Before the holiday season, employees at Andrea Correale's catering business get an email reminder that in December, "we need all hands on deck."
Elegant Affairs Caterers often has 12 events in a single day during the holidays, so Correale needs her staff of 230 to show up for work. Her email puts everyone on notice that during the two weeks when most clients have holiday parties, work needs to be the priority.
"If it's crunch week and we're not covered, everyone gets stressed out," says Correale, whose Glen Cove, New York-based company caters events on Long Island and in New York City.
The holiday season is prime time at many small businesses, and they may not have enough staff to accommodate the extra work as well as the time off many employees want. Retailers, caterers and even many companies whose work isn't connected with holiday celebrations have to find ways to keep their staffers happy, along with their customers. Many find that advance notice -- even before a worker is hired -- helps set expectations and limit disappointments. Bosses also find that they do need to be flexible.
Correale recognizes that even on the busiest days, some staffers want to attend their children's concerts and other holiday events. She requires them to ask in advance. And she uses flexible scheduling: If employees need to leave early for an event, they can come in a few hours early to make up the time. And if there's a last-minute request, "we usually get aggravated, but you figure something out," says Correale.
Rob Basso deals with holiday issues from two perspectives -- his company, Advantage Payroll Services, provides human resources consulting along with paycheck processing.
His small business clients ask for guidance about how to get work done while also letting staffers have time off. He recommends being as flexible as possible, although a company's size and line of work will dictate how generous a boss can be.
"A company may have 400 employees and some are not critical day-to-day, so it may not be necessary for all of them to be there. But if there are five people in a bakery, it's not going to be so easy," says Basso, whose company is based in Freeport, New York.
Basso also tends to get many new clients at the end of the year. So when he hires staffers, he lets them know that most of December is blacked out for vacations. He does give employees the flexibility to leave early or come in late as long as they make up their hours. And rather than granting requests by seniority, he has a lottery to let about a fifth of his staff leave at noon on either Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve.
"Just because you worked for me a few extra years, I don't see how it's fair to always give the same people time off," Basso says.
Human resources consultant Crystal Barnett says it's in a company's best interest to be flexible.
"It's a fine line you need to walk because you need to take care of whatever your business requirements are, but you also want to recognize that the person who works for you is not a robot," says Barnett, who works in the Atlanta office of Houston-based HR provider Insperity.
Employees' expectations, especially among younger people, have changed from a generation ago, and companies that want to attract and retain good workers need a culture that accommodates their desire for a balance between work and personal time, Barnett says.
Owners should also look for ways to make the atmosphere more fun even as staffers are working harder, Basso says. He caters breakfast or lunch for his employees at least once a week during the holiday season.
"Everyone takes a break," he says. "And it's not expensive for me to do it."
The weeks leading up to New Year's Day are critical at LogicPrep, whose services include advising high school students during the college admissions process. Many seniors must have their applications in by Jan. 1, and juniors are preparing for the SATs and other college entrance exams.
"We make it clear during the interview process what our calendar cycle is and why it's important to prioritize during the holiday season," co-founder Lindsay Tanne says. She does get some last-minute requests for time off, but her 40 staffers know that work generally must come first.
"They build their lives around the knowledge of what we do," says Tanne, whose company is based in Armonk, New York.
At Super Suds Car Wash in Midlothian, Virginia, owner Jeremy Critton follows the example of retailers and package delivery services during the busy season.
"I usually try to staff up a couple extra employees to be on the safe side and just spend a little more on labor to make sure I'm covered in any sort of a bind," Critton says. He gets more business during the holidays from people who want their cars to look spiffy when they visit friends and family.
Critton also lets his staffers know ahead of time they need to work during the holidays. He's occasionally had to let employees go when they asked too often to take time off with little or no notice.
Some companies that go full tilt during the holidays find that with no time to plan or take off, a party for their own staffers is likely to occur after New Year's Day.
"In our world, the year-end is like the Super Bowl," Basso says. "So in mid-January, maybe later, we have a big blowout."
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