Tag Archives: business

How Realistic Do You Want Your Fiction To Be?

I don’t post much about my novel, Playing the Game, but I thought it would make a nice Labor Day diversion.

Recently I was asked whether the book is true to life. My answer: Yes and no.

Playing the Game is fiction. None of the events in the book happened—at least not the way they are depicted. The facts and faces have been changed to protect the innocent. But the plot is realistic. It deals with issues that many corporate executives face, such as managing budgets and people, planning new product lines, deciding who will succeed departing key personnel, and integrating work and family time. And, of course, dealing with the personal peccadilloes of the colleagues we encounter in the hallways every day.

But the plot is realistic. It deals with issues that many corporate executives face, such as managing budgets and people, planning new product lines, deciding who will succeed departing key personnel, and integrating work and family time. And, of course, dealing with the personal peccadilloes of the colleagues we encounter in the hallways every day.

One reader told me after reading the book, “I know these people.” This reader and I have never worked together, and we have only a few common acquaintances. In other words, the characters are like co-workers we have all known, with common foibles and insecurities.

I market Playing the Game as a thriller, but it isn’t a thriller like Dan Brown’s or Brad Thor’s novels. It is a thriller in the same way that Arthur Hailey’s books such as Hotel or Airport were thrillers. The business is going through a make-or-break time, and the question is whether it can be saved. There are criminal activities in the book, but the thrill is not from solving the crime but from the highs and lows of living through difficult circumstances.

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and other far-out thrillers also wrote Disclosure, which dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace in a very realistic setting. While I enjoyed Jurassic Park and his other fantasies, I was captivated by Disclosure, because “I knew those people.” I had dealt with similar situations in my job. That’s the kind of fiction I aspired to write in Playing the Game.

So, as a writer, my question to readers is:

How realistic do you like your fiction? Do you want to read books that deal with things you know, or do you want to explore worlds of fantasy to escape your daily routine?

Happy Labor Day


Filed under Playing the Game, Writing

Effective Communication in the Workplace

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A student in a management program at a local university contacted me recently to ask my opinion on Human Resources communications. Many of her questions were far broader than HR communications and actually related to all corporate communications.

One question she asked was “What constitutes effective communication in the workplace?”

Here was my answer:

Communication must at all times be accurate and courteous. It doesn’t matter if it’s between supervisor and subordinate, between co-workers, between employees and HR, between leadership and employees, or between insiders and outsiders. At all times, in all communications, written and oral, employees at all levels must state the situation accurately and clearly, and they must be civil in the language and tone they use.

I always have told people that every communication should be stated or written as if the CEO, a newspaper reporter, and your mother were all hearing or seeing it. It is even more true today than it used to be that anything you say or write or do can and will be used against you. So be careful.

Obviously, some communications are less formal than others. But the rules of accuracy and civility should always be followed.

Readers, what do you think? What should I have added?

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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

Tips for Succession Planning in a Family Business

business teamI wrote about the topic of succession planning a few months ago, but I continue to find the topic fascinating. Succession planning in any size business is critical, and when family dynamics enter the picture, the risks are greater. After all, the wrong decision can doom not only the business, but also Thanksgiving dinner.

So how should a family business go about determining the founder’s successor?

The first thing to do is to start early. Unless there is a single perfect candidate with ideal background, it will take a few years to ready someone for the CEO role. It’s important to be objective about who the best candidate is—it might not be the oldest son. It might be a younger daughter. It might be a cousin. It might even be someone outside the family.

While the existing CEO in a family business may make the ultimate decision, he or she should get input from others. That input should come from other leaders in the business, both family members and leaders outside the family. And family members who don’t work at the company but who rely on the business for their livelihoods should also be consulted. Input from key customers and other stakeholders is also important. Given the family dynamics involved, it might be important to use an outside consultant or advisor to gather the input.

Family dynamics will be critical in determining the right candidate. Are there sibling rivalries that will resurface? What education and other experiences do various candidates have? Has one person been given the inside track, which might have left gaps in other candidates’ backgrounds? Should those gaps be filled to give more candidates a decent shot at the leadership role?

It is best not to put all your eggs in one basket. Grooming just one candidate for the CEO position might leave you with no one. That is true in any business, but more likely to be true where the bias is to keep the role in the family, meaning there are fewer candidates to begin with. The expected successor may decide to join a monastery or to go live in the Caribbean. Or the successor might die or become disabled. Have a back-up plan.

org chartBy starting well in advance of the need for a successor, it is possible to develop two or three viable candidates and to rotate them through various roles to give them all an opportunity to build the experience and relationships they will need in the role.

And if one or more potential successors is not developing as expected, it is important to have an honest onversation sooner rather than later. It won’t be an easy conversation, but the family member can save face by exiting the company or opting for a sidelined position on his or her terms and timing. That way, he or she is not obviously passed over when the time for succession arrives.

Here are a few excellent articles on managing succession planning in family-owned businesses:

How to Save the Family Business, a 1994 article by Peter Drucker, reprintedi n the Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2015. 

7 ‘Empire’ Lessons On Family Business Succession, by Andrea King Collier, Forbes, April 27, 2015

Leadership Lessons from Great Family Businesses, Claudio Fernández-AráozSonny IqbalJörg Ritter, Harvard Business Review April 2015

How to improve the chances your family business will succeed in the next generation, by Steve Coleman, The Business Journals, Apr 1, 2015

When have you seen succession planning work well?

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Sexual Harassment: Size Rarely Matters

Image from Forbes

Image from Forbes

If any employment law issue stays hidden “behind the corporate veil,” it is sexual harassment. Until the cover is blown, and the problem becomes public. What many start-up businesses and non-profits don’t realize is that sexual harassment issues can arise in workplaces with very few employees.

Why do sexual harassment laws matter to small businesses?

Small businesses usually operate informally and have few policies and procedures when they start. Moreover, the early employees are often friends or family members, and these relationships add complexity to the work relationships.

Still, if you are running a small business, you are at risk if you do not comply with sexual harassment laws.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the federal law administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, regulates sexual harassment. Title VII applies to employers with fifteen or more employees. But most state anti-discrimination laws cover employers with just a handful of employees—five in California and four in New York, for example. City ordinances also impose requirements on very small employers in some jurisdictions.

Because most states look to federal law, even small businesses should follow EEOC and federal court interpretations under Title VII. But employers must also be aware of their state laws also—sometimes state law permits broader theories of liability or remedies (such as higher punitive damage awards) than federal law.

What’s the minimum that a small business should do?

A good place for small business owners to start is to read through the EEOC’s sexual harassment fact sheet, Questions and Answers for Small Employers on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors.

The law requires more of employers to avoid liability for a supervisor’s actions than for actions by co-workers or non-employees.

  • The EEOC position is that an employer is always responsible for harassment by a supervisor that culminated in a tangible employment action, meaning an action that results in harm to the harassed employee.
  • If the supervisor’s harassment did not lead to a tangible employment action, the employer is liable unless it proves that:
    (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassment; and
    (2) the employee unreasonably failed to complain to management or to avoid harm otherwise.

This means that as a business owner, you should communicate a policy against sexual harassment, provide viable methods for your employees to complain (other than to the alleged harasser), and promptly address any complaints of harassment. It is better to have a written anti-harassment policy, though orally communicating the policy might work, if you can prove the communication took place, for example, through staff meeting minutes.

But it may be difficult for your small business to develop a strong anti-harassment policy. Usually, such policies need two or more avenues for the employee to complain, in case one of the usual persons to whom complaints can be voiced is allegedly the harasser.

If you are the only manager in your business, how do you find a second person to take complaints? You may not be able to. In that case, you should have an attorney or a human resources consultant conduct an investigation into complaints that might involve you.

Unfortunately, that is likely to cost you. But litigation will cost you far more.

A few more cautions

If you do get a complaint of harassment in your business,

  • Investigate promptly, stop the harassment, and remedy any adverse employment actions against the complaining employee.
  • Keep the complaint confidential, to the extent possible, and
  • Don’t retaliate—complaints of retaliation are easier to make than the initial complaint of harassment, and harder to defend.

The Best Defense: Don’t Let It Happen

Although the anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure are important, the best way that a small business can avoid harassment complaints is by not permitting an atmosphere of casual remarks about sex and employees’ personal lives in the first place.

Even if the business started in a college dorm, the standards are different once the business becomes real. Even if the same people are involved.


I know it’s hard to accept that you can’t continue to treat your friends like you did when you were eighteen, but if you are running a business and providing people’s livelihoods, you need to act with maturity.

For more on this subject, see

Sexual Harassment Policy for Small Businesses, by Ruth Mayhew, Demand Media, on Chron.com

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace; Forming a Basis for Prevention and Management, by Caron Beesley, on SBA.gov

Even Start-Ups Need Anti-Discrimination Policies and Reporting Mechanisms, by Richard B. Cohen, on Employment Discrimination Report (Fox Rothschild)

When has an unprofessional atmosphere in the workplace caused you problems?

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Filed under Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

How To Improve Customer Service at Emotional Times

crying-on-the-phone-300x225A close relative of mine recently died, and I have been helping the next-of-kin deal with the aftermath of death. We spent most of a week calling the funeral home, bank, church, insurance companies, and other businesses to inform them of our relative’s passing and to make the necessary arrangements.

Some of the organizations we dealt with were good at customer service, but many were not. I have several suggestions for how all businesses can improve their customer service when they are dealing with people in difficult emotional circumstances.

And don’t most businesses encounter emotional customers at one time or another?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Minimize the time the customer has to spend on hold, from the first contact to the final call. Grieving individuals will lose focus while you are away from the phone. Moreover, they will get annoyed and believe you don’t care about them.
  2. Don’t play the typical Muzak if you have to put customers on hold. It grates on the nerves of the bereaved to hear vapidly cheerful music. A soft classical selection would be a better fit, but nothing too common that they will remember later on, bringing the moment of their grief back to mind.
  3. If you have a call center that uses scripting, be sure your representatives are prepared to say “I’m sorry for your loss” if they hear of a death without having to look it up in the script. It is disconcerting for the bereaved to hear typing in the background, then for the representative to say he or she is sorry. A human response is more valued if it is genuine, so let your employees sound genuine. If they can’t, they shouldn’t be in a customer service job.
  4. Get back to your customer when you say you will. Even if you don’t have any new information to provide, if you promised an update by 10:00am Wednesday, then call them back to give a status report by 10:00am Wednesday.
  5. Be absolutely accurate in what you tell customers. And if you give them information orally, follow it up with an email or other written correspondence. People don’t think clearly and their short-term memories don’t work well when they are emotional. They will forget what you told them, which is only to be expected.
  6. Recognize that customers who get angry at you are often venting. Try not to take the situation personally. But also take accountability when the problem is your responsibility. If you have been slow to respond, or if you provided inaccurate information, apologize. Profusely. And don’t do it again.

Frankly, these suggestions aren’t rocket science. But it is surprising that so many businesses that deal with people in emotional states aren’t better at customer service.

Don’t let your business be insensitive to your customers’ grief. The goal of any contact with a customer should be to make the customer feel better, not worse, even if only for the moment of your interaction.

When have you encountered excellent customer service in a difficult situation?

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Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Management

Can HR Be a Hero?

As an author, one of the tasks I had to undertake to self-publish my book was to define the category the book fits on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In my novel, Playing the Game, the heroine is Maura Ramirez, the head of Human Resources in the fictional company PlayLand, Inc.

There aren’t many novels where an HR manager is the protagonist, so there were no categories on Amazon or Barnes & Noble that quite fit. The best I could come up with was “financial thriller.”

Playing the Game is not a thriller in the sense that good guys are trying to prevent bad guys from defrauding a company’s shareholders, nor from causing doom in global markets. But it is a thriller in that the fate of the company hangs in the balance in one crisis after another—the CEO’s injury and unavailability, renegade employees, labor disputes, and supply chain failures.

In each of these crises, how managers act—including Human Resources—determines whether PlayLand will survive. In Playing the Game, HR is definitely the hero. Many of the other managers fumble and bumble.

And, oh, by the way, someone is killed, and there is a murder to solve!

Here are some reviews of my novel that mention how it portrays HR:

PTG front cover all caps“This book shows the workings of an HR department in a large family owned business. A mystery that was a fast read. Interesting characters with many twists and turns in the plot.”


“Just finished Playing the Game. As an HR person, I think the book really nailed it. For those interested in an insider’s view of life in human resources, it is a great read!”


“If you’ve ever been in the corporate world, this is must read. Sara Rickover does a terrific job telling the powerful story of a corporate president, his staff, and most importantly, his loyal and competent HR person. I loved how the book kept me turning pages. “

To amuse myself, I tried typing in “HR thriller” in Amazon’s Kindle store to see what would happen. Playing the Game shows up as #5. “HR thriller” might not be a well-known book category, but you can find my novel with that search.

Or just search for Playing the Game, by Sara Rickover.

Or click here to find it on Amazon, or here to find it on Barnes & Noble.


When has HR been a hero in your experience?

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Filed under Human Resources, Playing the Game, Writing

Succession Planning in a Family Business: When No One Is Ready

I’ve mentioned before (see here and here) that one of the conflicts in my novel, Playing the Game, is succession planning behind the CEO who is injured at the beginning of the book. What should a family-owned business do, when none of the family members seems right to lead the organization?

Here’s a scene from Chapter 1 that describes the problem. Rick Players is the CEO of PlayLand Inc., and he is in a coma. His brothers Vince and Kevin are discussing what to do about the business.


Late Sunday evening, Kevin Players sat on a plastic chair in ICU beside his brother Vince. Machines beeped rhythmically, monitoring Rick’s heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and brain waves. He heard the constant patter of voices from the nurses’ station and the squeaks of carts rolling down the hall.

The doctors hadn’t given a definite prognosis. “He has some injuries in the cerebral hemispheres,” the neurologist had said. “His brain is still swelling, though not as rapidly as earlier. If it continues, we may need to surgically extract some of the dead tissue. Or at least relieve the pressure caused by the swelling. All we can do is wait.”

Now Kevin and Vince sat waiting. Kevin leaned back and stretched his arms over his head. They needed to make some plans about the business. Kevin didn’t want an argument, but Vince wouldn’t do a damn thing unless Kevin brought it up.

Kevin squinted at Vince. “We have to decide what to do about tomorrow’s officer meeting.”

Vince grunted.

Vince was forty-six, several years younger than Rick, but eleven years older than Kevin. Vince’s hair was thin on top, Kevin noticed in surprise. Rick hadn’t lost any hair yet. Kevin ran a hand over his own head. Would he go bald like Vince in another ten years? Would he get Vince’s paunch, or Rick’s six-pack abs?

“If we cancel, it’ll seem like no one’s running the show,” Kevin said.

“But you heard the doctor. How can we go on, business as usual?”

“The doctor said anything could happen,” Kevin argued. “We’ve got to think about how people will react. Employees. Customers. Lenders. What’ll they do if they think no one’s in charge?”

“How can we keep going without Rick?” Vince asked.

“I don’t know,” Kevin said. He stretched again. He’d expected some resistance, but Vince wasn’t helping at all. “We have to give the impression things are under control. Starting with the meeting tomorrow. Can you lead it?”


“You’re head of Product Development. You’re next in the family after Rick. People will expect you to do it.”

“Christ!” Vince groaned. “What’s on the agenda?”

“How the hell should I know? Rick keeps his own agendas.”

Vince grimaced. “What should we say? You’re the great communicator.”

Kevin shrugged. “Give the group an update on Rick. Then ask everyone for status reports. It’s mostly for show. So the rest of the company thinks we know what we’re doing. Even without Rick.”

Vince nodded. “Okay. But you back me up.”

“Sure.” Kevin closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. With his eyes still closed, he asked, “What’s on your plate this week?”

“Nothing much Monday. Staff meetings. A couple of new product meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Don’t remember after that.”

“Paige gave me Rick’s cell phone,” Kevin said. “I looked at his calendar. There’s a big meeting with Toy Mart sometime this week with our Sales group. One of us should go. I think it’s mostly about marketing programs. I can get up to speed. I’ll go.”

Vince grunted again.

Kevin decided that meant Vince didn’t care who went to Toy Mart. “He was also getting ready for the bank meeting next week,” Kevin said. “It’d look pretty weird for me to go. No reason for Marketing to be there. You’ll have to cover that one. Alex will know the details. Talk to him.”

Vince glared at Kevin. “Hell, you know I hate financial crap.”

“Alex can handle the numbers. Just act like an owner,” Kevin replied. Sometimes he didn’t think Vince cared about the family business. Kevin had been the kid brother all his life, but now he spent half his time pushing Vince.

“All right.” Vince belched. “I’ll call Alex.”

Relieved that he had covered the immediate business issues, Kevin turned to the family problems—the bigger challenge, he thought. “We’re going to have to watch Paige,” he said.

“Why?” Vince asked.

“She was hysterical this evening,” Kevin said. “She’s worried about Rick, obviously. And pissed at him for racing with the boys. She said he must have been drunk. But his blood alcohol was legal.” Kevin shook his head. “I don’t know if she can cope.”

“Christ,” said Vince. “I couldn’t deal with a wife when I was married. How can we handle Paige and PlayLand both?”

Kevin squirmed to get comfortable in the small chair. Paige had always been a handful. Spoiled her whole life, first by her father and then by Rick. She’d freaked out when Jason broke his arm last year. “I don’t know,” he said. “But we’ve got to.”

* * *

To read more, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.


Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Playing the Game, Writing

A Dysfunctional Staff Meeting

Do you know people like these managers? Have you been in dysfunctional staff meetings? If so, you’ll enjoy my novel, Playing the Game.

Read this excerpt from Chapter 2, which takes place the day after CEO Rick Players was injured in a snowmobiling accident:


Maura Ramirez went to work early on Monday. Kevin had said the officers’ staff meeting would go on as scheduled, but she wasn’t sure what to expect. What was there to talk about, other than Rick? She had planned to bring up cutting labor costs. But without Rick, the group couldn’t—or wouldn’t—decide anything. Should she even raise the issue?

When Maura arrived in her office, the voicemail light on her phone blinked. Her email held a screenful of unread messages. Most were from people wanting information about Rick. She responded to as many high-priority calls and messages as she could.

Before she knew it, it was 8:30. Time for the meeting.

Maura grabbed her headcount reduction file, still not sure whether to talk about it, but wanting to be prepared. She headed down the hall to the executive conference room near Rick’s office.

Alex Draper, the Chief Financial Officer, sat in his usual seat at the conference table, files and calculator and laser pointer arranged in front of him. Alex was a good number-cruncher, his analytics as precisely trimmed as his dark curly hair and bristly mustache. But Maura had never seen him smile at any of PlayLand’s products.

Dewayne Jefferson, General Counsel, loomed over Alex with a cup of coffee and a coconut doughnut in his hands. “Lining your pencils up, Alex?” Dewayne said. “Too bad you can’t get profits to line up as neatly.”

Dewayne, a large African American, wore a dark grey suit, blue button-down shirt and red foulard tie—impeccably attired as always. Maura suspected he used his imposing size and intellect to intimidate his adversaries, in the courtroom and at PlayLand.

As Dewayne twitted Alex about his pencils, Grant Mason, the Vice President of Operations, strode into the room. Despite being one of the older officers at PlayLand, Grant radiated energy. Employees told Maura they were afraid of his furrowed eyebrows and stern mouth. Only those who worked closely with Grant knew that, though he was hardheaded, he considered new ideas thoughtfully.

He was one of Maura’s favorites on Rick’s staff. She smiled at Grant as he sat.

Grant shot her a quick grin back, then frowned. “Any word on Rick?”

She shook her head.

Leo Benson sauntered in about eight forty. Leo had spent his entire career—over thirty years—in the Sales group. He hustled customers, but reacted negatively to his peers’ ideas. For Leo, it was Sales against the rest of the world, and Sales was always right.

Leo settled into his seat. A gold chain flashed around his neck and another shone on his wrist. His right hand sported a heavy diamond ring, an award from early in his career for achieving top sales for five years running.

“Where are Vince and Kevin?” Leo asked. “They called this meeting.”

No one answered.

At 8:45, Kevin and Vince walked in together.

“Any word on Rick?” Grant asked as the others murmured the same concern.

Kevin shook his head. “Nothing new.”

The Players brothers all had the same nose and ears, but whenever Maura saw them together, she noticed how different they were. The injured Rick was the oldest and also the broadest, built like the football player he had been in college.

Vince, the tallest, had not kept himself in shape. The green plaid sweater and rumpled corduroy slacks he wore today emphasized his generous stomach. Maura stifled a sigh as she glanced at Vince.

Kevin’s ready grin made him the most attractive, in Maura’s opinion, though he was the least physically imposing. She also found him the most personable, the easiest to get along with.

Kevin motioned Vince toward the head of the table where Rick usually sat.

Vince cleared his throat as he took Rick’s chair, then said, “Thanks, everyone, for your concern about Rick. We really appreciate it. He’s still in a coma. Doctors don’t say when he’ll come out. We’ll let you know if anything changes.” Vince looked toward Kevin, who nodded.

“Let’s go around the room,” Vince continued. “See what’s happening. If you needed anything from Rick this week, we’ll figure out what to do. Where we can, we’ll wait until Rick’s back. Who wants to start?”

Leo stirred his coffee, diamond ring flashing. “Rick and I were supposed to meet with Toy Mart on Thursday,” he said. “I’ll handle it. Just preliminary. To feel them out about our new action figure line. Rick was only going because Toy Mart’s our largest customer.”

“I’ll go,” Kevin said. “They’ll expect special marketing terms. But we have to be sure we don’t overcommit. We can’t afford much this year.”

Leo shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. “No need. But if you want to go, I’ve leased a jet. We leave at seven thirty Thursday morning.”

“I’ll be there,” Kevin said.

Alex tapped his pencil on the files in front of him. “Haven’t you seen the financials, Leo? No money for jets.”

“The plan was for Rick and me and a couple of Sales guys to go. Toy Mart’s in a podunk town in Wisconsin. If we fly commercial, we end up spending three days out of the office for a three-hour meeting. Our time’s worth something.”

Alex stood and passed copies of a spreadsheet around the table. “Kevin’s right about not overcommitting. We can’t promise Toy Mart or anyone else anything this year. These projections show the trouble we’re in.”

Alex turned on a projector displaying a PowerPoint slide of the spreadsheet he had distributed. He flashed his laser pointer at the bottom line. “We’re losing money. Cash flow is eroding every week. At this rate, our whole line of credit will be used up by June.”

He showed another slide. “Every division needs to control costs until we negotiate a bigger line. Rick and I have—or had—a meeting scheduled with the banks next week. What do we do about that meeting? How will the banks react if they think Rick is incapacitated?” Alex’s diction was as precise as his sculpted mustache.

“Vince will work with you and the banks until Rick is back,” Kevin said.

Vince looked up from his hands. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s talk later this week, Alex. You can show me specifics. Even if Rick wakes up today, he can’t travel next week. Not with broken bones.”

“Okay,” Alex said, his head bobbing up and down. He peered around the room above his glasses. “Does everyone understand? We can’t spend any money this year.” He tapped his pencil on the table to emphasize his words.

“Oh, come off it.” Leo waved his hand dismissing Alex, his ring flashing. “How can I sell new product without marketing dollars?”

“We have some ideas to keep the marketing costs down,” Kevin said. “Isn’t that right, Vince?”

“Got my staff brainstorming,” Vince replied. “Both the New Ventures folks and Jennifer Scott in Dolls.”

Leo snickered. “That sweetie’s a doll herself. But what does she know about action figures?”

“Give her a chance,” Kevin said. “She’s pretty sharp.”

“Okay, Alex,” Vince said, “Anything else we need to know from Finance?”

“Keep costs down, and let me know ASAP about budget overruns.” Alex turned off the computer screen and went back to his seat.

“Grant?” Vince asked, turning to the Vice President of Operations.

“So far, we’re on track with production planning. We’ve only seen specifications for the first few action figure SKUs, but we should get the others soon from Product Development. I assume we’re still on schedule?” Grant frowned at Vince.

Vince nodded.

“Everything else is in good shape,” Grant continued. “Costs for raw materials are up, but we’ve switched to some cheaper vendors. I think we’ll hold product costs level with last year.” He scowled. “But labor costs are up. That’s the weak link in our projections.”

That was her cue, Maura decided. She wished Rick were there to back her up. She leaned forward. “Both salary and benefits costs are shooting up. We’ll probably need to reduce staff this year. But as a first step, I recommend we don’t hire anyone unless absolutely necessary.”

“But I have open sales territories,” Leo said. “Turnover in the field is sky-high. I need to fill those jobs.”

“If you have to, you have to,” Maura said. “But if we lay people off later, you’ll have a bigger mess then. Better to hold the territories open.”

Alex tapped his pencil nervously. “Maura’s right. Labor is the fastest growing item in our budget. Why would we hire more employees, given our current projections?”

Grant glared, leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed. “Leo and I have the most people. I hear what you’re saying, Maura, but sometimes we have to fill open jobs.”

Maura shook her head. “I’m not telling you to cripple the business. Just be careful. My staff’s working on a headcount reduction plan. We’ll have it ready soon.” She wouldn’t present the plan now. If they wouldn’t even agree to stop hiring, no way would these guys lay people off. Only Rick could make them do it.

“Can we agree to be careful?” Vince asked. “If it seems like we need to get tougher, we’ll revisit the issue. Maybe when Rick is back.”

Maura watched in disgust as the rest of the group nodded. Vince had cut off the debate without reaching resolution. Leo would do as he damn well pleased. Grant wouldn’t add employees unnecessarily, but he would run Operations the way he thought best. Only she and Alex seemed concerned about the rising labor costs. Typical.

* * *

To read more, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Playing the Game, Workplace, Writing

New EEOC Guidelines on Accommodation of Religious Dress and Grooming Practices: A Higher Standard?

"Celtic Cross (#0383)" by regan76

“Celtic Cross (#0383)” by regan76

On March 6, 2014, the EEOC issued new guidelines on what employers must do to accommodate their employees’ religious dress and grooming practices. See EEOC publication titled Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.  The agency takes the position that employers must accommodate these religious practices, even when they violate company policies, unless doing so presents an “undue hardship” on the employer’s business.

Specifically, Q&A 6 of the guidelines states:

“Title VII requires an employer, once it is aware that a religious accommodation is needed, to accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.  Therefore, when an employer’s dress and grooming policy or preference conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the religious practice unless that would be an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.”

"Turban Day 2012-15" by Anuraj Singh

“Turban Day 2012-02” by Anuraj Singh

According to the EEOC, employers must accommodate all aspects of religious observance, including not only the well-established religious practices of traditional religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.), but also “new, uncommon” practices “not part of a formal church or sect,” and any “sincerely held” beliefs, even where they are not part of a formal church practice and even if the belief seems “illogical or unreasonable to others.” See Q&As 2 and 4.

One tricky issue for employers is the standard of accommodation to which the EEOC will hold employers. Traditionally, the standard for religious accommodation has been that employers need not agree to any accommodation that causes more than a de minimis cost or burden to the employer’s operations. Q&A 6 of the EEOC’s new guidelines pays lip service to retaining this de minimis standard:

“For purposes of religious accommodation, undue hardship is defined by courts as a “more than de minimis” cost or burden on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, if a religious accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship. This is a lower standard than the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) undue hardship defense to disability accommodation.”

EEOC sealNevertheless, the new EEOC guidelines make it clear that the following cannot be the basis for the employer’s claim of undue hardship:

  • customer preferences (Q&As 5 and 6)
  • co-worker disgruntlement (Q&As 5 and 6)
  • an employer’s desire to use a particular image or marketing strategy (Q&A 10)

If these core business considerations cannot be rationales for objecting to a religious accommodation, then an employer’s operations can in fact be significantly altered by compliance with an employee’s request for an exemption from a dress or grooming policy, contrary to the expressed de minimis standard.

It appears that the only  acceptable “undue hardship” the EEOC will recognize is one which causes and actual impact on safely, security or health. See Q&A 12. And the only example of permissible refusal to accommodate a dress or grooming requirement in Q&A 12 is requiring an employee with a beard to wear two face masks instead of one for hygiene reasons (Example 15). Even prohibiting an employee from wearing a dull knife that is a religious symbol is an illegal denial of religious accommodation (Example 19).

In many instances an employer can acquiesce to an employee’s religiously motivated requests for different dress and grooming standards with little or no hardship, and accommodating these requests is appropriate. Nevertheless, many of the examples given in the EEOC guidelines do not feel like de minimis intrusions into employers’ businesses to me. They feel like they impose a significant risk that the agency will second-guess an employers’ decisions.

And how far should the EEOC’s higher standard of accommodation be allowed to extend? What about religiously motivated speech? The new guidelines do not (yet) speak to anything more than religious dress and grooming accommodations. But there is no rationale that I can see why customer or co-worker objections to dress and grooming accommodations should be prohibited, while objections to words should be allowed.

I was involved in a situation where an employee in a retail operation insisted in answering the phone “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, this is [XYZ Department Store].” When questioned about this practice, she said that her beliefs required her to always speak in the name of Jesus Christ and to so preface her remarks.

We had many complaints from both Christian and non-Christian customers. After much discussion with the employee and her minister, the retailer ultimately terminated her employment. A court found the termination proper and granted the store summary judgment. But I wonder whether we might have been liable for employment discrimination under these new EEOC new religious accommodation guidelines, no matter how many customers we lost as a result of her statements.

What types of religious accommodation requests have you encountered in the workplace?

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Fay Vincent and Leadership: Lessons We All Should Know

Fay Vincent, from Wikimedia Commons

Fay Vincent, from Wikimedia Commons

I don’t follow sports, and I will admit to only having a vague familiarity with the name “Fay Vincent” when I saw his February 3, 2014, op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, titled Ten Tips for New Executives. But his tips were all familiar to me, even if his former roles as Commissioner of Baseball and Coca Cola executive were not.

In fact, the points he made were an excellent summary of what all leaders should know and do.

Mr. Vincent says he wishes he had been given these tips when he was forty and a new executive. I think everyone enrolled in an introductory management class should be handed a copy of this article. Why wait until you are forty to learn these lessons?

Here are my comments to add to what Mr. Vincent said:

  • Be decent to everyone: Isn’t this one of the things we learned in kindergarten? Then why do so many executives forget it.
  • Be careful what you say and write; don’t joke: If you didn’t learn this in kindergarten, haven’t your lawyers drummed it into you by now? “Never do or say anything that you would be unhappy to see written about on a newspaper front page,” Mr. Vincent says. I have said almost identical words in every management training program I’ve ever conducted. Yet so many people get caught by their own foolishness.
  • Don’t confide in others; don’t complain: My jobs were mostly lonely ones. The confidentiality required in both the legal profession and in Human Resources roles means that there are few people one can unload on when things go badly. Every job is lonely in some respects. Find one or two people you trust, and make use of them.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: You cannot repeat your vision and strategy too often.
  • Tell the truth: But, as Mr. Vincent adds, you do not have to answer every question.  Only say what you can legitimately say.

Whether you train new managers and executives, coach them, advise them as attorneys or accountants or consultants, Mr. Vincent’s ten tips are worth using as you counsel others.

And they are worth following yourself. Every day.

What leadership lessons have you learned the hard way?

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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace