As seen in the Boston Herald. 

It’s a frightening economy for small businesses these days.

Consumer confidence is down, gas prices are hovering around $3 a gallon and there’s a lot of talk about the dreaded “R” word. Optimism among small business owners has dipped to its lowest point since 1991, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

With all the gloomy news looming it seems like it might be a good time to start thinking about layoffs. If there’s less work to do, you don’t need as many workers. Employees are one of the biggest costs for a small business and getting rid of them is a quick way to boost cash flow, especially if you’ve just lost a big client.

Still, you might not want to reach for the pink slips just yet. In fact, you may want to take out a help-wanted ad.

“The goal of every business is to get stronger...if you let good people go, you’re weakening your base,” said Tom Gimbel, chief executive of LaSalle Network, a staffing and executive search firm. “What you need to do is to keep your good people. It’s an attack rather than a retreat.”

If you have some workers who aren’t working to your satisfaction, then this might be a good time to let them go find a more suitable job. But if you have good employees, it’s in your best interest to keep them. Firing workers can damage morale at a time when workers are already nervous about the economy.

“Nobody wants to work on a sinking ship,” said Alice Bredin, head of Bredin Business Information, a consulting firm in Cambridge. “A small-business owner is a leader and part of being a leader is making everyone feel that you are moving in a positive direction.”

The exception is if your company is hemorrhaging money. In that case, cutting workers may be the only way to save the business.

If you’re not at risk of going under, however, cutting staff may prove more costly in the long run; when things get better, you’ll need to start hiring again. It’s often better to try to keep the employees that you have but talk to them about ways to save money.

“Employees can be very helpful,” said Dolly Di Pesa, chief of Di Pesa & Company CPAs in Quincy. “People value their jobs, especially when there is talk about a recession. You’ll find they’re more than willing to talk about cuts.”

You might talk to them also about taking on new roles or additional responsibilities, Bredin said.

The silver lining of a slowdown can be more time to build up your workforce and do some of the development and training that you don’t have time for when things are going well, Gimbel said. You may find yourself doing more hands-on work with clients, and that can provide an opportunity to mentor workers more closely.

If you can swing it, a recession can also be a good time to hire. Other companies are letting go of some top-notch workers who might be more open to working for a small business.

Beware however, Gimbel said. Companies will probably start by letting go of workers who aren’t living up to their expectations.