Holiday vacations often hard to fit in

Atlanta — Small-business owners are starting to deal with an annual headache: Everyone wants the day after Thanksgiving off. And the week after Christmas.

Any owner who’s suffering through the annual holiday vacation crunch — which can mean either too few staffers on hand or a business populated by disgruntled workers — needs to rethink the company’s policy on time off. Or, if there isn’t a policy, create one

The vacation problem is often twofold, a lack of planning on the owner’s part and a lack of communication with employees.

“More often than not, we think of it when we are right up against the holidays,” said Mary Massad, director of corporate recruiting services for Administaff, a Houston-based human resources firm. “Most employees have already started thinking about their plans long ago.”

The best way to keep disappointment and strife to a minimum is to formulate a vacation policy, detailing how much time off each staffer gets, how far in advance they need to request it and how conflicts will be resolved — for example, by seniority, or first come, first served.

Another very important issue: what happens to time off that isn’t used during the year. You’ll also want to include the holidays on which the company will be closed.

There’s much at stake in creating a vacation policy. You need to be sure you have enough staffers to get the work done. A lack of planning can lead to a lot of hard feelings among co-workers and hurt morale in general — no one wants to find out at the last minute that he or she won’t be able to go home for the holidays, and no one (that is, the ones who got the time off) wants to feel the resentment of their angry colleagues.

Annual problem

But planning for vacations or creating a time-off policy tends to be one of those tasks that gets put aside once the crisis has passed.

“They get through the hectic time, they swear they’re never going to do it again and they find themselves back there” the next year, Massad said.

If that sounds like your modus operandi, be forewarned: You’ll likely face a similar crunch well before the 2006 holiday season. For example, July 4 falls on a Tuesday next year, and you can bet right now that most of your staff will want July 3 off as well.

Massad said many business owners don’t deal with the time off issue because they don’t want to have to tell a staffer “no.” But the fact is, if you set expectations well in advance, your employees will be prepared.

You might also find that they’re willing to negotiate among themselves — someone who was off last Christmas week might be willing to forgo the week off this year.

“If you appeal to their sense of teamwork, some employees will think about it and say, ‘You know, I don’t have to do that,’ ” said Leigh Branham, a human resources consultant in Overland Park, Kansas.

If you’re planning to put a vacation policy together, you can find plenty of resources online or in the business section of bookstores or libraries. Online, you can find sample vacation policies at sites including the CCH Business Owner’s Toolkit and itsSimple.biz.

Talking to other business owners can help you decide what policy works for you. Another resource is SCORE, the organization of retired business executives that gives free counseling to small-business owners. You can reach SCORE on the Internet at www.score.org or by calling 1-800-634-0245.

But even if you don’t formulate a written policy, you can avoid the angst of the holiday season by communicating with employees. You can start by posting a vacation sign-up sheet in January — and letting the staff know how many people are allowed to be off on the same days — but you also need to discuss vacations as the year progresses.

Branham suggested reminding employees quarterly that they need to let you know their vacation plans.

Time off necessary

One reason why it’s important to monitor your employees’ vacation is so you can be sure they’re taking their allotted time off. Massad noted that employees need to take a break; having some time off helps them do their work better.

It might be tempting to let an employee just keep working, since less vacation time means fewer disruptions in the company routine. But don’t fall victim to that idea — and while we’re on the topic, be sure you take some time off yourself.