One of the saddest, most pathetic scenes in holiday movies can be found in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Chevy Chase plays Clark W. Griswold, a hard working employee who, for most of the movie, is anxiously awaiting his holiday bonus. He spills the beans to all the relatives that he had already committed the funds to a new backyard pool. The movie takes a dramatic turn when instead of receiving the expected check, his company gives him a year's subscription to the "Jelly of the Month Club." This Griswold family crisis led to the revenge kidnapping of Clark's boss and a predictable moral lesson.
Much has been written about holiday pressures on families, but business is not immune from holiday stress. Gifts, travel and parties all put financial and personal pressures on us. Kids are out of school for over two weeks, leaving working parents in a bind, and employees bring the personal and financial pressures with them to the workplace. They may look to their source of income to alleviate these pressures. But what about the pressures on the business itself?
Now, no one will defend "Scrooge," "The Devil wears Prada," SpongeBob's "Mr. Crabs" or The Simpson's "Mr. Burns." They make mean and whimsical employment decisions. Most businesses, however, have good relationships with employees and as profits ebb and flow, there will be good and not-so-good years. Most smaller business owners personally bear the burdens of these changes, making payroll and covering expenses first. The workplace may be the first to go to escape with a Clark-like hope for recognition.
The American Psychological Association did a poll a few years ago that provided some insight into what causes us the most stress during the holidays. Big surprise that money was top of the list (61%), followed by gift giving, lack of time and credit card debt. Statistics from the American Management Association show that productivity drops significantly before the holiday. With more employees asking for payroll advances and time off, missing more work because of illness or family commitments, unhappiness may be more prevalent than joy during the holiday. Business owners are not immune to this situation as they themselves may be experiencing strain either personally or in the business at a time when clients and customers aren't (or more than usually are) coming to call.
What does this mean for labor relations, Griswold and the boss? This two-way street requires understanding on both sides. If appropriate, employers should consider "lightening up" by planning for the stress employees will surely face from the home-front or frazzled customers. This may occur by making work an "oasis" from holiday frenzy. This might also come by removing expectations of high priced gift exchanges and instead add in some casual days, pot lucks, white elephant gift exchanges or even a company-wide charity project.
Employees also need to have a "pulse" on the company's financial situation and holiday culture. They should realize that "the boss" may not be relieved of responsibilities during the holidays and may not revel in the holiday happenings at the workplace. He or she might even be more stressed as a result of a distracted or vacationing workforce. Planning ahead by making vacation requests early and assisting the management by offering suggestions on the festivities, can help. If money is needed more than time off, then volunteering to pick up an extra shift for an absent co-worker might be welcomed.
So whatever happened with Clark Griswold, the boss and the bonus? Well, the boss (albeit a captive) sees the light about the Christmas bonuses, but this is not in time to avoid the police raid. Communication is the key and if we're lucky we have an opportunity to bring the peace to the office that we deserve and that is truly representative of the season.
Mary Louise VanNatta, CAE has received her Certified Association Executive designation from the American Society of Association Executives.