Hire help for the holidays - without headaches

If you're bringing in some extra people on board for a few weeks, here are 4 key steps to take to keep work running smoothly.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: My husband and I own three bakeries specializing in decorated cookies and custom-made gingerbread houses, and we do a huge business during the holiday season. Last year we managed to squeak by with just our usual staff working overtime, but this year I think we really need to hire some extra employees to handle the rush. The thing is, I would feel more comfortable if we had background checks run on the temporary hires, as we do on applicants for regular permanent jobs, but my husband says it's an unnecessary expense, since any seasonal employees will be closely supervised by our regular staff (including us). What is your opinion? -Seeking Santa's Helpers

Dear Seeking: Competition for short-term help is heating up. Monster.com reports that ads seeking part-time or seasonal retail help have jumped 67% in the past month; and a Monster survey of 150 retailers shows that 88% plan to bring on extra people for the holiday stampede.

But it seems many employers agree with your husband, and "skip doing background checks because of the added cost," notes Marjorie Fochtman, an employment attorney at Nixon Peabody in San Francisco. Unfortunately, even though these folks will be around for only a few weeks, the wrong ones can do quite a bit of damage in that time.

"Seasonal workers present the same risks in the workplace as regular full-time employees," she says. "For example, you may have someone with a history of violent workplace incidents. That kind of behavior tends to repeat itself, but without a background check, you're unlikely to know about it."

And then there's just plain old dishonesty. The children's-wear chain Gymboree, one of Fochtman's clients, began doing background checks on part-time and seasonal job applicants some years ago and was able to screen out many with criminal records for theft.

"The background checks reduced both in-store losses and the time Gymboree's in-house loss-prevention staff had to spend investigating the losses," Fochtman says.

To be on the safe side, Fochtman recommends you conduct the same due-diligence checks on your temporary workers as you already do on your permanent hires. Three other suggestions for anyone hiring seasonal help:

Put it in writing. "The holidays are hectic, so just to avoid any misunderstanding, consider having seasonal employees sign an offer letter that clearly states when the employment will begin and end," says Fochtman. Is this really necessary? Apparently so. "If the dates of employment aren't spelled out in writing anywhere," she says, "I have seen temporary employees sue employers, claiming they were let go for discriminatory reasons." Ouch.

Design an orientation program for seasonal workers, even if it's only an hour or two. You can save a lot of time and aggravation by getting people up to speed right away on where things are, how things work, and who will do what. The time to start training people is not when you've got a store full of impatient customers.

Says Fochtman: "You can also use an orientation session as a chance to talk about your products, your values, and your policies" - how returns or exchanges are handled, for instance, or where to direct questions from customers on special diets.

Make sure employees' legal paperwork is in order. Some of your seasonal helpers may have to file an I-9 form with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, showing that they're legally entitled to work in the U.S. "Also, if you're hiring any minors, understand the rules there, too," says Fochtman. "In some states, minors need a work permit, and there may be a limit on the number of hours they can put in."

If this all sounds like a lot of effort, it is - but taking these steps may well save you some huge holiday headaches.

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Friends, on another topic altogether, I can't resist passing along an e-mail from Marc Cenedella, president and CEO of TheLadders.com, an online job-search service for executives. Responding to the November 14 column on what to say when job interviewers ask your greatest weakness, he writes: "I've always had a ready reply to this worst-of-all-interview questions.

Interviewer: What's your greatest weakness?

Me: Brevity.

[Long pause as interviewer waits in vain for me to say something else.]

Interviewer: OK, then!

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