When All They Want for Christmas Is Time Off

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

Since Ebenezer Scrooge, employers have struggled with holiday staffing.

Modern-day managers may wish they could grant every request for time off during Christmas and New Year's. Unfortunately, meeting business needs raises the touchy topic of which employees pull the unpopular shifts.

Solutions run the gamut from closing down operations for the holiday weeks to requiring every employee in a department to work.

"Organizations deal with it different ways," said Michael Cohen, a Philadelphia labor attorney with the WolfBlock law firm. "Depending on the industry, this could be either a borderline dead period or it can be just an insanely busy period."

Society for Human Resource Management. Forty-three percent rotate time to ensure fairness. Many combine the approaches.

The ideal is for employees to agree among themselves, since they're closest to the work flow, Cohen said.

That's how Xerox Corp. does it.

"We empower our employees to decide how they're going to cover the customer requirement, and we ask them to give us a plan every year about who will be working or who will be on standby," said Xerox human resource consultant Richard Hillman.

When businesses can allow flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting they may find that people get their work done despite holiday time off, said Peter Cappelli, a professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania.

Many companies ask for volunteers, offering cash or additional time off when there's a shortage of raised hands.

"Extra money always goes a long way," said Ravi Dharwadkar, a management professor at Syracuse University. "The right kind of incentives can always tap into a market."

Indeed, Best Buy employees have requested more work hours this holiday season than usual, because they want the money, spokeswoman Dawn Bryant said. Most people who accept a retail job understand they'll need to work the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and the weekend before Christmas, Bryant said.

Still, only 7 percent of employers in the human resource management survey ask staff to withdraw time-off requests to fill a staffing shortage.

Seniority often resolves any conflicting scheduling requests, and is used by 21 percent of survey respondents.

"Strict seniority is the old union way," said William Nolan, an employment lawyer at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in Columbus, Ohio. "It's a pretty common way of doing it."

The downside: The same people come out on top every year.

To resolve this, employers may rotate holiday work assignments, with new employees often taking a turn early in their tenure, or draw names from a hat, said Penn's Cappelli.

Added Cohen, the labor lawyer, "Whatever the process is, it needs to be thought out in advance and publicized to the employees." Otherwise, "you end up with chaos and some very unhappy and salty employees."

At the Center for Disability Rights, a nonprofit in Rochester, N.Y., managers started reminding employees in July that this December would require Christmas Eve staffing to process payroll, said Mary Willoughby, director of human resources. When new employees are hired, they're told that holiday work may be required at double pay.

"We identify which departments have to work and if one person has to work, everybody has to work," Willoughby said. "This year, it's finance and human resources and some administrative support staff."

The center's top three directors plan to arrive three hours early on Christmas Eve to get everything ready. They'll provide lunch and use cross-trained human resource employees to process payroll more quickly.

"People are told when it's done, you can leave, so they're highly motivated," Willoughby said.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 8 percent of employers make attendance mandatory for all during the holidays.

Other companies, such as Honda, avoid the problem by shutting down altogether, said employment lawyer Nolan. "It's not cost-effective to run a large manufacturing plant with half the people there," he said.

SC Johnson, based in Racine, Wis., has closed for about two weeks at year-end since 1917, spokeswoman Kelly Semrau said. The maker of Ziploc and Windex holds a ceremony at headquarters to distribute profit-sharing checks and mark the beginning of the break.

"To sit in a space with 3,000 people and have it be like the last day of school, when you're an adult," Semrau said. "And you're getting a profit-sharing check and you're going home with no e-mail and no missed meetings it's the greatest feeling in the universe."

The company does keep people on call for emergencies, she said.

Closing also sidesteps absenteeism, a problem for many around the holidays.

"It hurts companies very badly when people inconsistently call in sick, but what can you do when you're dealing with people, not computers?" said Jo Prabhu, founder of International Services Group, a placement company in Long Beach, Calif. "It's the worst at Christmas time. Usually the manager goes in; they're stuck with it."

Prabhu once had to fly back to California from New York because the person assigned to work the holiday bailed.

"You have to cover because you never know, that one call might be the most important call," she said.

Sick days around Christmas are just as suspicious as a pattern of Monday or Friday illnesses, Nolan said. If managers suspect abuse, they should address the issue in their written policies. For instance, they could require employees to provide a doctor's note for any sick day that falls on or near a holiday.

At the Center for Disability Rights, Willoughby said, "Our policy is, if you are sick the day before or after the holiday, you don't get your sick time or the holiday" without a physician's excuse.

Syracuse's Dharwadkar suggests offering upfront rewards, such as a bonus for perfect attendance, instead of punishment.

Joan Loewy remembers fondly when employees took it for granted that they'd push through the holidays to meet year-end goals.

"There's been a huge shift," said Loewy, a New York-based regional vice president for AchieveGlobal, a training and consulting firm. "These people are going to take the time off. There's not a sense, like there was in the past, of responsibility and accountability for needing to be there."

To adapt, AchieveGlobal has moved year-end planning to August and September, so employees can focus on meeting revenue goals in the fourth quarter. The organization also changed its vacation policy to allow people to carry over days from year to year encouraging less vacation in December.

"This is a stressful, hectic time for all of us," Loewy said. "Any time off during the holidays will be painful for us."

This article was originally published on Thursday, December 13, 2007, by Newhouse News Service.