Planning can ease holiday tensions

The holiday season isn’t always a time of peace and joy at small businesses. Owners often find that employees are grumpy rather than merry as December wears on.

The stresses of trying to juggle family and job demands can spill over into the workplace, and company issues such as time off, productivity and favored treatment for some staffers can also be a flash point during the holidays.

“Why didn’t I get a bonus? Why is there only a Christmas tree? Why did she get to take off and I didn’t?” are some of the angry questions a company owner is likely to hear, said Fran Galante, executive director of Managed Care Concepts, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based employee assistance provider.

Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to seasonal strife, said Richard Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago-based employee assistance provider.

“They have a concentrated work force; every employee is significantly more important than they would be in a larger organization,” he said.

Time off is a frequent point of contention. Often, several staffers are likely to want to be off on the same days. Those who don’t get their wishes are likely to be resentful and perhaps call in sick.

Human resources consultants say the time to deal with such issues is long before the holidays arrive, creating policies that, for example, determine whether time off is granted according to seniority or on a rotating basis, with some employees getting the most desirable days off this year, and others getting them next year.

At this point in the season, it might be too late to start implementing such policies. Diplomacy and flexibility are called for.

Another common problem is the holiday blues, which often result from the stresses of trying to balance family demands such as shopping, going to children’s holiday concerts, visits from relatives and the requirements of work. And if employees have to cover for one another when someone is on vacation, that increases the tension.

“You will see productivity lagging and attitudes changing and people who have troubles with the holiday season,” Chaifetz said. “This is the time for employers to engage a little in the holiday spirit themselves by being understanding and flexible with their work force and perhaps being more reasonable in giving them time off and helping them balance work-life issues.”

There’s a payoff for the boss. “Employees tend to remember that, and the payback will go on for months,” he said.

It’s also important to remember that not everyone celebrates the holidays and that some people get very depressed at this time of year.

Owners need to be “sensitive to the fact that holidays don’t make everyone happy,” said Arlene Vernon, owner of HRx Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Eden Prairie, Minn.

She suggested that owners might want to get their companies involved in some charitable giving, inviting everyone to give to an organization chosen by employees. That might help employees who don’t celebrate the holidays feel part of a team.

That kind of sensitivity toward employees’ feelings should also extend to the decorations you put up in the workplace.

Galante said her company often fields calls from business owners whose employees are unhappy with decorations that are too religious or that exclude certain faiths or ethnic groups. Before you put up any holiday decor, “do you decide as the owner what you want, or do you decide to appease the folks that work for you,” she said.

But Galante also said an owner might want to set some limits if the complaints turn into a problem. In her own company, she dealt with decor gripes by telling employees that if the complaints continued, there just wouldn’t be any decorations.

Managing employees during the holidays is actually no different from managing the rest of the year. When owners let employees know what is expected of them, workers are more likely to perform better and complain less.

An owner should be “as present for employees as possible, to make themselves available, to try to be understanding about what kinds of issues the employee is having,” said Bruce Cedar, president of Newton, Mass.-based CMG Associates. “If business owners apply this when times are good or bad, they’ll do well.

“There is an expectation that this is the time that businesses take some time to acknowledge their employees, and the efforts of their employees, and if a small business owner can do that as well, that goes a long way.”

Building Small Business is a weekly column on the topic by the Associated Press.

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