Survival in a Family Business

December 27, 2021

Survival in a Family Business

I want to reiterate that some family businesses are great places to work, even if you are not a family member. But some are not. A previous post gave an example of that. So You, as a non-family employee, can inadvertently be caught in these difficult dynamics. What can you do? It isn’t an easy situation but here are some Dos and Don’ts for survival.

The Don’ts for survival

Don’t try to mediate

Being right in the middle of the fight, you might try to be helpful and offer a suggestion (“A sample run won’t take long and then you can decide”). Stifle the desire to ameliorate or fix what’s going on. First, it’s not your job to do so, and second, even if you were a mediation expert, it’s doubtful you’d be successful (because you would not be perceived as trustworthy by all parties).

Don’t identify what’s really going on

Avoid any comments like “Look, I can see that you and Martha are having trouble, so I’ll just come back—.” No, no, no. Bad family dynamics are often that way because no one’s willing to be honest about the problem. In fact, Martha and Carl might band together to turn on You because You raised it. Might even paper over their rift as they have a common enemy to close ranks against. Not good for them and really not good for You.

Don’t gossip

Who wouldn’t immediately want to huddle with their best pal at work and go over the gory details? But if you can, avoid it. Because the family dynamics are bad, it’s likely the work environment is, too. With family members possibly recruiting employees to ‘be on their side,’ you don’t know if your comments will get back to them.

Instead, if asked, say something like, “They were talking about a new product line.” Well, they were, whatever else was going on. If pushed for more, assume a blank expression or change the topic. Surviving is the objective.

The Dos for surviving

Run and hide

Honestly, that’s the best advice I can give. In the original conversation, you pretty much kept your mouth shut after you realized you had stepped in it. The right thing to do. At the same time, I would be unobtrusively backing out of the room or saying something like “Oops, sorry, gotta go. I can smell my lunch burning/nobody’s at the customer desk/I’ve got a meeting.” Don’t wait for anyone to speak—just head out.

Try to make a joke

This is a bit risky and I prefer the run-to-fight-another-day strategy but at the point when they both threaten to fire you, you might say something like, “Hey, you’re the big bosses. You can let me know who’s firing me.” Smile broadly like it’s a great joke and exit quickly. Might work, might not. That’s your call.

Surviving: Keep your resume updated

Only the family can fix its dynamics. And they have to want to. Therefore, it’s possible things will get worse before a family member decides to raise the issues rather than ignore them.

You cannot in any way influence when or whether that happens. So, keep your head down and hope for a miracle. All the while, actively looking for new job. Survival is the key.

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