updated 12/14/2005 6:38:26 PM ET 2005-12-14T23:38:26

With news of plant closings and layoffs appearing almost daily in the news media, this isn’t the happiest of holiday seasons for many companies — even if they’re not suffering job cuts or otherwise struggling, their customers or vendors might be. And so company owners need to be sensitive to employees’ feelings during what may be a more uncertain than cheerful holiday.

Human resources consultants say it’s critical for owners to be upfront with employees anytime there are problems in the business, whether it’s during the holidays or any other time of the year.

Fran Galante, executive director of Managed Care Concepts, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based employee assistance program provider, says dealing with an unhappy holiday season falls into the category of change management. Change management means helping your employees cope with the pain or uncertainty of difficult times, and it also means keeping the lines of communication open, meeting with staffers and answering their questions.

Galante noted that this holiday season may be particularly hard for companies affected directly or indirectly by this year’s hurricanes. And the total impact from Katrina, Rita and Wilma on these businesses may not yet be known.

She said she tells her clients to meet with staffers and “have open communication to the point where they (employees) are comfortable.” However, Galante said, that doesn’t mean you need to reveal every last bit of information about your company’s situation.

She also advises talking to employees in an orderly fashion — don’t tell a few staffers, and not tell others. The grapevine will kick in, and “your message will not only get lost but be convoluted,” Galante said. And you’ll probably end up creating rather than alleviating anxiety.

A question each business owner must also deal with is whether to celebrate the holidays — or hold a summertime picnic or similar celebration at other points in the year — when times are bad. If you spend money on a party, even a modest one, some employees might resent what they see as a frivolous expense. If you don’t have a celebration, others may feel that they’re being penalized.

Arlene Vernon, president of HRx Inc., an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based human resources consultancy, says it’s a good idea to celebrate the company’s successes — which means, after all, the employees’ successes — and so a holiday observance can be entirely appropriate.

Even in a company where there have been layoffs, owners “have to still honor the people that are there,” Vernon said. “Those people still want to feel like they have a home, like they’re appreciated.”

To allay concerns about the expense, she suggests telling employees, “we don’t know what’s coming next, but we do have something that we can celebrate.”

Still, it’s probably a good idea to downscale the partying. Having a potluck party, with staffers bringing homemade dishes, can help strengthen bonds among your employees as they enjoy the fruits of each other’s culinary skills. But if you’re already financially committed to a more expensive affair, for example, at a restaurant, explain that to your employees.

Whatever you do, Vernon said, “make it as fun as possible so you’re focusing on what the new year has to bring.”

Galante, however, advised against holiday celebrations.

“I wouldn’t have a company party,” she said. “You have to be in keeping with your message if times are lean.”

The problem, Galante said, is that employees might be angry about the fact that the money you spent on a party could have gone into their paychecks instead.

“People will be saying, rather than throwing a shindig, I would rather have the $40 or $50 you spent on me,” Galante said.

Still, she noted, some employees will be upset that there is no party.

“Talk to your folks so they understand and they don’t see it as you being cheap, so they see it as you doing what’s in the best interest of the company — so they all can keep their jobs,” she said.

Vernon suggested talking to the staffers and see whether they’d like to have a celebration, and what kind.

“They can poll the employees,” she said of business owners. “Involve the employees in every step — without making it feel like it’s a burden on them.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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