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As Edmontonians deck the halls with boughs of holly this holiday season, staff at Derks Menswear will be frantically decking out customers in suits and ties.

For the family-run formal wear company, the season is an important sales period, from before Christmas until after New Year's.

Men need festive duds to wear to seasonal events, take advantage of Boxing Day sales and get a head start on tuxedo shopping, with many marriage proposals taking place over the holidays, says president Gay Derk.

With Derks' busiest time coinciding with the holiday season, Ms. Derk is under pressure to balance the company's staffing needs with the needs of her 40 staff members.

It's a situation many small businesses face, and holiday-season staffing can be tougher on them than larger businesses because they "don't have the scalability of more staff" when they already have fewer employees to begin with, says Leslie Roberts, president and founder of Calgary-based GoForth Institute, which sells online entrepreneurship training.

With more limited resources, they must handle business hours and vacation requests carefully.

Because of the nature of the formal wear industry, Derks is very cognizant of the need to keep its staff happy to keep them around, Ms. Derk says.

"If you screw up a wedding, you can't make it better again. Our people have to be good at these things, because there isn't another chance."

And so the company offers incentives to keep staff on the job, and motivated, over the busy period.

During the season, all staff split commissions, including those working in the back end.

The company also runs vacation contests for front-end staff, allowing them to accumulate chances to win, based on sales performance, Ms. Derk says.

Because of such incentives, "most of them want to work," she says.

Employees who'd rather have time off can apply for vacation days; they receive it on the basis of seniority and need.

This is sorted out months in advance and charted on a large board. The visibility helps avoid miscommunication, she says.

The holidays also bring a chance for employees to stretch themselves and learn new skills.

Instead of hiring outsiders to augment the additional staff required, Ms. Derk prefers to cross-train back-end staff, who handle tasks like shipping and receiving, to work the floor.

It's not just retail operations that have a busy season. David Brown, president of Mississauga, Ont.-based Mind Shape Creative Brand Marketing Ltd., says that, depending on clients' needs, December can be very busy for the marketing agency; shutting down over the season can be expensive.

"Given the economy, and given that our clients are also operating very lean, to give up 1,000 billable hours can have an effect on a fee-for-service company or an agency," he says.

This season, the company will be open between Christmas and New Year's, and vacation time is being given out according to seniority and employee need.

Mr. Brown says the conversation begins in the fall, when managers talk to employees to find out who has outstanding vacation days that they need to use before year-end, who plans to take vacation days over the holidays, and how their plans relate to staffing needs associated with upcoming projects.

"We're accommodating and flexible, but we cannot compromise with client delivery," he says.

Sometimes, it's easier to just defer holiday time altogether, Ms. Roberts says, offering vacation time in January instead.

However you juggle things, Ms. Roberts reminds small business owners to put their employees first.

"The last thing you want to do as the founder of the organization is enjoy the holidays yourself and not allow the people who work for you the time off," she says.


Open or closed?

Decide whether it makes sense for the business to shut down altogether, be open only on some days, or have some shortened hours during the holiday season to give those who do have to work some break.

Plan ahead

Begin discussions months in advance, working out the seasonal schedule to figure out how many employees you'll need on board, who wants to take vacation and who is willing to work, how to allot vacation time according to seniority and need. Make sure to include employees in the discussions.

Offer incentives

Make it more palatable to work on the holidays by offering incentives.

Delay vacations

If all hands are needed on deck, let staff know ahead of time. Offer flexibility in vacationing after the holiday season.

Hire temporary workers

It's a common tactic for retail operations and often less skilled positions, but any company in need can consider bringing on temporary extra hands.


Give employees an opportunity to expand their skills and take on new challenges by doing work they normally don't that can both stretch them and fill in gaps.

Walk the talk

If you're a boss, don't take holiday time if you can't offer it to staff.

Special to The Globe and Mail