Tag Archives: business

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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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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Write What You Know and What You Can Research

Writers are often told to “write what you know.”

My novel, Playing the Game, covers many business issues facing the toy company where the action takes place, including product creation and development, marketing, customer relations,  manufacturing and other supply chain problems, personnel issues, and legal concerns.

Many readers have asked me how I knew all that, particularly those readers who know I spent most of my career in support divisions. I have several answers for these readers.

First, I did know a lot about this type of business, even though I never worked for a toy company. I worked for a consumer products company for many years. I learned enough about product development and marketing and sales of my company’s products to apply the terminology and issues to another product.

Also, I had exposure to plastics manufacturing and have watched injection molding machinery operate as described in my novel. It doesn’t really matter what product is extruded by this equipment—it operates the same whatever comes out the back end.

Of course, the personnel and legal problems described in the book were my daily existence for many years. My problem here was writing various scenarios that were realistic, but not identical to any cases I worked on. After so many years, I’d about seen everything!

Beyond what I knew, however, I found that research these days is a mouse click or phone call away.

I needed to do medical research. I found information on traumatic brain injuries online and also by talking to a doctor I know. I needed to know how the police process a crime scene, beyond what I had gleaned from reading and watching police procedurals, and talked to a former cop friend.

Occasionally, I had to stop writing to research a particular plot point. For example, when the injection molding equipment breaks down, I needed to know what kinds of problems it might have caused in the product. Once again, the internet came through, and I found out enough to muddle my way through a two-page scene. Readers of the novel who have supervised injection molding production haven’t complained.

I probably made some errors throughout the book—and they are my errors, no one else’s, if they are there—but I hope I got it mostly right.

You can find Playing the Game on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble, both in paperback and in ebook format.

Writers, what has been your most difficult research issue?


Filed under Playing the Game, Writing

We Need Disruptive Invention in Our Legal System to Reduce Transactions Costs

We live in the world of disruptive invention, according to an op-ed piece by L. Gordon Crovitz published in the Wall Street Journal on January 5, titled Disruption is the New NormalHe used the example of road atlases being replaced by GPS devices being replaced by cell phones, all within recent memory. Each technological advance has reduced costs and made information retrieval easier for the end user.

What drives disruptive invention? According to Mr. Crovitz, one factor is the desire to minimize transactions costs, which the Coase theorem says drives many economic decisions. Mr. Crovitz argues that in the digital age with better pricing and product information, transactions costs are vastly diminished.

Unfortunately, transactions costs do not always improve with technology.

In fact, in that same January 5 issue of the Wall Street Journal issue was an article by Jennifer Smith, titled Companies on Guard for New Legal Pitfalls, describing challenges for general counsels in the year ahead. The high cost of regulations and litigation raise corporate risks. She states that

“Top legal officers at many large companies are preparing for stepped-up scrutiny of their operations by both regulators and private litigants as they head into 2014.”

Image from Forbes

Image from Forbes

Unfortunately, our legal system today is designed to increase transactions costs, not decrease them. In fact, digital technologies have increased legal costs more than they have decreased costs. In class actions, huge numbers of plaintiffs are recruited using customer and employee databases.  Discovery costs have mushroomed with the advent of required electronic discovery into email, hard drives, and other repositories of corporate information.

Trial courts are overwhelmed by the number of cases and the sheer volume of electronic records and paper generated in the average lawsuit these days. Overburdened judges leave it to adversarial attorneys to work out the pretrial procedures as much as possible. Unfortunately, the hourly billing mechanisms of most law firms reward doing more work on a case, rather than less. Neither plaintiff nor defense counsel have any incentive to reduce costs.

All this results in greater risk for companies of all sizes. Any firm that wants to create new products or develop new supply chains and or sell to new customers must account for these risks when making decisions. Do they know and understand all the regulations that might apply to their business? Can they foresee and protect against the threats they might face? In essence, transaction costs are increasing as a result of our legal system, not decreasing.

In my experience, both plaintiff and defense firms are guilty of these abuses. Only in-house legal departments have had any incentive to reduce the transactions costs of litigation. Until our legal system faces the same disruptive innovation that we have seen in the technology arena, the threat of lawsuits and government intervention through burdensome regulations will continue to tamp down our ability to innovate.

gavelThere have been some advances in alternative dispute regulation, through voluntary mediation and mandatory arbitration programs. These have helped to reduce costs and provide more timely resolutions of employment and consumer disputes.

But with every attempt to implement such programs, the plaintiffs’ bar raises an outcry that our rights to jury trials have been denied. But what good is a jury trial when it takes at least two years to get to trial, with attorneys on both sides of the dispute attempting to inflict pain and expense through discovery in the mean time?

More disruption is needed in our legal system. Who will lead it?

How have legal burdens impacted your business? Have you seen any improvement in recent years?

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Filed under Law, Leadership, Management, Mediation

Assess Yourself as a Manager As You Assess Your Employees

MP900341467I’ve written previous posts on performance management. For example, this post on setting performance objectives for the year. Did you follow my advice?

If so, you should be in decent shape for writing your performance reviews now.

I’ve also written about how important performance management is to an organization’s success, and how poorly managers do it. So, assess your own performance as a manager at the same time you assess your employees.

  • Have you worked to improve as a manager?
  • What techniques and tools have worked for you?
  • What do you still have trouble with?

If you still have room for improvement (and which of us does not?), there’s another year ahead of us. Perhaps in 2014, you can

That way, you will retain your good employees, and your organization will be more productive.

Best wishes for a successful 2014!

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Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Management, Workplace

The Business Case for Diversity: What Does It Mean To Your Organization?

VOTE – Early or on November 6, but VOTE!I’ve been hearing about the business case for diversity for at least twenty years now. It has been used so frequently to justify corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives that the phrase is now trite. Most managers can rattle the words off glibly, but few are able to explain them, and even fewer are able to apply the concept to their own organizations.

1.      So, what does the “business case for diversity” mean?

In essence, the “business case for diversity” refers to attempts to move beyond mere legal compliance with EEO and affirmative action laws. The theory is that in today’s global economy, there is value in the diversity of thought and perspective that employees from a wide range of cultures can bring to a business. Those companies that employ a more diverse workforce should be able to deal more successfully with their increasingly diverse customers. More diverse companies, then, should achieve better business results – higher sales and profits and a stronger corporate reputation.

Note that while I am articulating the business case in terms of the goals of a for-profit company, the theory should hold true in non-profits, educational, and government enterprises as well. Wherever an organization’s success can be defined, diversity should improve it, according to the “business case for diversity.”

Understanding what the business case for diversity means is the first step. The next step is to understand what it means for all businesses, and the final step is to understand what it means uniquely for your business.

Unless managers can find value to their organization in diversity, the phrase will continue to be trite and meaningless. It will not drive action.

2.      What are the alleged universal benefits of a business case for diversity?

Here are some of the frequently cited benefits of diversity:

  • Easier recruiting and access to a wider employee base, because the company becomes an employer of choice
  • Increased engagement among a more diverse employee base, leading to higher productivity
  • Better decision-making and creativity, because more perspectives are brought to a problem
  • Improved employee retention
  • Improved corporate and brand reputation

These advantages apply regardless of your business. Which are more important to you depends on your business. For example, if you can easily hire employees, increased retention may not matter to you as much as if your business struggles to keep jobs filled.

Which of these benefits will you emphasize in your business case for diversity, and why? Be sure you can articulate the reasons for your emphasis.

3.      How do you make the business case for diversity uniquely in your organization?

Examples of some of the more individualized aspects of diversity could include

  •  Appealing to the growing diversity in your consumer base, potentially giving you an advantage in product development and marketing, and ultimately in sales and market share
  • Obtaining a more global perspective on your business, leading to better supply chain sourcing and lower costs and/or higher quality

MP910216391 (1)Each organization will have to articulate how diversity can help its particular strategic objectives in terms similar to the above. Moreover, leadership must seek out evidence to prove or disprove the role of diversity in their organization. As the enterprise becomes more diverse, does it experience growth and increased profitability? Is it more creative? This is important, because no initiative will take root unless its proponents can convince the organization at large that it brings success.

At the end of the day, the business case for diversity will not be successful unless leadership of an organization internalizes it and uses it to drive decisions. They must believe diversity is important and that their organization’s future depends as much on building a diverse and inclusive workforce as in building a robust supply chain and strong customer relationships. Indeed, they must believe that their diverse workforce is integral to improving the other aspects of their business model.

How far along is your organization in internalizing the business case for diversity?


POSTSCRIPT: Here are a few useful articles on the topic:

Only skin deep? Re-examining the business case for diversity: Deloitte point of view, Human Capital Australia (September 2011)

The Business Case for Diversity: How Companies Keep Their Competitive Edge, by Tammy Worth, in Texas Diversity Magazine (September 2009)

The Business Case for Diversity: Reality or Wishful Thinking?, by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (2011)

What’s the Business Case for Diversity in the Workplace?, by Evan Apfelbaum (MIT Sloan) (February 27, 2013)

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