Employee Dilemma: When Family and Business Don't MixPublished: January 06, 2011
Fatema Akbari has long believed that women can do just about anything men can do, not necessarily a mindset that most of her Afghan sisters share. This conviction prompted her to choose carpentry when she was going into business in 2003. "I wasn't particularly interested in carpentry," she admits. "But I wanted to do a manly job and I wanted it to be the kind of business that responded to a need."
Filling a Void for Veterans
Akbari's company, Gulistan Sadaqat, produces wood furniture, such as couches, tables, armoires and windows, and also children's toys. While the woodcrafts are useful, the business fills an even greater need for employment. Akbari prioritizes hiring women -- 82 to date -- whose husbands have either been killed or disabled in the war. "Anybody who gets a job through our department of veterans [does so] because of their relationship with someone there, not based on merit. Many families are in great need, but never get a good response, especially for job placement. It's not hard to find them, and those are the people I target," says Akbari, speaking through a translator.
Akbari also helps thousands of women in her business district as the elected representative of the District 13 shawra, or business council. Afghan women who start home-based businesses in both rural and urban areas of the country become members of councils where they can share resources and knowledge. "As a member of the women's council, I work with a lot of other businesses and cover service to 5,000 women," notes Akbari. "The government has no affairs in District 13. They don't do anything for the veterans there."
Even with such an extensive network, Akbari's carpentry business struggled until a few years ago when she found help through BPeace, a nonprofit network of business professionals that volunteers skills to entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and other conflict-affected countries. Soon after, Akbari became a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women scholar at the American University of Afghanistan. "I learned a lot in the 10,000 Women program," says Akbari. "I learned the importance of time management and that I should be at work 10 minutes before everyone else. I learned to be more organized." During a recent trip to the U.S. for further business skills training, Akbari took special note of the arranged design of merchandise on store shelves. "In Afghanistan, we make chairs and couches and don't present them in an orderly way. If something is needed, we have to pull it from a lot of things that are there."
Certain human resource lessons from the 10,000 Women training have influenced Akbari's recent business decisions, particularly when it comes to hiring family members, a common Afghan practice. While both her son Zaman and daughter Shahla were working for her business, they weren't contributing equally. "My daughter was fine but my son wasn't doing what I expected of him," notes Akbari. "Even if your employees are family members, they have to have responsibilities and be accountable for what they are doing."
It is common for Afghan business owners to hire family members because they can be trusted -- but that doesn't always mean they are productive, says Mahbouba Seraj, a 10,000 Women instructor at the American University of Afghanistan. Afghan men, like in the case of Zaman, often feel a sense of entitlement to the business, which doesn't necessarily translate to a strong work ethic. "We tend not to talk to each other very directly in Afghanistan and that can create some of these problems," notes Seraj, who specializes in management and family business. "I tell women entrepreneurs that they shouldn't treat family members any differently than other employees. They should clearly spell out the expectations in the beginning, give them a trial period and keep up on their progress. If the boundaries are set, then they can avoid a lot of these troubles. Otherwise, family members will take advantage of the situation, especially the boys."
An entrepreneur who continues to be frustrated by a family member's job performance should take action, says Seraj. "I suggest she say, 'Walk in my shoes, be in my place. What would you do under these circumstances? I have this company and I'm supposed to be doing so much production and you are not doing what I need you to do. The result is that we are losing money and losing trust.'"
Akbari took a direct approach in handling her situation. "I decided that if my son didn't work well, then he shouldn't work for my company. I told him to go where he needed to go," she says. Zaman now serves in the Afghan military service, and Shahla, a 10,000 Women scholarship applicant, also left the company to open her own shoe business, Creative Afghan Women.
Akbari has mapped out a strategy for her company in the next five years. "My most important plan is to move to a real building because right now I'm working under tents," she says. "I want to build a factory." Akbari also hopes to start a new division that recycles her operation's sawdust and used paper into cardboard. "That way, I can employ more women and help the environment."