Holidays Can Bring Employee Issues to Businesses

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By Joyce M. Rosenberg, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Some of the stress that small business owners feel around the holidays may come from employee issues.

For example, several staffers want to take the same days off. Parents want to leave early so they can catch their kids' holiday recitals. Some employees want to install religious displays in their cubicles, and others feel offended.

A look at these situations, and how to handle them:

The Time Off Issue

Owners often get multiple requests from staffers for the same day off. Some of those requests were made months ago, but there are often procrastinators who plead for time off at the last minute. Owners may feel sympathetic, but they also need to be sure that the work gets done. And the latter needs to be the priority. So if one or more staffers already have dibs on the day and you can't afford to let anyone else be off, others may unfortunately have to be disappointed.

But there's a larger issue to be considered. How do you grant vacation or other paid time off? Do you have a written policy, or deal with time off on an ad hoc basis? And as part of that policy, do you spell out how you handle multiple requests?

Making your policy up as you go along means you're likely to have resentful employees. For instance, if you OK one staffer's vacation on a first-come, first-served basis, but on another occasion decide that a more senior employee should get the day off.

Helene Wasserman, an attorney with the labor law firm Littler Mendelson in Los Angeles, says employees need to be treated equally. And not just to keep morale up. You might not think anything untoward about handling time off in an uneven manner, but Wasserman says a disgruntled employee might see it as unequal treatment and use it as evidence in a discrimination suit in the future. "Innocent actions can frequently become perceived as something sinister," she says.

Along that line, if you allow one staffer to leave early for school events or even to do some shopping, you'll need to offer a similar opportunity to leave early to other staffers.

But let's say you have employees who you'd like to reward for their hard work by letting them have an early departure time. And you don't offer it to workers whose performance you're not happy with. Wasserman advises against such a practice, and notes again that unequal treatment, even if you have the best of intentions, could be interpreted as discrimination.

She also recommends, "Don't be a Grinch." Be a little more flexible about work time during the holidays as long as it doesn't hurt your productivity. Just be sure to keep track of everyone's hours to be sure everyone is treated equally.

Holiday Décor

If you decorate your company's premises for the holidays, keep it secular, Wasserman advises. That means you shouldn't display a Nativity scene. The reason is concern for employees' feelings -- not everyone is comfortable with a religious display. And, they could also feel discriminated against.

But Christmas trees and wreaths, holiday lights and figures of Santa Claus and reindeer are considered secular and acceptable in the workplace, according to a directive from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2008.

What if employees want to display a Nativity scene or other religious items on their desks, cubicles or work area? Wasserman recommends that owners allow their workers to use such décor. She likens the items to religious jewelry and says, "you don't want to squelch personal expression of religion." The fact that these items are being displayed in a worker's personal work space takes them out of the areas used by other employees. Therefore, religious displays aren't being sponsored by the company.

Wasserman also recommends that if you're having a party or other celebration to mark the season, be sure you call it a "holiday" party and not a "Christmas" party.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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