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Tips on how your small business can still spread holiday cheer despite tough economic times and a swine flu pandemic

By Reed Richardson

For many small businesses, the only thing to cheer about in the arrival of the 2009 holiday season may be the fact that it represents the end to a very difficult year. In keeping with that not-so-festive spirit, many entrepreneurs might think that an office holiday party or sending seasonal gifts to customers just doesn't make sense this year, both economically and emotionally. Nevertheless, there are some compelling long-term arguments for why not playing the Grinch this year is better for your employees and your small business in the long run. Best of all, there are ways to do this that won't bust your budget or get everyone in your office sick.

Thank customers first, but don't forget your employees

According to a recent holiday survey by American Express, nearly half-47%-of all small businesses still plan on rewarding their customers with some kind of gift this holiday season, a small drop from the 52% who did so in 2008. The total gift budget planned for clients is only slightly less than the year before as well-$455 in 2009 versus $457 in 2008.

 


When it comes to rewarding employees, however, the same study found that fewer small business owners plan on giving gifts (35% vs. 46%), bonuses (31% vs. 44%), or raises (16% vs. 30%) this year than last year. But granting employees time off (47%) remains quite popular among entrepreneurs, who choose it at a rate unchanged from a year ago.

 


"Entrepreneurs understand the importance of showing appreciation for customers' business especially during tough economic times," noted American Express OPEN business advisor Alice Bredin in the survey. And while the gift-giving emphasis is on customers this holiday season, she notes that employers also "recognize the gift of time as a way to give to employees without breaking the bank."

 


Giving your company a gift-better employee morale

Last fall's unexpected economic crisis found many businesses both large and small slashing expenses as the end of the year approached. And as a result, many company holiday parties were understandably scaled back or abruptly cancelled. But one year later, it might not pay to take the same approach to seasonal festivities, for a couple of reasons.

 


First, the financial panic and market freefall that gripped the economy last fall has dissipated. Tough times undoubtedly remain, but a small business that, say, foregoes its traditional Christmas party for a second year in a row without much in the way of explanation, might inadvertently rekindle that sense of anxiety among its employees. Coupled with other, more substantial belt-tightening measures, like salary cuts or staff layoffs, the symbolic act of canceling the holiday party might magnify the perceived difficulties plaguing a company and further erode company morale.

 


"Low morale levels are an unfortunate side effect of this recession," notes CareerBuilder vice president of corporate marketing Jason Ferrara. A November 2009 survey commissioned by his company confirms this, as nearly one quarter (23%) of the 2,900 employers contacted rated their employees morale as low. And as employee morale suffers, fear and/or apathy can soon set in, eroding productivity in the workplace. In fact, that same CareerBuilder survey found that 40% of workers reported having difficulty staying motivated at work during the past year and another one quarter (24%) said they no longer felt any loyalty to their current employer.

 


As a result of these alarming numbers, Ferrara explains that many employers are now taking steps to address this negative workplace climate and rebuild their relationships with their employees. One small way to do that might be to re-institute a holiday party, even if it's a scaled-back version. Even a relatively small symbolic gesture like that can have a surprisingly large and positive impact among your small business's employees.

 


Holiday parties more popular, less costly than gifts

Those entrepreneurs who have decided to hold a holiday party, despite the difficult circumstances, aren't alone. According to a nationwide survey of small businesses conducted by the seafood restaurant chain McCormick & Schmick's, a slight majority-52%- planned some kind of office holiday celebration in 2009, although the survey also confirmed that the scope of these parties is admittedly smaller than in years past.

 


In fact, the survey found that only one in four small businesses holding a holiday party this year expected to spend more than $50 an employee. Overall, the average holiday party budget per employee was a quite modest $36-a relative bargain when compared to the cost of end-of-year bonuses or Christmas gifts in years past. "We know from what we are hearing from our guests and this research that businesses are looking for smaller, more economical ways to celebrate the holidays-department luncheons, small client get-togethers and employee recognition events," explained McCormick & Schmick's CEO Bill Freeman.

 


For small companies seeking to avoid an expensive holiday party in a catering hall, there are several ways to celebrate more frugally. One way to still enjoy the size and cachet of a fancy holiday party in a large banquet hall or convention space is to seek out a "Bring Your Own Business" holiday party. These BYOB parties, which are increasingly common, let smaller companies pool their resources together and cut costs, while letting their employees still enjoy the same kind of perks-upscale setting, grand buffets, live music, or DJ-found at more expensive holiday parties. If your small business really has a shoestring budget, some combination of a potluck dinner in the conference room, dessert and coffee while mingling around the office, or dancing in the warehouse to music off of someone's iPod might be a fun, yet low-cost way to socialize and let off some steam after a difficult year.

 


How to Have a Healthy Holiday Party

Some small businesses might be discouraged from throwing a holiday party out of fear of exposing their employees to the ongoing H1N1 flu pandemic. Getting large numbers of people together, particularly in an environment where they may be eating and drinking, still poses a health risk right now, even though, according to the CDC, the H1N1 flu's spread has slowed in recent weeks. But there are some simple steps your company can take to significantly mitigate the chance that your holiday party will spread the flu among your employees.

 


The first tip is simple-don't let sick people attend. This rule not only applies to employees but spouses, guests, and children as well. In fact, to simplify things, this year it might be worth making the company holiday party an "employees only" affair to minimize the chances of spreading the flu among your workforce.

 


When it comes to serving food and drinks, it's also a good idea to compartmentalize servings to prevent cross-contamination. This means going for bite-size hors d'oeuvres and serving individual portions of food rather than sharing big bowls of snacks or letting everyone serve themselves out of a large buffet platter. Likewise, you should avoid the big and often messy holiday punch bowl of eggnog and instead encourage attendees to drink out of the same individual glasses throughout the party, maybe by giving them an easy way to identify their glasses, like festive wine stem rings. In addition, it wouldn't hurt to add hand-sanitizing wipes to each place setting and a touch-free sanitizing station next to each entrance and exit. And though it may be popular, hanging mistletoe is one holiday tradition that would be definitely worth skipping this year.
Vaccinate Your Small Business: How to minimize the impact of this year's flu outbreak on your bottom line

By Reed Richardson

As the H1N1 flu outbreak looks to spread throughout the upcoming winter, many small businesses could find the disease a serious threat to their profitability and, perhaps, long-term survivability. Consequently, it's a good idea for entrepreneurs to take some immediate steps-and if you have already, consider some additional measures-to mitigate the damage a flu outbreak might have upon your business's employees, productivity, and bottom line.

First, Get Informed

 


Already, federal estimates put the economic costs to the overall U.S. economy at between $50 to $100 billion, but despite the widespread news coverage of the H1N1-or "swine"-flu outbreak last year and the World Health Organization's classification of the flu's rapid spread as a "pandemic" this past summer, many Americans still have questions about the disease. For business owners trying to get a handle on this flu, a good primer on the disease and how it differs from the seasonal variant can be found at the Center for Disease Control's H1N1 information page. To get a more business-focused perspective on the disease, which will better enable you to assess the flu's potential impact on your company and build a reaction plan to counter it, good resources to check out include the National Federation of Independent Business's flu preparation webpage as well as the CDC's H1N1 flu business guidance and online toolkit. There, you will find a list of helpful planning steps as well as a number of widgets and social media tools that can be added to your company website to keep employees informed about the flu.

 


As it stands now, working adults-those over 23 years in age and seniors over 65 especially-have been found to be at a much lower risk of contracting and succumbing to the H1N1 flu virus than children and young adults, unless those adults also suffer from asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or other complicating health issues. Likewise, most small business office environments will be at much lower risk for infection than those who work in professions that tend to involve a lot of daily contact with others, particularly those on the front line of the health care industry. Still, for entrepreneurs that work primarily in office environments, you might consider telecommuting or staggered work hours as ways to both minimize the number of workers congregating together at one time and to provide flexibility to employees who might have to unexpectedly care for children in the event of a sudden school closure.

 


Not every small business is at low risk for flu, however. A recent occupational risk pyramid developed by OSHA ranked employees of retail businesses as having the same "medium-level" chance of H1N1 flu infection as those who work as school nurses, teachers, and transit workers. As a result, small retail business owners would be wise to closely monitor sales floor employees and cashiers for any signs of flu-like symptoms and to strongly consider adopting more aggressive preventative measures like cross-training employees in different job functions, enforcing strict hygiene rules, erecting hands-free, alcohol-based, sanitizing stations in the workplace, and encouraging employees to get the H1N1 flu vaccine as soon as possible.

 


Costs vs. Benefits of Flu Vaccine

 


Nearly 18 months after the H1N1 flu's first appearance, Americans still are of two minds about the disease and its accompanying vaccine. According to several surveys, including this recent a Harvard poll, a significant minority is eager to get inoculated, but more than half of Americans are still not certain they want to get the vaccine. This reluctance has several causes: Many justify it because they just don't perceive the H1N1 flu virus as much of a threat. (This is perhaps not so surprising, as only 20% to 30% of Americans typically get the seasonal flu shot.) Others have expressed frustration about the vaccine's initial availability. (Slower than expected growth in chicken eggs-the vaccine's incubation crucible-meant that only 40 million doses were available through mid-November, but production is now ramping up.) And some shy away over safety concerns, citing the vaccine's relative newness. (The production and manufacturing method for the H1N1 virus is the same as that of the seasonal flu, however, which has a long track record of being safe.) The information on the CDC's website can allay many of these fears and counter any erroneous beliefs about the vaccine, however.

 


But despite these qualms among individuals, many leaders in the business community have chosen to pursue an aggressive inoculation campaign. In fact, in an August survey by the Business Roundtable, that organization's members listed getting enough vaccine for company employees as the top concern when it comes to hedging against the H1N1's economic impact. "The results of our 2009 Flu Season Survey show that U.S. companies are taking the flu very seriously and making great efforts to prepare appropriately," said Michael Dan, Chairman, chair of Business Roundtable's Partnership for Disaster Response.

 


In yet another indication of how seriously the U.S. business community is willing to go to encourage vaccinations against the H1N1 flu, several large health insurers-Blue Cross & Blue Shield, UnitedHealthCare, Aetna, and Cigna among them-have recently volunteered to cover the full cost of H1N1 flu vaccines to all their policyholders. This now lets some small business owners encourage their employees to get the vaccine in good conscience, knowing that they're not asking their workers to take on extra financial costs. And even for small business owners that get their company's health coverage elsewhere, this precedent should be encouraging, as other health insurance companies are now expected to follow suit. (To find a nearby H1N1 vaccine dispensary, check out the CDC's online flu shot locator.)

 


A Little Absenteeism Can Prevent A Lot of Absenteeism

 


For all the many helpful steps a small company can take with regards to the H1N1 flu, however, the two main takeaways on minimizing the flu's impact on your business are pretty simple: 1) Sick workers should stay home and 2) Sick employees found at work should be asked to go home. Now, this can be a tough call for some small business owners, since many of them employ so few workers that each one often plays something of an invaluable role in the company. But a willingness to look the other way or to openly encourage obviously sick employees to "tough it out" at work this flu season could be disastrous. Because of instead of losing just a few employees for three to five days, permitting the prolonged presence of one or two sick workers in your office might eventually result in a widespread outbreak, one that affects most of your staff for up to two weeks or more. In fact, a Harvard School of Public Health study from this past summer found that only one third of the more than 1,000 companies surveyed believed they could avoid serious operational problems if they lost half of their employees for such a length of time.

 


Of course, working against this push to aggressively send sick workers home is a worry among some employees that they might not have enough sick time to cover their absence. Consequently, small business owners may have questions about how they can tailor their company's existing paid time-off policies to better fit the unique circumstances caused by the H1N1 flu. A good primer on frequently asked questions about this topic can be found at the NFIB's online flu FAQ.

 

To prevent financial concerns from trumping worries over the flu's spread, some large companies have temporarily relaxed their paid time-off policies or removed their annual cap on sick days. Small business owners might consider adopting this tactic or letting employees take an "advance" on future sick days to ensure they don't have to choose between their health and their paycheck. And even if your small business has no formal paid time-off policies in the first place, it's still a good idea to clarify to your employees that they won't be penalized for staying home a week or more if infected with the flu. Even Congress looks like it will address this issue, with emergency legislation now being drafted in both the House and Senate that would temporarily guarantee either five or seven paid sick days for all those infected with the flu.

Referenced Links

Center for Disease Control H1N1 Information Page (http://cdc.gov/h1n1flu/qa.htm)

 

Center for Disease Control H1N1 Flu Business Guidance (http://cdc.gov/h1n1flu/business/guidance)

 

Center for Disease Control H1N1 Online Toolkit (http://cdc.gov/h1n1flu/business/toolkit/actionsteps.htm)

 

Center for Disease Control Online Flu Shot Locator (http://www.flu.gov/individualfamily/vaccination/locator.html)

 

National Federation of Independent Business Flu Preparation Webpage (http://www.nfib.com/small-business-legal-center/compliance-resource-center/compliance-resource-item/cmsid/49902/v/1/)

 

OSHA Occupational Risk Pyramid (http://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3327pandemic.pdf)

 

Harvard Poll (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/2009-releases/survey-40-adults-absolutely-certain-h1n1-vaccine.html)

 

Business Roudtable August Survey ( http://www.businessroundtable.org/sites/default/files/2009.09.29%202009%20Flu%20Season%20Survey%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf)

 

Insurers Covering H1N1 Flu Shots ( http://www.workforce.com/section/00/article/26/76/91.php)

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