This article first appeared in Forbes.
“Leave your work problems at work and your home problems at home.”
We’ve all heard this counsel at one point or another in our professional careers. On the face of it, this advice makes a great deal of sense. Of course, we don’t want to allow our personal lives to affect our performance at work. Financial woes, bad break-ups, roommate troubles—these are the types of personal issues that clearly don’t belong in the workplace. But, what happens when the lines between home and the office blur? How do you leave your home problems at home when that spouse you’ve been fighting just happens to be your company’s Chief Operating Officer? How do you leave your work problems at work when your marketing intern—a.k.a. your 22-year-old son—just posted an ill-advised tweet that could very well destroy your company’s reputation?
Family relationships in the workplace can be complicated. When business intersects with biology, complex emotional dynamics could rear their ugly heads. Spouses argue and siblings rival. Familiar relatives bristle at the idea of interacting with one another as professional colleagues. Personal and professional boundaries may disappear as family and non-family members alike try to navigate their way through a relationally complicated workplace. In their book, Business Is Business: Reality Checks for Family-Owned Companies, Kathy Kolbe and Amy Bruske discuss how these relational dynamics make it difficult for family businesses to set appropriate boundaries. They liken the struggle to building a pool without a fence: “Without [boundaries], family members can dive into the business, get in over their heads and drown.”
Family relationships in the office tend to fall on a spectrum that spans between familiarity and favoritism. On one end lies the old proverb: “familiarity breeds contempt.” President Grandpa never quite makes the mental transition from “Johnny-in-diapers” to “John in Accounts Receivable.” On the flip side of that dynamic, John himself struggles to see President Grandpa as anything other than that affable old man who used to read him stories and sneak in the occasional candy bar. On both sides, familiarity threatens to undermine the healthy maintenance of a professional working relationship.
On the other end of the spectrum lies favoritism. Judy is Uncle Steve’s favorite niece. She’s also a junior account executive on his business development team. Terrified of doing anything to jeopardize his relationship with Judy, Steve repeatedly sweeps her poor performance under the rug. He’s much easier on her than her peers, and the boss’s favoritism has not gone unnoticed. Not only is Judy floundering in her position, but her better-qualified employees are beginning to disengage.
On either side of the spectrum—familiarity or favoritism—accountability suffers as the first casualty to this erosion of family boundaries. A familiar ribbing from Grandpa is not the same as a thoughtful performance review. A wink, a nod, and a “you gave it your best shot” is not the same as earnest accountability. So, what should a family business owner do to make sure related employees keep family and business in their respective spheres? To help erect practical, realistic boundaries between the family home and the family business:
1. Encourage Reconciliation
For adequate boundaries to be constructed, owners should implement a double-pronged approach that operates on both sides of the divide. At home, family reconciliation needs to become a priority. Warring cousins can’t be expected to lay aside animosity in the workplace unless they’ve first reconciled their differences outside the office.
2. Dedicate Time and Space for Conversations
Second, dedicated time and space needs to be set aside for work-related discussions. Especially for married couples, this will keep shop-talk from dominating the home conversations. Related coworkers need to protect “home” time at all costs. While it may be tempting to conduct business at the family picnic, that urge must be resisted. If present, owners should postpone the conversation until it can be continued at the office.
3. Establish and Enforce Governance
Finally, at the office, working relationships must be tightly defined in terms of organizational structure. If the business lacks a clear pecking order, otherwise junior employees might be tempted to take full advantage of their familiarity with senior family members and wreck havoc on the chain of command. In a related sense, family business owners or managers should develop sound governance and enforce it across the board. Performance reviews, critical feedback, tactical directives—to facilitate these vital communications, proper channels need to be established that transcend the unique family relationships that exist between individual employees.
A double-pronged approach such as this one requires both organizational and relational buy-in. Family business owners can easily draw up an organizational chart and implement operational policies, but they can’t force employees to adopt a set of boundaries in their personal lives unless the see the value of doing so. This puts the ball in the owner’s court to demonstrate the value of a healthy work/life balance in his or her own life first.
“Leave your home problems at home” is sound advice, but it ultimately points to an ideal few of us will ever achieve. With this in mind, every family business owner/manager must take intentional steps to practically keep home and office in their respective places . In the end, the strength of boundaries set will depend on owners and employees’ ongoing commitment to this common goal. Even the sturdiest fence needs regular maintenance. The good news is, with careful attention and ongoing intention, family business owners can keep their employees from getting in over their heads and drowning in a pool of complicated family relationships.