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The end of the year is always a bit stressful. We are confronted with the pressure of finishing the business year strong while planning for a new, and even more successful, year. All this while juggling the season’s activities from mailing cards and buying presents to attending holiday events, working out who’s hosting family dinners and organizing the white elephant exchange. Wait, this year we might have to decide if we are doing any of those things. We’re certainly still experiencing increasing uncertainties. What will 2021 bring, where are we going for the holidays, and will my business be impacted by any more shut downs? All this weighs heavily on a leader, and yet much of the stress is often pushed aside while we endeavor to keep a stiff upper lip to appear positive and optimistic for the people we lead.

Much has been written about the importance of employee engagement and boosting morale. Most of the responsibility for engaging employees falls squarely on the shoulders of the direct manager. Managers and supervisors set the tone and the climate of the team – by keeping employees informed about what's going on in the business, setting priorities, and providing on-going feedback and recognition. But what happens when you, as a manager, start burning out?

Let's look at the history of employee engagement for a moment. Since 2000, Gallup has been tracking employee engagement. The metric has been relatively steady, without sharp ups and downs, until this year. The upset and uncertainty around the on-going pandemic and related restrictions, mounting political tensions, and social unrest created a perfect storm of uncertainty and fluctuating employee engagement levels. As of October 2020, the good news is that employee engagement has returned to pre-COVID levels for all groups except managers. Manager engagement has continued to decline. Why is this a critical point?

This is concerning for several reasons. Currently, 41% of employees strongly agree that their manager keeps them informed about what's going on in the organization. That's great, for now. However, managers are reporting higher levels of stress and burnout than the people they manage. High levels of stress lead to reduced engagement, a drop in productivity, and burnout. This stress, in turn, can affect approximately 70% of the variance in team engagement. In short, we're overstressed and on the verge of burnout, so it's only a matter of time before that impacts the entire team.

So, what do we do about it? As leaders, we hold the key to keeping employee engaged and productive, which means we need to make sure we are in good shape ourselves.

Give Yourself a Break

Managers – be sure to take a break! Need more encouragement? We've got it.

 In an interview with Admiral John Richardson, former chief of naval operations, discussing strategies for leaders to avoid burnout and prevent pandemic fatigue, he notes, "the stakes are really high, and when the stakes are high, many leaders naturally tend to feel they have to be there all the time, to make all the decisions. But if you can't conserve your energy, you're in trouble." Sound familiar? Of course, it does. But remember, even military admirals must take breaks!

Admiral Richardson continues, "recovery is essential to mission effectiveness. That must include both taking time off to reenergize and to have the team and structure in place so that this time off can be protected, and the mission will continue."

Throughout the challenges this year, the front-line managers have shouldered the burden of carrying out and communicating the tough decisions businesses have made to stay afloat. We've had to make difficult decisions about layoffs, furloughs, and reduced hours. We've been uncovering new ways to get work done with fewer resources, staff, and funding.

Managers and our teams have moved to work remotely, making it harder to connect, communicate, and get work done collectively. We've had to look for new ways, through new technologies, to hold meetings, work on projects, track productivity, and communicate.

2020 has accelerated business innovations, technological advancement, and virtual communications to a degree we previously thought impossible. It's been possible, though the accelerated pace has landed significantly on leadership, and there may not be a protocol or structure to protect time off at this time. However, it's "mission-critical" to protect downtime for leaders and employees. The science proves it. In fact, before the pandemic, global surveys revealed: "burnout arguably is reaching epic proportions in many industrialized countries."

If your new strategies and structure haven't taken time off into account, go back and build it in.

Take a Personal Inventory

It's a great time to take an inventory of your strengths and make sure you're leveraging them. If you are a hard-charging driver who is always thinking about the next hurdle, lean on your support team to be sure you are setting realistic timelines, planning the logistics and following through on the execution. Nothing will burn you or your team out faster than setting new goals when yesterday’s goals are still in progress.  

The Omnia Assessment is a fast, unintimidating, unbiased, and accurate way to reveal a person's natural behavior. Understanding individuals on a team can help managers alleviate stress for everyone. While some groups have worked cohesively for years, most have not. Between average turnover rates, the population aging into retirement, and the shift to remote communications, it can be challenging to understand everything about your team.

The Omnia Assessment breaks this down into easy-to-read, easy-to-interpret graphs focusing on four behaviors: assertiveness, communication style, pace, and structure. For example, if you know who's fast paced and big-picture focused, you can pair them with someone more cautious and systematic to ensure tasks are completed but also proofed for accuracy. Understanding people's natural abilities can take years; with The Omnia Assessment, it takes less than 10 minutes.

Learn from Others

Let's go to back to stress and burnout. How can we protect managers and, by extension, all employees? Here are a few strategies other companies have employed:

Leaders need to conserve energy and take care of themselves. Review the five strategies above; the first bullet is on us. Set and enforce work boundaries, including taking time off. Then, lead by example. Our mental health and well-being are our responsibilities. Snap out of the martyr mindset. We aren't helping our teams by exhausting ourselves, and we aren't earning badges for the number of hours worked. It's time to reevaluate how we approach work. It's time to replace "busy" with productive and healthy, and 2020 may have given us all the opportunity to make that shift a reality.

It’s the holidays, and it won’t be long before the sense of urgency your employees normally demonstrate takes a marked nosedive.

It’s only natural. Right on cue with the holiday parties, company-sponsored gift exchanges, and daily influx of seasonal treats most employees will start to slow down as they look forward to time away from work.

As the manager, how do you handle your employees’ requests for time off? Regardless of the holidays, you’re still responsible for seeing that work gets done, and some departments—such as Finance and HR—will experience workload increases as they scramble to meet year-end deadlines even while preparing for the year to come.

But employees have been known to get grumpy if not downright hostile when they can’t use “their” time. How should you decide who gets to leave and who must stay?

Here are a few suggestions.

Develop a System and Stick with It

Many companies have rules about how much notice employees need to give when requesting time off, but others leave these decisions to the manager's discretion. If that’s the case at your company, you’ll do well to develop your own system (whether based on seniority; first come, first served; or some other parameter), communicate it to your staff, and stick with it.

Be a Facilitator

A well-functioning team is likely capable of organizing itself around the issue of holiday employee coverage, so let your employees give it a shot. Be available to help facilitate any sticky areas, of course, but if Sue is okay covering the office so that Marty can fly home to be with family (even though Marty didn’t give the customary notice because his plans only came together at the last minute) let her. 

Be Flexible

The line between work and home has all but disappeared over the last few years, especially as smartphones have gotten more popular, and checking email has become a national obsession. If work from home would allow your employees to meet personal and work obligations, consider allowing it—ditto for a temporary part-time schedule or flexible hours. 

Plan for a Slow Down

If at all possible, avoid assigning big projects or deadline-driven work as the holidays approach. You’ll be less frustrated (and so will your employees) if you avoid the possibility of certain conflicts even occurring.

Offer Special Incentives

If you can afford it, and it makes sense for your business, offer special incentives to entice employees to work when they otherwise wouldn’t. Special incentives could include spot bonuses, differential pay, or increased paid leave to be used at a later date.

Be Nice

Much has been written about the “nice” boss who can’t get the job done because he cares too much about being liked, but let’s face it—no one wants to work with a jerk! What’s more, employees will go out of their way to accommodate a boss they like and respect. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to fret the schedule.

And, finally, when all else fails …

Let It Go

If your department can survive on less than a skeleton crew, do yourself a favor and decide that stressing about who won’t be around as the year comes to a close is a worthless waste of energy. The holidays are a once-a-year event, and no matter how much everyone does, there will always be more work! So, for these few weeks, give in to the reduced pace as you wish your staff, “Happy Holidays!” Come January; it’ll be back to business as usual.
It’s understandable if employee leave requests are beginning to turn you into a bit of a Scrooge, but there’s no reason to lose your holiday spirit! Instead, follow our tips for managing employee absences, and then go ahead and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season.

What are your tips for managing employee absences during the holidays?

When Accounting Principles surveyed more than 500 US HR and hiring managers, two-thirds said their company plans to give holiday bonuses this year, with the average amount expected to be $858.

Eighty-one percent of those same HR and hiring managers indicated employees could increase their chances of getting a holiday bonus by:

The Holiday Bonus: A Mixed-Signal?

Everyone knows the holidays are a time of gift-giving. Merriam Webster defines “gift” as “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.”

When you give your employees a “holiday bonus” (and especially if all bonuses are the same or essentially the same, i.e.,  a week’s pay for everyone), your employees wouldn’t be wrong to assume the bonus is a gift and completely unrelated to merit.

In "What Should I Give for a Holiday Bonus?" retired CEO Richard Hayman suggests small business owners consider forgoing the holiday bonus entirely. “If it's a holiday event, then it's expected. Once you're on that treadmill, you can't get off. Business has good years and bad years. What if there is no money to go around or they don't deserve it, or we missed our goals?”

So should you give that employee a (holiday) bonus?

Sure, so long as your intent is to give a gift that requires nothing from the receiver. Otherwise, you may be sending mixed signals while setting a precedent that’ll hamstring your business in the future.

What about Merit-Based Performance Bonuses?

Performance bonuses are an important part of your total compensation package, and, if conceived and executed properly, they are good for motivating and retaining employees.

Unfortunately, however, many programs don’t bring about the intended result. According to a recent survey by Tower’s Watson, 3 in 10 companies plan to give bonuses to employees who didn't meet goal. To quote Bloomberg Business, “companies that differentiate give their lowest performers about 65 percent of the target payout, on average.”

Most of these employees (56%) met expectations but didn’t “exceed” or “far exceed” them. That’s not too bad, but 3% flat out failed to meet expectations, and another 8% only partly met them.

And here’s the thing—a performance incentive only works when given to reward performance the employer actually wants to encourage.

So again, should you give that employee a (merit-based) bonus?

Well, that depends. Is your goal to reward good employee performance, and have they given good performance? Then absolutely! If not, then maybe the answer is no. At the very least, you’ll want to think twice about the behavior you’re actually encouraging versus the behavior you intended to encourage.

Final Words

Pay for performance has become a compensation buzz word, and bonuses are a big part of many incentive plans.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and bonuses can be particularly effective in spurring certain desired outcomes, such as sales outcomes.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional cash gift that’s unrelated to merit, especially for those employees who’ve endured stagnant wages and reduced benefits during the past six years.

Ultimately, however, whether you decide to offer a bonus and what kind is completely dependent on your resources and your goals. Whatever your choice, though, be clear in your intention for the best result.

Who doesn’t like a party? Parties are fun! There’s music, food, laughter, and great conversation. No wonder most everyone enjoys a good party.

Your office holiday party, which typically occurs during work hours, is double the fun. Instead of being paid to work, employees are being paid to not work. How cool is that? Still, there are a few things your employees would appreciate more than a holiday party. Read on for the top 5.

A Real Vacation

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 76 percent of professionals in private industry receive some paid vacation. And yet, stories about overworked Americans abound.

The Great Recession is to blame for some of this. Consider that many employees are still doing jobs previously performed by two people or more.

Technology is another culprit. Smartphones ensure that we’re plugged in virtually 24/7. We regularly send, receive, and respond to email messages off the clock. We manage to stay in touch but at the cost of precious downtime.

The bottom line? Your employees would like real time away from work without having to think about who needs what at the office or whether you’ll be displeased at the inconvenience of their absence. So, if you’re one of those managers with a reputation for piling it on and then looking sideways at your employees when they announce plans to be elsewhere, consider the costs, please. This tactic may work in the short term, but in the long term it’ll lead to burnout, workplace stress, resentment, reduced productivity, and lower quality. 

A Holiday Bonus

A recent poll of more than 500 US HR and hiring managers revealed that two thirds of companies plan to give holiday bonuses this year, with the average amount expected to be $858.

As a sign of employer gratitude, nothing says “thanks” quite like cash, and employees always take notice when a company puts its money where its mouth is.

Decent Management

Good managers are so hard to come by, and they’re so very needed. If you’ve been hanging onto leaders who micromanage, create bottlenecks, or even abuse their staff, you’re doing your company a great disservice. Either coach these managers to greater performance or let them go. An annual holiday party can’t make up for the indignity of daily bad management. 


Trust is an essential quality for any healthy relationship and that includes work relationships. Your employees will do their best work when they believe they have your confidence. Every employee needs room to take some risks and make some mistakes, so don’t hesitate to give your staff space to do things their way. It’s like they say: The best managers hire good people and then get out of their way.


Talented employees don’t need their hands held, but most welcome a little attention every now and again.

In general, employees like to know they’re doing what you want to the standard you want and that their work is making a positive impact on the company. That’s why managers who provide regular performance feedback and are otherwise available to give guidance and support without micromanaging are considered golden by their staff.

In Summary …

Holiday parties are a positive expression of a company’s appreciation of staff, and most employees enjoy these celebrations very much.

That said, nothing makes an employee smile quite like cash, and more important, a party (no matter how fabulous) can’t compensate for a bad manager, a lack of trust, or a lack of regular and constructive feedback.

Your employees have been working hard all year, and while they are compensated for their efforts, the end of the year is a good time to show your appreciation. However, you can’t give just any type of bonus or reward, or it won’t be appreciated or even remembered.

A recent survey of UK workers, conducted by Edenred, discovered several interesting points about rewards and bonuses:

34% of employees lost, discarded, or had not received their Christmas/end of the year reward/bonus

37% received a personal thanks when they received the reward/bonus

9% of employees couldn’t remember what they received the previous year

56% of employees between the ages of 18 years old and 25 years old said they expected to receive something

34% of employees who were 55 years old and older expected to receive something

According to Edenred, the survey has 3 key points:

  1. Depending on the age group, there is an expectation of receiving something.
  2. Personal recognition is important. Saying “thank you” in person should be a vital part of any recognition/reward program.
  3. Companies are not giving rewards or bonuses that create a positive and memorable experience. This is evident in the 1/3 of the surveyed employees who have misplaced, thrown away, or never bothered to pick up their rewards or bonuses.

Edenred also points to 3 mistakes that companies make:

1) Doing the same thing every year.

While it may be easy for companies to give the same bottle of wine/chocolates/pampering items, employees don’t appear to be that enthusiastic about receiving these presents. Unless you’re giving money, consider doing something different each year.

2) Failing to explain rewards/bonuses.

When companies don’t explain that the reward or bonus is a thank you for a job well done, employees aren’t sure why they’re receiving it, undermining your investment. Employees don’t know if it’s a gift or something to which they are entitled.

3) Failing to plan rewards/bonuses properly.

This isn’t something that the company throws together in late November/early December. Rather, it should be well-thought-out, based on the company’s culture, and it should be something that the employees would want to receive.

Joshua Reeves, in an article in the Business Insider, offers additional advice on year-end bonuses. For one thing, he says that employees should be rewarded when something happens – not six months later, and he advocates year-round recognition programs. Reeves also recommends tying the bonus to the company’s goals and objectives.

If It’s Not in the Budget

Your company may not be able to provide any financial reward or bonus at the end of the year, but you can show your appreciation in other ways. Jessica Stillman, in an article for Inc., recommends several creative ways:

Allowing people to be themselves. Consider letting your employees express their personalities by having a “pajama day,” a “dress like the 70's day,” or even a casual dress day.

Giving the gift of impact. Stillman also recommends letting employees know how important their work is. She cites the example of a software company that was training new call center employees. The company brought in an employee from the sales department who explained that his salary was based on how many new hires were made during their training period. After this meeting, there was a 20% increase in revenue because they saw firsthand how their work affected some of their co-workers.

Allowing workers to take a nap. Rest assured that such companies as Proctor & Gamble, Google, and The Huffington Post realize the value of letting their employees snooze during the day.

Creating a flex work plan. Consider letting employees occasionally work from home. They’ll appreciate not having to deal with the emotional and financial hassles of coming to the office every day. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, your workers will also be happier and more productive.

Christmas and end-of-the-year bonuses should be well-thought-out and relate to the company’s goals. They should also include a personal thanks, and be something that employees will actually enjoy. When done correctly, Christmas and end-of-the-year bonuses can help to increase employee engagement and also increase productivity.

Employee requests for religious accommodation at work are not always handled appropriately; take, for instance, Ashanti McShan's case.

Ashanti McShan, a 17-year old high-school student, was excited about her first day of work at Burger King. She had just been hired as a cashier at the fast-food restaurant.

The hiring manager had assured her that her long, black skirt would be acceptable dress, as it was in conformance with her religious beliefs as a Pentecostal Christian.

When McShan showed up for orientation, her excitement soon turned to disappointment after the store manager told her that her skirt wasn't suitable for the job. Instead, she would be required to wear the standard uniform pants.

McShan tried to explain to the store manager that she had been told otherwise when she’d interviewed for the position. However, the response from the manager standing in front of her today was completely offensive. Instead of starting her new job, she was instructed to leave the store.

According to the EEOC complaint, when McShan tried to contact senior management, her calls went unreturned. Eventually, her employment was terminated.

McShan sued Burger King, claiming illegal discrimination on the basis of religion. (Burger King later settled for $25,000 and "other relief.")

Where did the fast-food chain go wrong?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (commonly referred to as “Title VII”) prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants or employees on the basis of religion and requires that employers provide accommodation for employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship.

And while the law doesn’t require that employers grant the exact accommodation requested (the accommodation needs to be “reasonable”), employers can’t summarily dismiss requests out of hand, either. Doing so is the quickest way for an employer to get into hot water, and it’s crummy employee relations, too.

Here are some tips for responding to requests the right way:

Be respectful

Listen. Don’t assume you know the answer to your employee’s question before she’s finished asking it. And please, regardless of your personal religious beliefs, be sure to maintain a professional and neutral position to the request. Reacting with disdain or disbelief is a sure way to elicit a negative reaction from your employee and get the conversation going in the wrong direction.

If you can, do

Even if you’re not 100% certain the request meets the criteria for an accommodation under the law if you can honor it without hurting your business, what’s the harm in doing so? Your employee will appreciate it, and that kind of appreciation can lead to the kind of loyalty that can't be bought. You can always (and should actually) inform the employee in writing that you’re granting the request for reasons other than legal.

(By the way, if you aren’t sure of your legal obligations, don’t hesitate to consult with your attorney.)

Understand the difference between “mere inconvenience” and “undue hardship.”

As mentioned earlier, an employer is under no obligation to accommodate an employee’s exact request if doing so would be an undue hardship.

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that hardship is not a mere inconvenience. It might be a pain to adjust the schedules of three of your workers so that one can attend religious services during a regular workday, but a little pain and a true hardship aren’t the same.

Train your managers and check-in at least annually to make sure the training has stuck

The manager who interviewed McShan got it right. So why did the second manager get it all wrong? Train your managers to ensure they get it right all the time.

(It’s also a good idea to create checks and balances in your employment processes, too. It’s always a bad idea to allow a manager's sole authority to hire and fire. Always.)

Above all, follow the law.

When approached with a request for religious accommodation, the law requires that the employer engages in a mandatory “interactive process.”

In other words, the employer needs to have a conversation with the employee before determining whether the request can be met. During this process, it’s expected that the employer will keep an open mind, which means listening without assumption, asking good and pointed questions as appropriate, and following up on requests.

Lorene Schaefer, an employment attorney and managing partner of Win-Win HR, a law firm focused exclusively on alternative dispute resolution in the workplace, suggests that employers document whenever they talk to employees about religious accommodation requests and that they document the thought process for granting or (especially) refusing the request.

According to the Department of Labor, charges of religious discrimination make up 4% of all the charges filed annually.

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