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In the middle of a family feud

PROBLEM SUBMITTED BY
D.U., ARKANSAS

I need advice on how to do the right thing for myself and
for a family I love like my own.

I've worked since my teens for Mack, who owns a 2,000-acre+
farm that he operates with his three sons. The boys will inherit the farm when
Mack dies. I'm in between Mack and his sons in age, and I've been his
right-hand man since my early 20s.

It's been a great job. Mack is the best boss anyone can
have, and I owe him a lot. But now he's asked me to do something that pushes
the limit.

His three sons are smart, hardworking, and bring a lot to
the operation. But they've just never been able to get along. After Mack had
his second heart attack last year, he confided to me his worry that the boys
weren't ready to take over the farm and work together. He thinks (and I agree)
they'll spend more time fighting than farming once he's out of the picture.

Mack probably would sell the farm to get some peace, except
he has two grandchildren now working there and another saying she's interested.

He's tired and has asked me to become farm manager, which
puts me in authority over his sons. He says he needs me to help them do the
right thing for the farm, do their jobs (which they do well), and stop the
constant fighting that depresses everyone. I want to do this, and I know I can
help. It would be a great job and a natural next step. But I'm worried about my
future if something happens to Mack in the short term and the boys inherit.

How can I help without getting in a no-win position and
ending up out in the cold?

DR. JONOVIC'S SOLUTION

The opportunity offered to D.U. is as great as the potential
threat to his career. Loyalty is a good foundation for working together, but
even a good foundation is meaningless without a structure. For this to work,
clear commitments are necessary on both sides and must be clearly defined and
enforced by contract. (Any important agreement that isn't in writing simply
doesn't exist.)

At the least, Mack and D.U. need an employment contract
between them (with full disclosure to the sons). D.U. could commit that he won't
leave after the first storm without losing some guaranteed amount. Mack could
guarantee both a term of employment and a significant severance if things don't
work out during that time frame. Defined performance expectations of D.U. (with
reasonable methods of measurement and review) should be part of the contract.

A contract like this is a commonsense idea even without the
potential issue with Mack's sons. But given this additional wrinkle, Mack also
should provide protection for his interregnum manager, since D.U. would be
exposed to all sorts of mischief if Mack's sons gain control.

For example, Mack could add a super provision expanding D.U.'s
guaranteed severance pay (say from one year to three) in the event that control
of the farm goes to his sons and they fire D.U. This would make them think
carefully before terminating D.U. without cause. Contracts can't eliminate
risk, but they can manage potential minefields. Ultimately, success will depend
on how well Mack conveys his reasoning to his sons and D.U.'s ability to gain
their respect and trust in his new role.

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