NEW YORK (AP) -- Small business owners may feel in a bit of a bind this summer. Just as many companies are recovering from the recession and making do with fewer staffers, it's high season for employee vacations.
Owners may feel anxiety and resentment when workers say they want time off. They may be afraid of losing customers just when the business is picking up some momentum.
The fact is, it's pretty hard to ban all employee vacations. The only companies that can realistically do that make most of their money during the summer months, such as restaurants that cater to beach-goers.
Management consultants say owners should deal with this summer's vacation requests as they would in any year. That means managing staffers' expectations about how much time they can take and when they can take it. It also means planning now for how an employee's work will be done when he or she is away.
Think beyond summer
A business owner who's tempted to say no to staffers' vacation requests needs to think about what impact that response will have on workplace morale. Also, whether it might make employees think about finding other jobs as the labor market improves.
"Don't take a hasty position that solves a problem in the short run but in the long run burns a bridge," said Leslie Yerkes, president of Catalyst Consulting Group in Cleveland.
Yerkes noted that employees will especially remember how the boss treats them during the summer, when even the most dedicated staffer will want time off. They'll also hold on to their anger if they've had to make other sacrifices, such as not getting raises and having heavier workloads due to layoffs.
Explain the situation
If you do have to limit vacations, workers need to hear that now, when they're making their plans. Spring it on them at the last minute and you'll have an unhappy staff.
Throughout the recession, management and human resources consultants have encouraged business owners to be up-front with workers about how the company is doing. Similarly, the staff needs to know why there might be limits on vacations.
Yerkes warned that this isn't the sort of news to be delivered by e-mail or posted on a bulletin board. It needs to be part of a conversation, she said.
"Talk about business volume, the clients' needs, the current state and the anticipated or future state" of business," she said.
If the current business climate means changing the company's policy (for example, how many staffers can be on vacation at the same time), that also needs to be discussed as part of a conversation. But it also needs to be written down, as all employee-related policies should be.
Many management consultants will suggest that owners bring the staff into the decision-making process. In other words, rather than issue a ruling, ask staffers for their ideas about how to balance vacations and the important work that needs to be done.
You may find that they're willing to take on extra work if it means everyone gets some time off. And you'll earn some respect and appreciation rather than bitterness.
Get some help
Many companies are already thinly staffed, and many aren't ready to take on new workers even though business is showing some signs of improving. And many employees are already on overload and can't take on co-workers' responsibilities during a vacation. But it's possible to get some help without hurting your cash flow too much.
Yerkes noted that there are many people looking for internships this summer. Young people who are anxious to learn and build their resumes may be able to help you get through the vacation period.
Owners might also want to consider hiring freelancers or contract workers when specialized skills or talents are needed.
This does, of course, mean an added expense. But it may be worth it if you can maintain a high level of customer service, or if you can keep rebuilding your business.
Lighten things up
Yerkes has some advice beyond being flexible and open about vacations. Try to have some fun this summer.
She has some suggestions to lighten the atmosphere during the next few months:
-- Order in lunch for everyone one day a week.
-- Bring in ice cream on hot days.
-- Hold a company picnic or baseball game.
Yerkes recalled a company that brought in an ice cream truck for a whole day one summer. When employees filled out evaluations of their work experience for the year, that got the highest marks.
"Don't forget to do these little things that in their book have really high value," she said.