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manage employees

7 tips for gracefully managing employees during the holidays

This article originally appeared on America's SBDC Blog.

There's no changing the holiday rush, but small business owners can help lower the stress of the season for everyone by managing employees with grace.

That can be easier said than done. The National Retail Foundation predicts a 6-8% increase in total retail sales for the winter holidays this year. At the same time, 9 out of 10 small business owners told QuickBooks that they've been ensnared by supply chain issues this year. Those kinds of stressors can make graceful leadership feel unimportant or impossible by comparison.

But how you curate your work culture and manage your employees makes a huge difference in their job satisfaction — and, ultimately, your employee retention. The three overarching reasons that employees leave are because of subpar benefits, like paid time off; a lack of recognition; and poor company practices, like an unhealthy culture, a 2021 QuickBooks study found.

Small actions can speak volumes. These seven tips are a good place to start to manage your employees through the holidays with grace.

1. Set clear expectations, then respect boundaries

Be clear about what the expectations are for your employees during the holiday season. Routines may differ, schedules may shift, or services may change. If your business's priorities are different, be sure to communicate those changes clearly. 

As you set schedule expectations for your employees, remember that different parts of the holiday season are important to different people. If December 25 is your favorite time to spend with family, you may assume it's the most important day for your employees too. But others may value time off on the first night of Hanukkah, for a family gathering three days after Christmas, or following New Year's Eve celebrations. Ask your employees directly what's most important to them during the holiday season.

After work and schedule expectations are set, be sure to respect your employees' time off. The chemistry between work demands and personal time can always be challenging, but it's even more important during the holidays to respect the time off your employees have earned. Encourage them to respect others' boundaries as well.

2. Strive for fairness

Psychology research shows that perceptions of fairness have a big effect on how employees feel about what they get. This can apply to things like work schedules, pay or bonuses, and recognition. 

For example, a retail employee may initially be happy when she sees she's scheduled to work Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Small Business Saturday. But when she sees that no one else is scheduled to work all three of those busy days, she becomes resentful of her unfair schedule. 

The original fairness research was done with capuchin monkeys getting "paid" with treats. Just watch the first monkey's (hilarious) reaction to its unequal pay:

Comparing what we get to our co-workers is part of an innate instinct — so strive to keep workloads and rewards balanced.

3. Let them be sick (and get well)

Employees' health and well-being are indisputably important. But in the holiday rush, it can be easy to pressure workers to show up or sign on when they're not feeling well. Co-workers and customers both appreciate reduced exposure to people who are sick.

Ideally, you're able to include paid time off for illness in your employees' benefits plan. Even if you're not, remember that your employees still need time to rest and recuperate, guilt-free.

Make it less stressful for a sick employee to stay home by being prepared with backup plans, like an on-call schedule or additional help from seasonal employees. When your employee comes back well, they'll be grateful they had the time to recover.

4. Manage with empathy and compassion

With high emotions and stress during an extra-busy time of year, it may take more intentional effort to extend empathy to others. You may not have full insight into the struggles in your employees' lives. Give them a safe space to share, but respect their personal boundaries even if they don't.

If stress has you on edge, work to regulate your emotional state. When you face a stressor, take a pause to decide how you want to react. Take deep breaths, which wake up the parasympathetic nervous system's safety signals, to help you naturally self-regulate. Try a work-focused meditation or one that helps you tackle an overwhelming to-do list

5. Know your team

There are as many ways to celebrate the holidays as there are people on your team. When you make holiday plans for your employees, whether it's a party, a gift exchange, or something else, remember that not everyone wants — or is able — to celebrate the same way.

Know the people on your team, and take their needs into consideration. You may have introverts and extroverts, drinkers and teetotalers, spenders and thrifters, meat eaters and vegans, on-site workers and remote employees. Make plans with each person in mind.

6. Change up the music

There are a finite number of holiday songs and Christmas carols that have been around for decades. While it is important to set a festive tone in your restaurant or brick-and-mortar shop, psychologists and workers' unions warn of the mental toll that too much Christmas music can take on employees. 

Just consider: The most recent song on the top 25 holiday list last year is the 1994 Mariah Carey hit "All I Want For Christmas Is You," according to ASCAP. Many songs on the list have been there for seven or eight decades.

Two missteps: playing holiday music too early in the season and putting the same soundtrack on repeat. Be realistic about how long your employees can handle merry tunes, and give them some control over what's on the speakers.

7. Show your appreciation

Recognizing your employees is linked with higher engagement levels, more discretionary work, and a smaller likelihood of quitting, according to research from Zenger/Folkman.

Consider giving employees a small holiday gift, like something that supports another small business or a donation to a favorite charity. Publicly recognize their efforts and hard work. Express your appreciation for employees with a card or show of thanks. 

It doesn't have to be a grand gesture as long as you show you care. Twenty-eight percent of employees say that even small tokens of appreciation, like gift cards, are an extremely valuable type of recognition, according to a 2022 QuickBooks survey conducted by The Harris Poll.

Managing is about people

With all the energy, chaos, and to-do lists that the holidays bring for small businesses, it's easy to lose sight of what really matters: your people. Your business depends on your employees to achieve its mission. Keep people at the heart of your management style for a happier holiday season.

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