Family Matters


Publication date: October 3, 2006

Writer: Alice Bumgarner

When working alongside family members is good, it's very good. But when it's bad, it's dysfunctional. That, in a nutshell, defines the experience of working in a family business, according to those who punch the clock with siblings, offspring, or parents.

In some respects, they say, it's easy. After all, you implicitly trust and care about your co-workers when you're working with Dad or Sis. But it can be difficult on days when the line that separates business and personal lives melts away, and feelings are exposed.

How can you make sure the good days outnumber the bad? Here, say the experts, are a few rules to start with:

1. Don't hold a grudge. Do you still seethe when you remember how your brother ran over the family cat 20 years ago? Discuss it, get it out of the way, and move on, says Matt LeFaivre, president of J.R. LeFaivre Construction, in Taneytown, Md., who works with his father, sister, and brother (pictured). “You have to be willing to let things go,” he says. “You can think about it all you want at a family picnic. But when you're at work, it's business.”

James Lea, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a family-business adviser, says grudges need to be brought out into the sunlight where they can be scrubbed clean. Otherwise, those memories can create conflict down the road. “You need to be able to say, ‘This is what's really bothering me.' If you don't do that,” he says, “the issue continues to simmer.”

Sure signs that a grudge is getting in the way? One brother always finding something wrong with another brother's ideas. A daughter consistently letting work slide.

“These are the manifestations of things tucked down deep,” Lea says. He recommends finding an impartial facilitator to help work through it.

2. Pull down the shutters after 5:30 p.m. “I think one of the things family members don't do enough of is sit down and say, ‘No more business talk for a while; let's be a family,'” Lea says. “There's always one person who has a compulsion to talk about the business at the dinner table or on the ride to Grandma's house. They can't turn it loose. It's such a central part of their lives that they talk and talk and talk.”

When that happens, break the cycle by changing the subject — gracefully. LeFaivre says he and his family try not to discuss business at every family function. And when it does happen, he says to the lapsing family member, “I know this is important, but this is not the time to talk about it.”

3. Set ground rules that depersonalize relationships at work. The guy sitting across from you at work is still your father; more importantly, though, he's your boss.

“Some parents can't get past the fact that to them, the vice president of sales is still a 12-year-old who won't pick up his toys,” Lea says. “They can't shake that image. It can really get in the way of good business judgment, especially when it comes to succession.”

Find ways to depersonalize family relationships at work. Written performance standards can help, as well as unspoken rules of engagement, says Michael Strong, vice president of Brothers Strong in Houston. There is no single cookie-cutter solution. What's key is that players are willing to sit down and talk as soon as they sense something isn't working well.

4. Be clear about money. Conflicts over money can be the kryptonite that cripples an otherwise strong business. LeFaivre refers to a company that had to split because one family member didn't feel he was being paid his due. “Just because your name is on the sign doesn't mean you're entitled,” he says.

His company's solution: a job description list that includes pay-scale information. It specifies the maximum earning potential of each position and outlines what steps will advance you up the scale. No one is left wondering, “Why aren't I making what she makes?”

Ultimately, Lea says, separating work and family is difficult. But it can be done. The key is being able to put everything on the table with your parents, siblings, or offspring — from the poor performance last week to the untimely demise of Fluffy 20 years ago.

Alice Bumgarner is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.