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The Case of the Nightmare Before Christmas

A sign company owner must decide between her customers and employees’ holiday wishes.

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“WHAT AM I going to do?” wondered Noel Weihnacht, owner of Cratchit Signs in Bethlehem, PA. All seven of her employees had requested every day between Christmas and New Year’s off, but the last thing Noel wanted to do was close the shop for the entire week.

Rudolph, the lead fabricator, had plans to visit relatives in Pittsburgh. Holly and Ivy, the other members of the fab team, each intended to host family from out of state. “Tiny” Tim, the company’s full-time installer and largest employee at six-foot-four, was celebrating a first holiday with his wife and new baby. Hermey, the designer, would be jetting down to Cabo San Lucas. Donna (or “Donner,” as her Boston accent pronounced it), had agreed to volunteer that week at the local homeless drop-in center. And Cindy Lou, who was no more than two weeks from her birthday — correction: “birthweek” — was looking forward to a running series of gifts, lunches, dinners and drinks with friends.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Created by ROLF L’MAO, Signs of the Times’ mascot. Email him at [email protected].

Noel had thought she was being smart earlier in the year, when, unable to provide raises for the staff, she instead instituted more paid time off. Though she had included a “use it or lose it” clause to prevent the accrual of vacation time for anyone who might leave the company the following year or thereafter, now that clever mix was really frosting her cookies.

“I could ask everyone to get together to figure out which days, even single days, they might be willing to come in for a time,” she thought. She could keep the shop operating, even for more limited hours, as long as three others were present and fully engaged. And she would push the unused PTO into January. Still, she knew such a request would cast her in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge, or worse, the Grinch.

But would that be worse than the alternative — closing Cratchit Signs for the entire week? A quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation led Noel to conclude the loss of revenue, though not devastating, would surely put a dent in the year’s total sales and profits. All projects under construction would also have to be put on hold, with customers who were expecting installations that week having to be contacted and their jobs extended. There would be a knock-on effect impacting every client into the new year. No, they wouldn’t be happy with that either.

Noel sat in her office, puzzling and puzzling, the sweet strains of “Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano filtering through the open door from the radio playing in the shop. All the employees were working like busy little elves, happily chatting away about their upcoming vacations, with visions of Holly’s sugar-plum pie for lunch dancing in their heads.

Noel checked the calendar for the jobs to be completed and installed that week. She heard a knock on the door and looked up to the tall, broad frame of “Tiny” Tim, asking if she wanted to see a picture of his newborn swaddled in a Christmas stocking.

She knew what she had to do.

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The Big Questions

  • What should Noel do? Close the shop or try to convince the employees to delay some time off till January?
  • Who would be worse to disappoint, her team or her customers? And how can she avoid this in the future?
Jerry C.
Seminole, OK

Simple … you shut down for the week and go visit (not call) your customers and explain the situation. Invoice customers who need end-of-the-year tax write-offs. Those customers that are affected get a gift of some type. We automatically shut down this week every year for this very reason. Everyone wants time off that season and productivity slows to a crawl anyway.

Susan C.
Bainbridge Island, WA

Create a rule about time off to limit the number out at the same time and a protocol for prioritizing the request approvals.

Martin G.
Hartford, CT

I believe that they should just shut down for the week as anyone who has to work really does not want to be there and their spirits will be low and quality could suffer. Also, a whole lot of companies are closed that week and would understand. I deal with this every year myself and come into the office alone and most of the time I end up realizing I can be home as well and enjoy my family! Of course I do everything I can in the weeks prior to make sure we are not behind.

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Kathy G.
Naperville, IL

We shut down the week between Christmas and New Year’s. We plan ahead for this by finishing up any projects before and schedule upcoming [ones] for the week after. I do answer the phone and take orders that week but tell customers the timeline. It works out well with a plan in place. Since we are business to business, it’s extremely slow that week anyway — nothing we couldn’t handle and the employees enjoy the holidays.

Mike C.
Murray, KY

She should allow her employees to take the time off. She should keep the company open herself and contact her customers to let them know that their projects will be delayed a bit and why.

Ashley S.
Toledo, OH

Noel should honor the employees’ time off and close down the shop for a week. Customers that are worth it will not only understand, they’ll likely appreciate the dedication to giving people time off. Also, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is always dead. Many people are taking time off, in many industries. If there is a real emergency, then the owner can create an on-call option for customers. But the owner should take care of handling the situation.

Timothy G.
Leominster, MA

Fortunately, I foresaw this issue early on in my career and came up with the idea of offering slightly less vacation time during the year with a mandatory company shutdown from 12/24 – 1/2. So, even if an employee only has two weeks paid vacation, this is a third [week] or just over a third, depending on the year. The employees love it and since we’ve been doing it for the last 20-plus years, all of our customers have gotten used to it. We also make new employees or hires aware and it has helped with attracting more talent.

David F.
Enfield, NH

Happy employees are productive employees! I would give them the time off and not risk having low morale at the beginning of the next year. This should, however, be a learning experience for the owner: Schedule vacation time well in advance so you don’t wind up with the entire crew on vacation at the same time. Set up a lottery or rotation for prime vacation times like between Xmas and New Year’s, Thanksgiving week or school breaks. And, most importantly, don’t schedule jobs/installs when you know key people will be on vacation.

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Armando A.
San Jose, Costa Rica

We have been a Costa Rican company since 1937. For more than 50 years our company decided to close for Christmas, one or two weeks, and every year we face on one hand, employees who are expecting their vacations, and on the other hand, our customers who want their signs dispatched and installed before the holidays. We tried to change the tradition of closing for holidays, but due to pressure from our employees, we couldn’t. Every order has been dispatched before we close for vacation, and our employees return to work very [refreshed]! If [Noel] decided to close, probably she would have some problems with her customers, and she would have to talk with them to see how many can wait until January and who cannot. For this group of customers, Noel has to agree with her employees to complete their jobs before closing — and probably her staff can complete the urgent jobs due the motivation for their vacation!

Steven J.

Georgetown, IN

Close the shop and enjoy the time off yourself, too.”

Tom G.
Coral Gables, FL

We have closed between Christmas and New Year’s every year for the last 42 years and it has never been an issue with clients. We sometimes work some extra hours in the week before but never during that week. Keeping employees engaged, appreciative and happy is way more important to the office long term. The clients have not been an issue.

Celio P.
Portugal

It’s a tough one. Quite interesting to see how sign companies have the same challenges all over the world. We’ve been in Portugal for the past 28 years and it happens every summer and Christmas holidays. Previously, I spent 20 years in South Africa working in the sign industry. Most of the industry closed from middle December to the beginning of January. That was acceptable by the majority of clients as the whole country was geared that way. On one hand the staff need family time over the festive season; on the other, we desperately need to keep cash flowing. Clients take it for granted and seldom appreciate the effort, in my opinion … I have tried making clear (especially with newcomers) that as we get closer to December, holidays will be adjusted accordingly. Many companies have end-of-the-year sponsorships for tax purposes and we need to grab every opportunity.

Matt C.
Newnan, GA

This answer is easy: Close for the week. Profits will come back. It may be one of your employee’s last time with a family member. You never get time back.

Rolf L'mao is Signs of the Times' mascot. Contact Rolf at [email protected]

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