After the Holidays … Rethink the Mixing of Family, Business

    It seems that most of us can be divided into two broad categories on our attitudes about this time of year -“ you either love it, or hate it. No doubt that the holidays bring on momentous stress for many, and extreme joy for others. We are almost a bi-polar culture on this issue and there ought to be a treatment to soften this disorder. And maybe there is if you are part of a family business.

    The Mania
    This is a time for family and friends -“ good times and gratefulness! Holiday meals, company parties, presents and well wishes fill our collective psyche. We take time off to prepare our homes; we visit friends and family offering well wishes. Many step up their charitable efforts, some donate time to those less fortunate. Christmas Day and New Year’s Day have become the only two days of the year when almost everything is closed and there is little excuse to avoid the family festivities. (Since the demise of the Sunday drive and Sunday dinner, these days are to be cherished.)

    The Depression
    Many become depressed during the holidays because of a loneliness created by not having those family and friends cherished by others. Some become depressed because they have never gotten the concept that giving is more rewarding than receiving. But probably most get depressed because the Holidays just never live up to expectations and therefore bring on disappointment. Managing expectations at this time of year can be the key to Holiday Success!

    The Set-Up
    If you are a family business stakeholder, you need to understand the delicate balance between the family and the business. It is best to set some clear lines of demarcation -“ especially around family gatherings and events.

    Unfortunately “the holidays” come at the end of the calendar year and so does financial year-end closings for many companies. In fact, many entities are required to use the calendar year as a financial year. Here is the set up: probably the most stressful time company for management is superimposed on the holidays.

    What happens at the family holiday gathering when the bonuses fall short of the family employee’s expectations? Suppose how the spouse feels when the holidays have been “shorted” for her family by the bonus decision made by the in-laws-¦ and now must put on the happy face at the holiday dinner! Or, conversely, how might the company CEO feel when the company didn’t have the kind of year that provided bonuses for those she loves? Planning a year-end closings is stressful at best -“ employee evaluations, bonus decisions, tax preparation, client appreciations, company parties, etc. Please don’t dismiss the company parties as a stress factor because many managers find them a pressure cooker to do the “right thing” and never really get there.

    The Prescription
    First, set some rules for how and when business should be conducted. Having a discussion at Thanksgiving dinner about business operations is not appropriate. Certainly those who are not active in the business consider that discussion to be an intrusion into the intent of the gathering. If it happens repeatedly, they probably don’t look forward to sharing that turkey. Furthermore, business discussions have a built-in tension to them that is a natural part of the decision-making process. Those in the business have gotten used to that banter, but to those who are not in the business, that discussion looks like an argument.

    Conducting business on family time should be avoided. One family I work with developed a rule in their Code of Conduct: No business of any kind shall be discussed on family time. If any family members find it necessary to have any business conversations on family time, they shall remove themselves from the rest of the family gathered into a private location.

    Next, move any decisions that could lead to relationship conflicts to a different time of year whenever possible. There are things that must be done before year-end to make it to the financial statements, and there are other potential conflicts that can be moved to some other time of year. For example, employee evaluations could be done at any time of year. The only reason they have coincided with year-end is because compensation has been tied to the evaluation, or more specifically the performance bonus. If there is anything full of conflict it is the bonus. How much? What is it for? Was it earned by the employee, or based on overall company performance? On-¦and-¦on! One thing is for sure, those deciding on the bonus and those receiving it rarely agree on the amount.

    Can’t the evaluation and the bonus be at different times of the year? If for tax purposes or financial statements, bonuses need to be declared in December (not really usually true for all aspects of a bonus), then the mid-year review can be resurrected for discussion.

    If you have a big customer appreciation program, can you move it forward in the year to late November, or early December so it doesn’t interfere with the family stuff. No spouse wants to hear that you are late for the family gathering because you were out with your big customer and he wanted to “just have one more.”

    If you have a company party (that most spouses hate), can it too be earlier than the last Saturday before Christmas? That’s crunch time for many families and having to give up the prime time for the company party doesn’t put many in the most festive of moods. You might find that moving it forward will make the party more successful!

    Bottom line, if you can give yourself those last two weeks in December dedicated to your family, you will diminish your potential conflict.

    The Holidays are meant to be for family. Find ways now, to rearrange you holiday practices and traditions to honor your family and minimize your family business stress. You will be surprised how a few key, well thought out moves will change your holidays to meet your expectations as well as those of your loved ones.

    Rick Segal is the principal at Segal Consulting. He holds a Certificate in Family Business Advising with a Fellows status from the Family Firm Institute. He is the founder of the Family Business Council and its affiliated Study Group. He can be reached at [email protected].