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

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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.

Really.

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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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.

Thanks!

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?”

“Me?”

“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.

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