A failure to properly monitor and process staff holidays and ensure that they occur at an even rate throughout the year has wreaked systemic havoc at Ryanair.

As a result of inadequately managing holiday time, the already controversial carrier has experienced ripple effects across the entire fabric of its business. In a move that has enraged customers, the airline has had to cancel hundreds of flights planned for the second half of September and into early October.

By way of a firefighting measure, the firm – led by perennially pugnacious CEO Michael O’Leary – has reportedly offered pilots and first officers one-off, tax-free bonuses of £12,000 and £6,000 respectively to forfeit their holidays, in an effort to make up the numbers required to maintain a sustainable level of business in the autumn.

Plus, the spate of cancellations is threatening to derail Ryanair’s attempt to purchase Italian airline Alitalia – with Italy’s transport minister Graziano Delrio branding the prospective buyer’s holiday crisis “very serious”, and asserting: “It’s caused a huge amount of inconvenience for Italians and we insist on the absolute respect for passengers’ rights. We will monitor the situation, but we can’t make allowances for such a huge amount of disruption.”

Ryanair itself issued a sheepish Facebook post admitting, “We have messed up in the planning of pilot holidays and we’re working hard to fix that.”

With so much at stake in terms of customer goodwill, employee satisfaction and even long-term strategic goals, this one issue could cause significant damage to the firm. What does it say about the need to manage holidays properly – and what should leaders to ensure that staff leave is smoothly distributed across the annual calendar?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “What we have to remember here is that holidays are part of any staff reward package. They are not an inconvenience. They are not an extra cost. They are an integral part of an employee’s basic entitlement.”

She explains: “It used to be the case that firms would have a kind of colour-coded spreadsheet on the wall of the HR office, showing who is scheduled to be on leave and when – a big chart that everyone could see. Now, thanks to the boom in HR software, we have an array of different technological solutions – but what’s clear from the Ryanair example is that firms aren’t using these platforms creatively or imaginatively.

“There are ways of working with those technologies to encourage staff to take holidays at times that fit in with the ebb and flow of a company’s business. If you want staff to take leave at traditionally slow periods, or during school holidays rather than in the middle of term time, or to ensure that they can meet particular caring responsibilities, then those aims can all be reflected in the HR-management software that your employees connect with in order to plan and book their leave. Incentivise your staff by rewarding the types of behaviour you want to see more of.”

Cooper notes: “It’s about negotiation and discussion, not enforcement – and flexible working has an important role to play here, too, particularly in terms of how it can empower your staff. If you don’t make people come into the office, but facilitate their ability to work from anywhere at any time, then that makes it automatically much easier to manage the peaks and troughs in your firm’s activities, or provide emergency cover. In Ryanair’s case, perhaps that could involve sourcing pilots from different locations that are strategically placed to comprise a sustainable flow of flights.”

She adds: “Be more creative. Use technology to incentivise your preferred rules for leave – even if those rules are complex, because a lot of HR systems can cope with that. Recognise that leave is not an inconvenience or a cost, as Ryanair seem to think it is. Respect staff and understand that they need leave in order to rest, so they can function. With each employee, you are hiring the whole person – not just the one you see fulfilling various tasks in the workplace. So safeguard their wellbeing.”

For thoughts on a host of other HR matters, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons