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3 Keys to Working With Family

· Small Business Owner,Hiring Family,Family Business,Business Tips,Entrepreneurs

I have a confession to make. Over the past few years I’ve consistently joked about never working with family. It’s always a joke grounded in a true warning. Working with family comes with a minefield that most business owners are not equipped to deal with!

I've seen entire families get torn apart by working businesses together. I’ve seen families stop talking to each other for years, couples seriously consider getting a divorce after decades of a strong relationship and one scenario I dealt with last year was particularly nasty. I had a client who had hired a nephew. The nephew was late every day, he left early every day, and at times even blatantly disrespected his uncle in front of the other employees and this had been going on, and getting worse, for months. His uncle came to me because he didn’t know how to let go of his nephew without causing a split in the family.

I believe that family is something special. In my life, my relationship with my family has always been incredible. We have the most fun together and the most memories. The last thing I’m willing to do is sacrifice that for a business.

So my confession?

I’ve had family working inside Grow Disrupt alongside me for years.

I heard a quote that sums up my decision to work with family perfect. Something to the effect of

“You’ll never hire a better person than family. Family are fantastic. They are the best to work with if they're competent.”

The problem is, most family members are not hired because they're competent. Most family members are hired because they’re family. Which becomes a problem.

If you hired someone to be competent and they turn out to not be competent, it’s easy to rationalize firing them and it’s not personal. They failed to live up to the original conditions of hiring.

If you hire someone because they are family, whether they turn out to be competent or not, they are not going to stop being your family (unless your parents have been hiding an adoption somewhere along the way!). Therefore, the original conditions of hiring will still be a factor when you have to go try and convince yourself to fire them.

There are three keys I’ve found that make the biggest difference when working with family over the past few years.


The first one is to communicate your expectations clearly and upfront.

Honestly, this lands across the board with any employees. But it’s crucial with family.

Small business owners often hire someone and the training consists of “Can you take care of that for me?” There is minimal instruction or communication on how to do it well or what timeframe the task should take place in. The employee is left on their own to figure it out and often ends up failing to live up to the Boss’s expectations (which were never communicated). With an employee, it’s not as big a deal.

When family doesn’t live up to expectations, it’s personal and it’s crushing. With a regular employee we feel we have room to address it. With family, we don’t want to hurt feelings, so we let it slide and it begins to snowball.

You have to communicate expectations and corrections consistently and in a timely manner (correcting your sister for failing on a task 6 months ago is not helpful).

P.s. This applies to their individual jobs and their overall role and position in the company!

Don’t let things slide!

The next key is, don't let things slide when things don't go well. When that employee doesn't live up to expectations, you've got to bring it up right away. It sounds harder, but it’s actually less personal if you’re addressing the issue right away than if you let it stew!

Letting something stew tells the employee (or family member) that this is a big enough problem to stick in your brain. Or if you chose to let it slide into the next issue, now you have to address two or three or four issues at once. It’s much simpler to get the car back on the road when you hit the rumble strips on the side than when you’re already in the ditch! Small corrections are easier to take all-around!

No one wants to upset family. But if you aren’t willing to call them on the carpet immediately not only does it create a much more painful conversation down the road (because trust me, it’s never going to be “just one issue!”), but it also can start to create animosity among your other team members if family is getting preferential treatment.

So make it a quick (private) “Hey! You doing X puts me in this situation and it’s not pleasant. Here’s how we avoid it. If I end up in this situation again, I’m going to have to do Y. Please don’t put me in that position!”

And yes, it can be as simple as that short conversation!

Be fair and equal in your treatment.

This is the one area that I actually ran into the most issues.

I'm good at communication. I'm good at calling people on the carpet right away. But what I found was that I overcorrected family in particular. Because I know that most people don’t call family on the carpet enough, I overcorrected to the point of calling them out on items I would have overlooked with a regular employee.

The key here is to ensure you’re holding everyone to the same standards.

They can't get preferential (or harder) treatment just because they're your family member.

When you treat family members better than other employees, as mentioned above, it creates a disruption in the culture of your team. The other members of our team start to look at the family member with resentment as they feel slighted and less important. I’ve seen it devolve into the employee deciding to go find a job where they will be more appreciated because, compared to the family member, they feel “less.”

This usually doesn’t bother incompetent employees. Usually I see the discontent arise with the competent employees who feel that they work as well, or better, than the family member. And receive less recognition for it.

Every time you lose a team member, the cost to replace them is typically 3-6x their monthly salary. It’s not worth it in small business with slim margins!


As a last little tip, remember that your business and your personal life are two separate items. Make sure your family understands this too. This may mean setting boundaries in regards to taking too much time off during work hours for yourself. This may mean not agreeing to run personal errands during the day. But it also means not making family time into business time by taking that call.

When you do this right, life gets easier. You can now say to your family-member-employee “Hey! We have to protect the integrity of the business here. So as your boss, I have to do this. As your family member, this sucks and I’m sorry, but we’re at work and I have to be your boss right now!”

I joke with family all the time about how hard my boss is on me (knowing that I am my own boss). The great thing is, it helps them see that I’m just as good as disciplining myself as I am with them. And those boundaries create great relationships at work and at home!

Whether you’re working with family or not, growth is something that is always on the mind of businesses and business owners. We’re always either growing or dying, and at Grow Disrupt we want to see you grow! We’re putting on our 2-day, Annual, Growth Retreat in January and our speaker line-up is wicked awesome - we’ve even got Mike Michalowicz coming back to the retreat next year! If you’re interested in getting into this exclusive event, book your interview here! (link in a button)

Stephanie Scheller is a TED speaker, a two-time best-selling author and the founder of Grow Disrupt: a San Antonio based company dedicated to disrupting the way the world does business through training. In just under a decade, Stephanie has been behind the scenes with nearly 2500 small businesses. She has worked in groups and one-on-one to create total business transformation & help business owners live the life they got into business to create!

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