Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Season's treatings

It's the most challenging time of the year... for business owners juggling their needs, staff hopes

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How does one know the Christmas season is upon us? While it's easy to suggest the carols and decorations at the mall, I think the real evidence lies with the Black Friday shopping frenzy.

And this year, many Canadian retailers fought hard to keep shoppers on home turf by offering banner sales and shopping discounts. What crowds! What insanity! Frankly, I just can't imagine standing in line for hours and fighting over "stuff." However, as a business owner, I can certainly appreciate the music of the cash registers. But, whatever happened to the religious aspect of Christmas?

Christmas is an exciting time of the year and most employees will want to be enjoying the season with their families. And that creates challenges for employers, particularly small-business owners. It's no fun trying to juggle all the vacation requests and be on the receiving end of incoming debt collection calls aimed at your employees. Nor does anyone want to deal with complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment that often follow a Christmas party run amok.

So, how can a business-owner create a positive environment for the Christmas season while still looking after the needs of the business?

The following suggestions might help:

Establish vacation guidelines -- If you're keeping your business active during the Christmas season, then you need to ensure sufficient employee resources are available. If you haven't already put vacation guidelines in place, then now is the time. Waiting until the last minute will only serve to create hard feelings because everyone's needs cannot be accommodated.

Involve employees in planning -- Set up a Christmas planning committee, set a budget and ask employees for suggestions on how to celebrate the season within your work environment. Provide guidelines for activities so that all religious and cultural nuances are considered and all your employees are engaged at some level or other.

Keep decorations to a minimum -- The Christmas season has become so commercialized that it can sometimes create a distraction. For instance, a huge, inflatable Santa Claus figure probably isn't appropriate. In other words, be subtle with your decorations, keep them to a minimum and ensure they are tasteful. Avoid religious-themed decorations that might insult some of your employees.

Know your liability -- As a business owner, be aware of your legal liability to ensure a safe work environment for employees at all times and at all locations. You can't afford to have your special events become a launch pad for human-rights complaints. Take time to brief both your managers and staff on company guidelines and be diligent in screening for inappropriate behaviour throughout the season.

Build upon employee engagement -- The Christmas season is a good time to strengthen teamwork through group activities where all employees can be involved. Pot-luck lunches are popular at this time of year and allow employees to share various cultural food specialties and learn more about each other.

Schedule intermittent workplace events -- Many organizations opt to hold multiple events at the workplace. This is fine, but be sure not to hold too many events that cause work to be disrupted. Too many events will cause employees to suffer from celebration fatigue. And lastly, customers deserve continuous excellent service.

Set limits for employee gift sharing -- If you engage in employee gift sharing, then limit the spending amount and provide guidelines for purchase. There's nothing worse than an employee receiving a gift that was meant to be humorous, but instead, is interpreted as an insult.

Carefully plan your major event -- Most organizations have some sort of Christmas party for employees. This is a good opportunity to effectively mix and mingle various employee groups with management. It is an opportunity for people to get to know each other better and to appreciate how each person contributes to the organization.

Apply an alcohol ticket strategy -- Over-indulgence in alcohol is well known to create the most problems at employer events. The best strategy is to give employees two tickets for free drinks. Any additional alcohol is purchased and at the same time, monitored by the liquor server and others.

Assign a company photographer -- With the Internet lurking in the corners of your Christmas celebrations, my advice is to hire and/or assign a company photographer rather than allowing employees to bring their own cameras. This strategy allows you to control the types of photos taken at your event, prevent any employee or company embarrassment and provide you time to gain consent from the employees prior to posting photos on your company website.

Communicate your work schedule early -- Statutory holidays in Canada for 2012 include Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Retail stores open Dec. 24, 27 and 28 will be scrambling for staff while others, such as manufacturing firms, might simply be at a standstill. Whatever works for your organization, be sure to communicate the schedule early so that employees can plan.

Deal with complaints quickly -- Hopefully, your organization will fly through the Christmas season without complaint; however, should an issue arise, it's important to deal with the complaint quickly. No matter how big or small your organization, rumours travel fast and can quickly put a damper on any of your celebrations.

Avoid that Christmas bonus -- Linking your compensation bonus plan to the Christmas season in my view is simply not a wise move. Annual Christmas bonuses often create a sense of entitlement that can easily backfire during more challenging financial times. As well, while a bonus may cause joy for the recipients, it can ruin the holiday season for others.

Christmas season is here in all of its glory. However, in spite of the fact it is a fleeting season, there are many employer and employee risks that lurk just under the surface. Being aware of these risks, understanding your responsibility and good planning will ensure a happy and festive season for all. Merry Christmas!

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 H1

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