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By Cindy Krischer Goodman

RISMEDIA, Dec. 3, 2008-(MCT)-This year, the Grinch may not have stolen Christmas, but he definitely will invade workplaces.

From holiday bonuses to office parties to vacation time, expect less holiday cheer and more creativity as employers try to survive the slumping economy.

“I think we’ll see less yuletide joy in workplaces this year,” said Matthew Sottong, surveys director for research firm BNA.

The tone was set last week, when fewer employers granted the day after Thanksgiving as a paid day off, and even fewer were doling out turkeys as Thanksgiving gifts, according to a BNA survey.

As the economic crisis has worsened, offices have become more short-staffed than usual and employers have been less generous with paid days off. That means getting time to visit relatives or take advantage of holiday sales will become even more of a challenge for employees.

Managers are feeling the brunt. One manager who oversees vacation time for her department told me because of tight staffing, she already had to tell a couple of people they would have to change plans for holiday weeks off with their families. Another told me she fears for her job too much to take a real vacation in which she actually unplugs from the office.

But time-off concerns are just one sign of the changing times.

Across the nation, companies are canceling or scaling back annual end-of-the-year holiday celebrations to cut costs, or just to accommodate the overall mood of people too worried about money to feel like a party. Two annual holiday-party surveys back up anecdotal evidence that a record number of companies have dropped holiday parties this year-more even than in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist bombings.

Companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Adidas Group and Viacom put the brakes on their end-of-year parties. Others are scaling back how much they spend, what they serve or how many people they invite.

“While our organization as whole might not be suffering, we need to be mindful of colleagues who are suffering and people who are out of jobs,” said Joanne Baxter, a spokeswoman for Baptist Health South Florida. At Baptist Hospital, secret Santas are a thing of the past and each department will hold its own holiday lunch this year-potluck. “It has to be done on a modest scale this year.”

Sottong of BNA says fewer employers are inviting spouses to holiday parties and holding bashes at hotels, opting instead for on-site fetes. He says employers are cautious about the messages they are sending: “You can’t have a big party and then tell them there’s no money for raises or bonuses.”

Longtime Coral Gables, Fla., retailer Diane Brant says this has been her worst year in two decades. Yet, she still will host her annual holiday party by invitation for customers and employees. What she won’t do is give bonuses or gifts. Instead, she used some creativity, giving discounts on merchandise to the handful of people who work for her.

“It doesn’t cost me when I already have inventory in stock and they get to buy it at cost,” Brant says.

At Campus Management in Boca Raton, Fla., the holiday season comes at an already busy time. Employees are in overdrive trying to work through a merger with nGenera, which has added 170 people to the 330 already employed. “Extra hours are a fact of life,” says Kathleen Bocek, vice president of human resources.

Recognizing the workload, Bocek says her company is avoiding an after-hours bash and having a low-key celebration on site. The company, which provides software and technology consulting to colleges and universities, will put a tent up in its parking lot, offer a catered lunch, and have employees provide the entertainment through interdepartmental contests.

Along with downscaled parties, executives are bracing for their bank accounts to take a hit.

A new survey conducted by TheLadders.com, an executive jobs website, finds that the outlook for raises and year-end bonuses is downright dismal.

Even major law firms say they are winnowing the number of associates who receive the traditional year-end bonuses.

Which makes Earth Friendly Products in Opa-locka, Fla., an anomaly.

CEO Van Vlahakis will give employees four weeks’ pay as a holiday bonus. Vlahakis says the green movement has been good for business. His company, which has manufacturing plants in Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and California, sells environmentally friendly cleaning products to companies such as Costco, Sam’s Club and Whole Foods.

Vlahakis also gave his workers a four-day weekend for Thanksgiving and will repeat the gesture for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“I try to be generous to the people working for me. It’s why our employees never leave us,” Vlahakis said.

This year all three holidays-Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day-fall on Thursdays. Sottong says smart employers will give Fridays off as a way to show appreciation on the cheap: “A day off is an easy thing to do that buys employers a lot of goodwill and doesn’t cost a lot out of pocket.”

Cindy Krischer Goodman is a workplace columnist for The Miami Herald and weekly television guest on Miami’s CBS station.

© 2008, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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