Ask SCORE: Making the holidays manageable for business

COURTESY TO THE THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 25, 2012 

Question: I understand that December is a demanding month for managing a business. In particular, I'm looking at staff scheduling issues. I'm also considering having a small holiday party now that my business can afford it. What do you think?

Answer: Yes, December is a challenge. It may seem like everyone wants time off for travel to relatives, or for religious observations, or various other purposes. Plus, the holiday party you mentioned demands that you go in with your eyes open and fully aware of some potential problems. And to pile on, there are several other December challenges. Let's talk about this.

As to the staffing matter, it depends greatly on the nature of your business. For most retailers, it's gotta be "all hands on deck" to staff the store. Many personal-service businesses are in full marketing mode to sell their services and also gift cards, to fuel future purchases. On the other hand, some professional service firms, for example an architect's office, might well decide to end the work year on December 20.

Just who gets the highly-desired days off could be determined by seniority. Or, you might have a lotto-style drawing or some other way to decide who can be absent. Of course this depends on your workload, the structure of the business and the needs of your customers and clients.

Holiday parties are still very popular. Among larger firms, last year 74 percent (down from 79 percent two years ago) had some kind of a holiday party or function. Some are converting to "employees only" and others are holding the event as an extended lunch. If this interests you, Google "Battalia Winston Survey."

One concern, and a fairly common occurrence at company parties, is overindulgence in alcoholic beverages. Human resource departments and others who follow these matters offer several reasons for this:

- The party's social atmosphere is "charged up," because it's the holiday season, the year end, and also a chance to interact informally with co-workers.

- The beverage servers may not be trained bartenders, and thus may not be good at recognizing people who have been over-served.

- Since drinks are free, there's a "bring-it-on" mentality.

- Some people may not imbibe at other times during the year, and don't know their limits.

You have a duty to your people to prevent them from being over-served. One solution is to contract out to a licensed caterer. Or, a small party might issue each person two drink coupons at entry. Of course having the party at a restaurant may be simpler. In any case, be sure there are plenty of non-alcohol beverage choices.

This problem is widespread. Check this: A large human resources firm, Adecco USA, surveyed a sample of American workers. The questions were on this exact issue. The survey of 1000 respondents found these results:

- "I know someone who has been reprimanded by their employer for their behavior at a holiday party." Yes: almost one-fourth (23 percent) of respondents.

- "I have had too much to drink at a work holiday party." Yes: one in five (20 percent).

- "I know someone who has been fired from a job for their behavior at a holiday party." Yes: one in seven (14 percent).

Some holiday-party stories are pretty funny, like the old joke about the tipsy guy with the lampshade on his head. But now, smartphones are everywhere. If someone who's a little toasted says or does something stupid, it's no surprise to find it on YouTube the next day.

Here some ideas for making your party fun and successful.

- Be sure the invitation is clear about the time - starting and ending - and location.

- Also specify who's invited (typically, employee and spouse or guest) and appropriate apparel.

- Have agreement on whether to "talk shop" or not.

- If you want to do a gift exchange, here's a simple way. Everybody brings a wrapped $10 gift and puts it on the entry table. Each person chooses one to unwrap. Google "gift exchange" for variations.

- Consider making a group donation of food or money to a charity.

- Take some notes about what worked, and what could be better next year.

In December, most product-related businesses are gearing up to take year-end inventory. Nobody wants to do all this on New Year's Day, so some of it becomes a December priority. And, remember you need to prepare to close out your books and reset them on January 1, 2013.


ABOUT ASK SCORE

Submit questions for this column to Business Editor Dave Gallagher at dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. To learn more about other small-business matters, contact the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization, visit SCORE.org.

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald's Sunday Business section by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE.

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