Working with Family

Family Values: Dos and Don’ts for Working with Relatives

Posted by Stacey Papp

Working with family members can make for a happy workplace and bring everyone closer – or it can be a complete nightmare. 

Just ask Sumner Redstone, media mogul and majority owner of CBS and Viacom, and his children, Shari and Brent, whose fraught family/business relationship has been making news headlines since 2006. Brent filed suit against Sumner that year, asserting he was entitled to a $1 billion stake in their holding company, and Sumner had to settle. Months later, Dear OId Dad and Shari had a falling out, but have since made up. Shari remains a Viacom/CBS trustee and is in line to be heir to the company – maybe: Sumner has been famously wishy-washy on the topic.

Of course, not all family businesses are like the Redstones – the Ford family has retained control of the automobile company since its inception and they all seem to play nice together. William Clay Ford, Jr., is currently the executive chairman and three other Fords sit on the board or work in a corporate capacity. 

So how do you ensure your family business veers more Ford than Redstone? Check out the below dos and don’ts.

Outline everyone’s roles. Ensure all responsibilities across positions are clearly defined, even for – maybe especially for – your family members. This includes giving the right person the right job. No one should have a role for which they are not qualified, especially for executive positions. In the television show “Arrested Development,” sheltered mama’s boy Buster Bluth was named CEO of the family company by the adoring matriarch, even though his only experience was a class he took on 18th-century agrarian business, and you can imagine how that worked out.    

Keep it legal. All applicable contracts, rates, etc., should be clearly delineated, and make sure your relatives fill out a timesheet like everyone else. Just because they’re family doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t cover yourself just in case, and having everything in writing helps to protect you as well as them in case there is ever a dispute about money or hours.

Communicate. Your other employees should know who is family and who is not – don’t hide it, or when it does eventually come out, you’ll seem deceitful. Additionally, non-family employees shouldn’t feel like they aren’t privy to information about the business – make sure that you hold company-wide meetings when appropriate to discuss policy changes, etc. Unless your family members are higher-ups involved in the decision-making process, don’t “tip them off” first. 

Keep ‘em separated. Keep work life and personal life separate whenever you can. Not only does this help the business run more smoothly, but it gives everyone better work-life balance – no one should be talking or thinking about work 24/7. 

Abuse family relationships. This can go two ways – either rewarding or punishing someone specifically based on your family relationship and not your working one. All of your employees should be accountable for their actions, and this includes family. If you need to address concerns with one department or crew, everyone should be included in the discussion. Conversely, if an employee deserves praise, don’t be afraid to give it, even if you are related to the employee. Just make sure to do the same for non-family employees – you don’t want to pit family members against non-family.

Pay them if they don’t contribute. You may have family members who need some financial help while they wait for other job offers, or younger relatives who are looking for their first gig, but you shouldn’t hire anyone who can’t pull their weight. Your other employees won’t be fooled if you put “consultant” after your relative’s name if the person never seems to do anything useful.

Cross the line. Don’t do anything that could damage your professionalism in the eyes of your other employees. It’s perfectly normal to lighten up a workplace with appropriate joking, but don’t bring up any embarrassing family history, or do/say anything you wouldn’t do/say to a normal employee. Michael Scott of “The Office” made the mistake of hiring his incompetent, sulky nephew as a personal assistant, and went as far as spanking the teenage employee to discipline him – not a good look.

Keep these tips in mind for your family business to keep things running smoothly – and use the lessons from the Redstones, Bluths and Michael Scott on what not to do.

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