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Keep Your Business Staffed During the Holidays

With the holidays upon us and employees eager to use vacation days before yearend, many small employers are trying to keep their business adequately staffed without facing employee resentment. I asked experts to weigh in on striking the right balance; their advice is summarized below.

Put your vacation policy in writing. It’s too late to help you this year, but it’s a great reminder for 2014. “A clear vacation policy can help avoid confusion,” says David A. Weiman, a management psychologist with Weiman Consulting in Wynnewood, Pa. Make sure that each new employee reads and understands the vacation policy.

Have employees schedule time off early. “It’s inevitable that staff will ask to take the same days off, and since you can’t ask employees not to take those days off, it’s your responsibility to start planning ahead,” says Tom Gimbel, president and chief executive officer of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing firm. Have your staffers submit their vacation dates for the entire year in January—or at least during the first quarter. Once you get all the vacation requests in, check to see if there are conflicts—such as periods when too many members of the same department will be missing. “See if employees can figure out among themselves a way to ensure the desired level of coverage,” Weiman suggests.

Make note of annual busy periods. If your company faces crucial deadlines or seasonal crunch times when you need all hands on deck, make sure everyone is aware of that well ahead of time. Don’t deny employees days off to attend important family events, such as weddings or graduations, or you will risk building up resentment in the office. But ask them to avoid scheduling lengthy vacations during those periods.

Offer incentives for working through the holidays. “Spot bonuses, buying lunch or dinner for the office, a relaxed dress code, and even shorter hours may motivate employees to work over holiday periods,” Weiman says. “They might even surprise you with extra effort.” Be aware, however, that if you’re asking workers to come in on holidays like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, “you should be the first one in the office on those days,” Gimbel says. Another option is to allow employees to work remotely on those days, if that’s possible.

Communicate well. “Nothing is more irritating for clients than having an answering machine to deal with when there is a pressing issue,” Gimbel says. He recommends that employees leaving for vacation brief their co-workers on account details before they go. That way, if clients need help, they can still get it. “Though it may seem like extra work to them, at the end of the day you’re making the client’s life easier, which is the end goal. Customer service is king in growing sales.”

Bring on temporary help. It’s better to have a few employees in the office than none. If you need people to answer the phones, sort through e-mail requests, and deal with clients’ problems, you can hire temp workers. If you need professionals to do more substantive work over a week or more, consider professional staffing services that specialize in your industry. Thomas Moran, CEO of Chicago-based Addison Group, places 3,000 temps a month, mostly with small and midsize companies that need IT, finance, accounting, and health-care employees for the short term. “It’s easier than you’d think for a professional to get up to speed quickly and be helpful for a crucial week or two, particularly at the end of the year when there are a lot of finance and IT tasks to get done,” he says.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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