The Small Business Owner's Guide To Holiday Season Etiquette

Employees work hard all year, and they expect a reward in December. Here's what you need to do (and what you don't).
Business Writers
December 13, 2011

It's that time of year again.

The holiday season brings with it as much stress as cheer and as much chaos as tranquil time at home with family and friends. Wrapping up the year leaves small business owners with a lot to consider: end-of-year bonuses, holiday parties and more.

Many smaller operations don't have the cash to toss around that deep-pocketed corporations do, but employee satisfaction matters no matter your business's scope. That's why you need to enter the last few weeks of the year prepared. Know what's expected. Know what you need to do (and what you don't).

Employees work hard year-round, and this is the season to honor that. It's important, and so is having the right holiday season approach for your office. Here are a few tips to guide you.

End-of-year bonuses

There are two important things to remember when it comes to doling out those checks.

First, whatever amount you set to give will be the benchmark by which employees measure all future bonuses. Consider that when you're deciding whether to award them, and be forward-thinking (if you decide to give that extra cash) when you set an amount. You don't want to set yourself up to disappoint in the future if you give too much this time around. And if you have a tradition of giving bonuses, you should also keep that in mind. Employees will most definitely remember how much money you tossed their way last year.

Second, remember there are alternatives. Obviously, a year-end bonus is a nice way to show gratitude, but there are other (less expensive) ways, too. If your fiscal forecast doesn't look so hot, don't force bonuses into it. That said, if you decide against giving them out, showing your appreciation another way becomes even more important.


Everyone loves an extra buck or two, but if you can only set aside a little bit for each person's bonus, you might want to rethink it. It could be insulting to receive a check for an amount much smaller than expected.

Gifts can be a significantly less spendy stand-in. Make sure you know your workers well enough to give something that they'd actually appreciate, and give accordingly. Selecting the same universally enjoyable item for everyone—like a decent-quality bottle of wine, for instance—is a pretty safe bet.

Holiday parties

Because people generally look forward to work-sponsored holiday parties and because you can have one on the cheap, you should build it into your winter plans.

An added bonus for you, as a manager: It gives your workers a chance to connect and build rapport outside the normal setting, which will likely help them work more effectively together. Plus, it gives you and your workers a chance to get a sense of each others' personalities, too, which is a win-win for productivity and communication moving forward.

Remember that you don't need to go all-out. Do something that matches your office culture—maybe that's a company-funded happy hour, a case or two of beer in the break room after work or catered hors d'oeuvres with an open bar for employees and their significant others. Don't feel pressure to do too much, but put a solid effort in planning. If you're not sure what to do, ask workers for their input. They'll definitely tell you what will make them happy.

Above all, be inclusive, make sure you're offering a laid-back environment, and cool it on serious shop talk. This should be a function everyone can enjoy, and will look forward to next year.

Giving time off

Chances are, by now, your employees will be itching to get out of the office for longer than a weekend. The holidays provide a much-needed reprieve from the daily grind, and many people choose to travel or spend time with the families to celebrate and decompress.

But as a small business, each person on your team has an important function that can't be covered by just anybody. Plan ahead and talk to each of your workers about what they expect or require in terms of time off during the holiday season. Facilitate trade-offs (Joe takes the day before Christmas Eve, Jill takes the day after New Year's) to make sure your office is covered.

Still, the holidays will leave you partially staffed for at least a week. Be prepared for reduced productivity and be flexible about it; griping about projects and forcing long hours during this time of year is a surefire way to destroy morale. Luckily, the businesses you work with and for will be in the same boat as you. You're probably light on deadlines and meetings then anyway.

Image credit: ThinkStock