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November 5, 2009

Looking Ahead to the Holidays

Filed under: General HR Buzz — Tags: , , , 8:18 am

Written by Paula Santonocito
This article originally appeared in the Thomson Reuters publication HRWire and is reprinted/posted here with permission.

The holiday season is a time of merriment for some people, but for HR it means fielding conflicts related to vacation time, holiday parties, and more.

Who’s off first
Vacation scheduling can be problematic during any holiday season. Nevertheless, this year, as companies attempt to conduct business with fewer workers while revving up for economic recovery, attention to staffing requirements becomes even more critical.

“The solution is in the planning, and even so, in documenting the policy regarding time off,” says Mike Dougal, director of HR consulting for HRN Management Group, a full-service human resource consulting firm.

He tells HRWire that although it seems perhaps overkill to have a policy that dictates who qualifies for time off and when, and spells out how that time gets requested and allocated, it is essential.

“About the time you don’t document, that’s when confusion happens,” Dougal says.

An HR department that doesn’t document also runs the risk of allegations, even if they are only of a he-said she-said nature.

A vacation or time-off policy should state the manner in which requests will be honored, in whatever order the employer determines, Dougal says. It should also indicate that all requests are subject to approval.

Employers have to ensure that there is coverage, and that customers will be taken care of, Dougal says. Vacation planning should consider ongoing needs, as well as business cycles.

To be sure, these matters are of year-round concern, but during the holidays people sometimes feel entitled to take time off. With this in mind, pre-holiday season communication that reminds employees about policies can be helpful. Sharing information about the business and how individual contributions figure in may be appropriate. For example, certain industries, like retail and hospitality, require additional staffing during the holiday season.

As if vacation requests weren’t problematic enough for HR, there is also the matter of other paid time off, and religious holidays and days of remembrance fall into this category.

Companies generally give employees eight to 10 paid holidays per year, Dougal tells HRWire. These holidays are dictated in part by national customs and observations that pertain to the majority of the workforce. Paid holidays are a reflection of business demands as well.

Even so, company holidays may not meet the needs of all employees, especially as the workforce becomes increasingly diverse.

So, how should HR handle this issue?

Dougal recommends taking the position that the company wants to be sensitive to employees’ religious holidays and days of remembrance. However, the company’s paid holidays are the official holidays. If an employee wishes to use personal time for a religious holiday or day of remembrance, it’s the employee’s responsibility to request time off and give as much notice as possible.

There is an obligation on the part of the employer to be sensitive and exercise flexibility, but there is also an obligation on the part of the employee to plan ahead, Dougal tells HRWire.

Party planning
And then there is the company party or parties.

“For some reason, it seems the holiday orchestration falls in the lap of human resources,” Dougal says. “The human resources manager has to be very flexible and pitch in and be willing to help out in a lot of areas that might press against their expertise.”

He views it as all part of being the people department.

If HR is responsible for the holiday party, Dougal recommends planning ahead. Find a venue early, and communicate with employees early.

However, he suggests an alternative to HR as social director. “Holiday committees of employees that represent a cross-section of the organization can take the burden off human resources,” Dougal says.

HR can still be involved, but a group of employee party planners can represent the likes and dislikes of the workforce. And there’s another reason to take this approach. “When it goes great, the group can bask in the glory; and if it doesn’t go great, it doesn’t all fall to HR,” Dougal says.

Season of stress
In addition to the tasks and people issues associated with vacation scheduling and party making, HR may confront another matter requiring attention: worker stress.

Leading up to the holidays, employees are concerned about buying gifts, planning for visiting relatives, and planning for travel. “Stress has a tendency to spill over into the workplace,” Dougal says.

Depending on the industry, there can be opportunities for increased stress because of the business cycle. Increased business activity resulting in greater work demands has the potential to compound personal stress.

“Employers have to be sensitive to this,” Dougal says.

People have also been dealing with more than their usual share of stress as a result of the economy. The holidays, a time of gift giving, adds to the financial pressure.

What can HR do?
Try to alleviate some of that pressure. For example, if asked about an office grab bag, nix the idea. Besides the expense, it creates needless challenges for employees to find gifts. As Dougal points out, “Then it becomes an exchange of Wal-Mart gift cards.”

Similarly, before plans for holiday parties are made, consider the workforce. For example, if the majority of employees have young children, keep in mind that an after-hours event requires childcare arrangements, where a workplace luncheon does not.

From a purely administrative standpoint, the holiday season is an ideal time for HR to remind workers about the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) or any other benefits offerings that can help employees manage stress and finances.

Finally, HR should take its own advice and realize that stress comes with the holiday season, and seek support if necessary.

However, if HR professionals can alleviate scheduling conflicts, effectively plan the holiday party, and remain sensitive to the workforce, they will have less pressure at work. And this, in itself, will make for a happier holiday season.

© 2009 Thomson/West

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