it is one of the main reasons why our schedules seem busier every time.

As ‘Breathe HR’ mentions “As a result, employees need a bigger say in the structure of their working day and around the rules about when they can take time off.”

In terms of short and long term benefits, employers can see how a balanced employee suffers less from stress or mental illnesses, have lower absenteeism, are more productive by being more motivated to come to work for a good employer.

With this, they ensure to have better staff retention and attract the best talent.

Why is this blog about “can an employer refuse to give you unpaid leave” important?

The answer to “Can an employer refuse to give you unpaid leave?” is Yes, they can and it will depend on many factors such as the reasons why you are asking for unpaid leave, your personal (e.g. for how long you have been working for the company) and your employment contract.

This, as we have discussed has to do with the fact that the employment law is not very specific about unpaid time off.

In addition, we have also discussed the most common scenarios for unpaid leave and additional options you can consider if your employer refuses to give you unpaid leave and how to raise a formal grievance if needed. 

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about can an employer refuse to give you unpaid leave?

Can you be made to take unpaid leave?

Your employer can force you to take unpaid leave if there is not enough work for you, also known as “laying an employee off”.

However, this must have been pre-established with a contractual provision in place.

How many days unpaid leave is an employee entitled to UK?

The number of days for unpaid leave as an employee in the UK, will depend on your employer and in case you have any of the following situations:
– Being ill, injured or assaulted

– Having a baby

– Disruption of care arrangements

– Your child is involved in an accident at school 

How do I take unpaid time off work?

If your employer has offered you to take unpaid time off work then the number of days will have been pre-established with them before you go on to having your unpaid leave.

What is the meaning of unpaid leave?

Unpaid leave means you have some time off work where you are allowed to take time for holiday, illness or any other special reason, but your employer stops paying your normal wage.

Your employer may offer you unpaid leave under certain specific circumstances, according to their policies and at their discretion. 

What does unpaid leave mean on payslip?

If you have in your payslip “unpaid leave” it means you have taken some time off work but it was not covered under your employer’s existing benefits such as sick leave (e.g. being sick with coronavirus), paid vacation/holidays and paid time off.

You may be offered an unpaid leave of absence when your employer has used all the existing paid time off options. 

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Beattie, A. (2019, Aug.) Are Employees Entitled to Unpaid Leave?. Retrieved from “Time off work-overview” “Dealing with grievances at work” “Checking Holiday Entitlement”

Benstead, S. (2019, Feb.) Can an employee take unpaid leave?. Retrieved from

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