Holiday staffing issues a big stressor

NEW YORK (AP) — In the early days of Kristen David’s law firm, she told staffers they could all take off the day after Thanksgiving. But before the holiday, they learned an upcoming trial would start Monday, right after the long weekend.

“I had given them the weekend off. They had made travel plans and weren’t even going to be in town,” said David, who ended up working solo through the weekend to be sure the firm was ready for the trial.

Holiday staffing can be one of a small business owner’s biggest stressors — even companies that aren’t retailers or restaurants can have a year-end busy season, just when employees all want to take time off. Accounting and other financial advisory firms, for example, must get work done for clients by Dec. 31, and the nature of their work doesn’t allow them to use temporary help. Companies can also have an unexpected crisis or project that can force an owner to change holiday plans, a hard lesson that can affect a company’s vacation policy going forward. And owners can discover they’re vulnerable to staffing issues at other companies.

David learned a lesson about managing staffers’ expectations.

Now, “we let the team know that while we’d love to give everyone the Friday off after Thanksgiving, or Monday after a holiday as an extra bonus, we’ll have to wait until just before the holiday to determine the final schedule,” she says.

The experience also taught David, who now works as a business coach based in Seattle, that everyone couldn’t be out of the office at the same time. The firm changed its vacation policy and encouraged staffers to request just a few days off so everyone could have a chance to be off during the holidays.

While some holiday staffing issues can’t be predicted, owners can lessen the likelihood of problems by setting expectations well in advance, says Kate Zabriskie, president of Business Training Works, a company that offers management training.

“People don’t like being told one thing and then finding out it’s not so,” Zabriskie says.

The clients at Dawson Whitfield’s graphic design company include entrepreneurs who need logos created ASAP, even if the holidays are in full swing.

“Right when everyone in the office wants to ramp down for vacation, our customers are ramping up to finally follow that New Year’s resolution of launching a business,” says Whitfield, owner of Toronto-based Looka.

When Whitfield hires a staffer, he tells them that it will be hard to take time off in December. He does let employees take some days, but of course everyone wants the prime days, a common problem at companies of all sizes. His solution is to remind staffers that designing logos is a key part of the company’s mission and, rather than dictating a solution, he asks them to work out a schedule for time off.

“When they can be part of the solution, and the solution comes to them, it’s more palatable to them,” he says.

Many small businesses that provide specialized or professional services can’t bring in temporary staffers the way retailers, restaurants and delivery services do. Architecture, accounting and law firms, for example, tend to work on an ongoing basis with clients, and freelancers or temporary employees won’t be able to just jump in and take over the work.