Millions of people work in family- or couple-owned businesses who are not related to the owners in any way. As cozy as a family company can be, it also comes with inherent pitfalls for the non-family worker.
Family is different
There are things about working for people who are related to each other that can either enchant or exasperate those who work there. The more relaxed atmosphere, the warmth of comradeship, the less formal chains of command can all draw in a non-family worker in search of a great environment to work in.
They can also backfire.
Relaxed structure brings questions about who is in charge of what. Friendly co-workers can blur the boundaries of work and outside life beyond what some can bear. And some family businesses behave like, well, families — with all their baggage and friction.
Both employer and employee can take steps to make a couple-owned business more productive for both the company and those working there.
Pass the baggage, please
Many people from outside the family will hit a wall of family baggage when they enter the company. The family probably has been tripping over it so long, they don’t even see it anymore. But it comes out as soon as there’s a disagreement or problem. Suddenly, non-family members sense they are watching Mom and Dad fight, and they really want no part of it.
You are in charge. And that means you are in charge of how you handle conflict (see our article from last week.) If you drag in personal issues when you are trying to direct the company, you’ve gone over the line. Your employees are depending on you for leadership, not being dropped back into a parent/child relationship.
Establish a firm chain of command in the company, and be sure everyone working there knows who he/she reports to. Having fuzzy lines of communication only adds to confusion and stress for everyone.
If your employers are behaving in a less-than-professional manner, excuse yourself and let them know you are open to whatever they decide. Then walk away. Don’t get dragged in, and certainly don’t try to play “Mom” and “Dad” off against each other. Keep a level head. It’s not your fight because it’s not your baggage. Put it down.
On the outside looking in
As an employee, you have to realize going in that family will always be family. And you’re not part of it. You supplement it, you support it, but you aren’t part of it. That kind of reality can leave employees on the outside looking in. There will be discussions by management that you are not privy to, because they take place over the dinner table at home. You won’t get the “in” jokes or family shorthand they use.
How you refer to those who work for your company can convey a lot. Do you call them “members” or do you distance yourself by calling them “associates”? Settle in your own mind how you want to relate to others in the company and be consistent. Keep personal stuff at home as much as possible. Remember you are running a company, not an extension of your personal life.
Make decisions for the good of the company, not just to quiet chatter in the family. Hire and promote from both within and outside the family regularly.
Accept that you will never be as “in” as the boss’s worst nephew, who may well be promoted ahead of you despite his lack of skills. If you can’t live with that, don’t work for a family company. At the same time, doing your very best will make you shine and open up possibilities for you to move up. Balance the good with the bad.
Remember the game when you weren’t supposed to hear something and you put your fingers in your ears and said, “La-la-la-la-la” to be sure nothing got through? Working in a family company can sometimes require you to do that. The good and the bad of the family dynamic is on display throughout the work day. It can be tempting to discuss the different personalities within the family with co-workers or at home.
As much as possible, when at work, treat everyone as a co-worker. He’s not Cousin Jeff. She’s not your favorite daughter. They are people working to drive the company goals forward. Be adults. Behave.
Say “no” to gossip. Especially in a family company, it’s very possibly going to come back to bite you later. After all, families are fluid. Their members get along, then disagree, avoid each other, and then come back together and gang up on someone else. Be a duck; float on the surface of potential family waves and just keep working.
What are your boundaries?
In a corporation made up of unrelated people, many employees keep themselves to themselves. You might have no idea the person at the customer service desk loves to square dance on weekends. Or that the guy in the back on the press is working toward a college degree. And that’s okay.
Somehow, when a business is family-owned, the boundaries get fuzzier, just as they do in a family. Everybody seems to be in everybody else’s pocket. While it can feel supportive, this can also become oppressive.
Keep things professional. Give your employees space to be themselves without you or their co-workers being involved. Some people need to feel included. Others are more reserved. Study your employees and let them know it’s fine to have two separate lives — work and personal. Don’t expect them to be honorary members of the family.
Decide on your boundaries going in. If a family company is very friendly and warm, but you prefer to hold back on your personal life, do it firmly but politely. Don’t be afraid that you’ll lose yourself in the company and the co-worker interactions.
Family businesses are both a blessing and a challenge to those who own them and those who work in them. Remember that everything that goes on at work should be for the benefit of the company, so that it can give security to its workers. Keep your focus. And enjoy the perks of a less-formal atmosphere.
Tony Kantzavelos and Kathy Prepos Loveyourcentre, Toronto, ON
Basing all their branding on the “Love Your” concept (Love Your Leather, Love Your Purse, Love Your Rugs, etc.) this company is perfect for our emphasis on couple-owned businesses.
Tony Kantzavelos and his wife, Kathy Prepos, have worked side-by-side for 15 years. Both came from different backgrounds, and had different dreams.
“My background is in broadcasting and nursing,” said Kathy. “I started to learn the business from production, to order processing, to eventually running the call centre and online operations. But my love is nursing. I started to work with Tony as I wanted to assist him in following through with his dreams and goals.”
The partnership has worked well, with Tony generating ideas and Kathy helping to make them reality, along with the rest of the staff.
“I knew everything he set out to do was achievable, as he always had a plan and stuck to his plan,” she said. “His vision changed along the way, the business formula changed, and Tony always stuck to his plan.”
They are different people with different skill sets and passions. “I have a very strong personality,” Kathy acknowledged, “and always contribute to decisions, but at the end of the day, Tony is the boss at work. It’s been Tony’s vision and I have been lucky enough to be able to hop on this most interesting vision.”
You would never confuse Tony and Kathy in the office. “We are both very hard workers, but our leadership and communication styles are completely different,” she said. “I have a very high-energy personality and am stern when it comes to expectations and outcomes. Tony works side by side with his crew. His approach is much sweeter, and he accepts everyone’s work style and gives his team flexibility and patience. Tony is clearly the nicer boss to work for,” she jokes.
She’s lucky, because she gets to work for Tony — the nicer boss. “There is one boss and that is Tony. I do have a large role in the company, but like all other employees, I have to follow the same channels and take direction from Tony.”
What about the balance between working together and being at home? “At home, we are at home. Yes, we do discuss work issues over coffee, and use this as an outlet to discuss larger projects, performance reviews, future business and plans. But Tony and I work hard and play hard. When we are out enjoying ourselves, there is no time for work life in our activities.” (Case in point, they answered these questions from Florida, where they were soaking up sun and not thinking about work.)
What’s their advice to other couples thinking of working together? “One of the two of them has to be the boss and the final decision maker,” they said. “If they cannot come to that agreement, then it will be a struggle throughout their journey. They must have total trust and confidence in the final decision maker. There are always dips and valleys and corners and turns in the road. If you are unable to accept the good and the bad, you must strongly reconsider this type of journey together.”
Becca Anderson spent 17 years in public relations, advertising and corporate PR before joining Fabricare Canada in 2000. She was named editor in 2013, and welcomes feedback about the magazine via the contact form on this site.