Lessons Learned

With Thanksgiving having come and gone, I am reminded of the myriad of issues surrounding the opportunities and pitfalls of the holiday season. The lessons were to get employees involved in the decisions, support programs that impact the highest number of employees and to be spontaneous about when they occur.

Once a “precedent” is established, it is hard to change and soon an “opportunity for recognition” becomes an entitlement and source of friction. The first time I was asked: “When are we getting our Thanksgiving Turkey and how much will it weigh this year?” caused me to ponder the wisdom of a benefit that was tied to a holiday and not to performance and thus seemed to be an expectation. We passed them out anyway that year, but announced that it was the last time – we killed the turkey program forever! Working with a task force of employees, they came up with a couple of different ways to address Thanksgiving. They organized a Potluck luncheon for each shift, and employees were able to showcase their best dish, talk about them and share with their peers. The group also sponsored a collection of contributed groceries for the local food pantry along with a contribution from the company. This became an employee-led program, repeated year after year, and had a positive impact on the entire company.

Holiday parties are also a challenge. In my experience, only about 1/3 of employees would attend, many would not bring their spouses and alcohol consumption was always an issue. ÿBecause of the low participation level, we abandoned these “regular” seasonal parties and replaced them with “spontaneous celebration events” for the entire company. Again, we used a committee of employees with a budget who would come up with a “surprise.”ÿWe would shut down the entire business, bring in buses and head off for 4 hours of celebration. ÿWe did mini-golf, laser tag, bowling, and a visit to Gillette Stadium. We set up teams to prevent people from “grouping” and made sure people got to mix with other departments. A meal was always involved so everyone had an opportunity to “break bread” together. Having something to celebrate broke the tradition of quarterly or annual events and raised the level of anticipation. Even our operation in Xiamen, China was surprised by a company-sponsored “hike” to a local mountaintop!

We did develop one holiday tradition around the Christmas season to deal with the delicate challenge of “holiday gifts” from our suppliers. Just after I purchased the business in November, I began to get fruit baskets, calendars, pens, wallets, sports tickets and all manner of trinkets and gifts from our vendors, generally addressed to me.ÿWhen I asked about it, it became clear that the previous owner took most of it home and that many department heads and managers had their own “stash” of this “booty” that they looked forward to each year. Of course, everyone knew about it and waited to see what I would do…I was in the Fishbowl!ÿI immediately posted a notice that all of these gifts were to be turned in to the Personnel Department – no one was allowed to keep them for themselves. The day before Christmas, we bought coffee and donuts for everyone and held a companywide raffle to give away all the “loot,” and there was enough to go around to everyone.ÿ

Over the years, our vendors slowly recognized that they could not influence our decisions and the gifts began to decline. We never took the bold step that one of our customers did, by asking us to give them TVs or stereos for their own employee distribution program! Throughout the year, everyone turned in their “gifts” for the annual raffle.ÿSo, when I was issued “Friends-and-Family” shares prior to a customer’s IPO, no one was surprised when 60 days later I sold it and distributed the gains evenly to all the employees-$600 a piece as a spontaneous “gift.” ÿ

To avoid the potential controversy around selecting paid holidays, we again turned this over to an employee group to decide. During November of each year, they allocated the 11 paid holidays over the next year’s calendar. They would first try to watch for 3-day weekends or 4 days off in a row around national holidays like Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Christmas and New Year. A long stretch without a day off was avoided, especially in April and October. They would then address the delicate issue of “special interests” such as Veterans Day, Easter/Passover Days and Martin Luther King Day. They could never please all of the employees, but once selected, at least any criticism was deflected away from “management.” ÿ

I learned that these policy choices are rich with opportunities to set a “tone” that can reinforce the vision and values the company is run by. Breaking tradition was OK as long as it was thoughtful and the substitute made sense. And finally, a little free food goes a long way!

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Jim Sharpe (MBA `76) is one of theÿHBS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence for the 2009-2010 academic year, who ran an aluminum manufacturing business for 21 years while working with his wife, Debby Stein Sharpe (MBA `81) after both left careers at GE and large companies and sold the business in late 2008. ÿJim can be reached at: jsharpe@hbs.edu, 310 Rock Center, 617-496-6285.