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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

When (and How) You Can Ask to Miss Work or Leave Early (Example Email Included!)

people walking out of office
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In an ideal world, you’d be able to come and go as you pleased at work. Should something pop up in your personal life, you’d have the option to leave the office to handle it, so long as your work looked good and was done on time.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, which means our workplaces often constrict our availability. It’s true that many companies are embracing flexible hours and unlimited paid time off (PTO), allowing their employees to work on a schedule that best fits their lifestyle provided their productivity doesn’t falter. However, it’s still commonplace for employees to be required to work from 9 to 5 (or some other set hours), five days a week, unless they come up with a valid excuse as to why they’re unable to.

For those folks, having to duck out midday or call out of work for a personal matter can be a tricky thing to navigate. How do you justify needing the time away to your manager?

Just like you’re entitled to a certain amount of vacation time, you’re not never allowed to miss a part of the workday or leave work early. You just have to be strategic about it.

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When Are You Allowed to Miss Work, and for What Excuses?

There are plenty of good excuses to miss work. To name a few:

  • You have travel plans, either work or non-work related
  • You have a doctor’s (or vet, or some other) appointment
  • You have a religious commitment
  • You’re attending a conference or industry event
  • You want to attend your child’s school event, recital, or game
  • You’re dealing with a family matter
  • You’re dealing with a health matter
  • You’re moving or need to wait for an important delivery or service provider (the plumber, the internet installer)
  • Something urgent and unpredictable came up—the nanny is sick, your apartment started flooding, there’s a snow day at school

You could look at this list and say some excuses are better than others. But “it is very individualistic,” says Nneka Craigwell, who works in people operations at Namely. And it’s not up to your co-worker or your boss to decide if you have a good enough reason to bail. It’s up to you to prove to them that it is (but more on that below).

Unfortunately, being tired or bored or simply wanting to go home without finishing out the day is not a great excuse (sorry). If you’re feeling that way, don’t even bother approaching your manager. You’re better off doing a number of other things: finding something productive to work on until you can clock out, helping out a co-worker, talking to your boss about your workload, or even asking for a personal day instead.

What’s the Best Way to Ask to Miss Work?

So you want to ask your boss for some time off during the day—whatever the reason. Follow these important steps to ensure you get a “yes!” and leave the office on the best possible note.

Set Expectations Early

Craigwell emphasizes that in a lot of instances, making the case to miss part of the workday starts way before the day you actually want to leave. In fact, it starts when you and your manager first get to know each other.

Take the trivial example of someone who needs to duck out of work to take care of their dog. At first glance, it may seem silly. But context matters. If this person notified their boss early on in their relationship that they had a pet, and that sometimes this pet would need them during the workday, their boss would probably be a lot more understanding than a manager who’s hearing about this animal for the first time.

This also applies to someone who’s a primary caregiver, or is dealing with health issues, or has some other commitment outside the office that may, from time to time, require them to be pulled away from work. When your supervisor knows very distinctly what’s important to you outside of work, it’s easier to persuade them to give you what you need.

Maybe you have a great boss who takes genuine care in getting to know your life outside of work. But if your manager’s tougher to connect with, remember that “there’s accountability on both sides,” says Craigwell.

You don’t necessarily have to get into the nitty-gritty details of your situation. But, says Craigwell, “if there’s something going on with you, let people get a glimpse into that, so if that smoke arises then people can help you put that fire out.”

Tell Them as Soon as You Know

The most important step you need to take, regardless of whether it’s a serious situation or not? “If you know in advance, tell someone in advance,” says Craigwell. As soon as you know you’ll need to miss work, she advises, “tell your supervisor, tell your team, tell whoever it’s relevant to.” Scheduled that doctor’s appointment for two weeks from today? Tell your boss now. Know the exact date of your nephew’s christening a month ahead? Bring it up in your next check-in.

When you do this, you make your boss’ life (and yours) a heck of a lot easier. If they know in advance, they have time to prepare, whether they need to find someone to fill in for you, push a deadline or meeting, or rework their own calendar to make up for the loss. On the flip side, if you don’t say anything until the last possible minute “and then one or two other people can’t make it that day or [there’s] an increased call volume or whatever the case may be for your business, there is a negative impact,” says Craigwell. “And one of those things at a minimum could have been prevented” had you just been proactive.

Allow Room for Discussion Later

Sometimes you’ll need to ask for time off at the last minute—for example, if you completely forgot you put an appointment on your calendar or your dog walker locked herself out of the house. When it’s down to the wire and you really need your manager to give you the green light to leave, be sure to reopen the conversation later so you can better explain yourself and assure your boss they can trust and count on you to be a reliable teammate.

Here’s how: After you’re back in the office, pull them aside at an appropriate moment and thank them for being flexible. Then, if it makes sense, explain further why this time outside the office was important to you, how you plan to give more advanced notice next time (if you’re able to), and how you’ll handle your workload to compensate for lost time.

With last-minute requests, there’s always a strong possibility they’ll say no—because you’re needed, because your boss doesn’t approve last-minute requests, or because it would set a bad precedent for the rest of the team. So accept that this may be the case if you run out the clock before asking them, and try as best you can to be proactive moving forward.

Have a Plan to Do the Work

Whenever you ask your boss for some amount of time off, always be prepared to answer the question, “How will you make up for it?” Maybe you’ll work remotely while you’re out, or respond to emails when you get home that evening, or come in early the next morning, or get stuff done the day before.

Whatever answer you give, actually follow through on it. Nothing stops your boss from letting you skip a chunk of work faster than missing a deadline or doing the bare minimum.

Don’t Make It a Pattern

You don’t want to become the person everyone in the office always expects to miss work. If you keep forgetting about appointments or ducking out last minute, your whole team is going to see you as someone who’s flaky, unreliable, or even high-drama.

More importantly, you don’t want to become the person who’s always missing work and doesn’t make up for it. Colleagues will resent you if they have to pick up your slack while you’re out. Plus, your boss will be less likely to say yes to any future requests.

So take chunks of time off cautiously and when it truly makes sense, and find ways to balance out your work with your outside work priorities. For example, if you know you want to be able to take time off for your child’s various school events, maybe schedule your other appointments before work or during lunch. And if you’ve talked to your boss about missing work frequently for a more serious personal reason, make sure you’re meeting expectations as much as possible.

How Do You Make Your Ask?

How exactly do you state your case? These templates can help in bringing it up appropriately and respectfully.

If You’re Doing It in Person

In your next check-in or one-on-one meeting, you could say the following:

“I wanted to ask you if it would be possible to take off [date] from [time] to [time] for [reason]? To make up for the missed time, I plan to [what you plan to do to make up for it]. I also know we have [meeting] scheduled during that time, and was wondering if it would be possible to reschedule. If you prefer, I’m happy to take the entire day off, but figured since I’m available part of the day I could easily come in and still get [projects you’re working on] done.”

If You’re Doing It Over Email

While in person is always better, if your boss prefers email or you can’t seem to get them in a room, try using this email to make your request:

Hi [Boss’ Name],

I was wondering if I could take off [date] from [time] to [time] for [reason]? I can still work [date] from [time] to [time], and plan to [what you plan to do to make up for missed time]. However, if you think it makes more sense for me to take the entire day, happy to do that as well.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this. Happy to discuss further in person.

Thanks so much!
[Your Name]