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That’s a Dysfunctional Business Not a Family

When someone I'm considering working with says, "we're a family" or anything similar about their business relationships, I start backing away slowly. [...] Work is work, family is family, and both function much better when you make the distinction between the two.

<p>Header Image by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@jtylernix?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Tyler Nix</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/family?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a></p>

Header Image by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

When someone I’m considering working with says, “we’re a family” or anything similar about their business relationships, I start backing away slowly.

I’ve almost written this post a few times, but held off because well… family is an almost universal virtue. Although most families are located someplace along the dysfunctional spectrum, people seem wired to stick it out with the folks sharing their bloodline. The number of people I know maintaining relationships with toxic siblings, partners, and extended family is shockingly high.

While at some point (even with family), a time comes to kick terrible people out of your life. But you don’t leave Grandma at the curb when her dementia renders her unable to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Nor do you withhold food from your dumbest child under the assumption the nutrients should be allocated only for the smart. That is not the case in business unless your goal is running a dysfunctional company.

I run a digital ad agency, and guess what? Not one of our clients would renew a contract if they decided that paying our firm no longer makes business sense. We are not a family; we are trading partners. If they stop paying us, we will stop working. And, much as I hate lawsuits, our contracts specify the jurisdiction in which any litigation must take place. 

The employee/employer dynamic is not quite the same, but it’s close. It is still a trade relationship. At best, it may be tribal, but not familial. Companies don’t, as a rule, like firing employees. Retraining personnel is expensive, and, as most managers who have had to let someone go will tell you, it’s not pleasant. But the people working at a company in the same tribe are still part of a trade relationship. Most are probably working to provide for an actual family.

While family-owned businesses are real, they help prove the point that a colleague, coworker, boss, cofounder, client, service provider, etc. are not automatically family. If you work at a family-owned business with the owner’s adult child in the same job, for the same amount of time, and the company has to layoff employees, do you think the owner’s child has the same odds of being laid off as you? 

Do you think, even if you were much better at the job than the nepotism hire, that the odds of job loss are equal? I believe most people will stick by family, frequently irrationally, and to their detriment. Work isn’t synonymous with family, even in a family business. 

People run companies, and those people regularly do things for personal interest in ways damaging to the business. As an example, WeWork paid its founder & CEO $5.9 million to use the name ‘We,’ – after much criticism, the money was given back. However, WeWork’s CEO still managed to get a sweet $1.7 Billion in go away money. Not a bad payout after running the company irrationally and seemingly with the goal of personal wealth being put well in front of the firm’s interest. Besides the trademark sale, he hired several family members at high salaries, collected rent from WeWork in buildings he owned, and a host of other conflicts of interest involving a fair number of executives. A self-serving executive is a frequent occurrence, but most of the time, investors are a bit better at protecting their investment.

People will often act selfishly and are not always good at assessing what will benefit them the most. I had a business partner who, after a mere nine months at our jointly owned firm, left taking a few large clients with him. I found out when he called a meeting and announced that he had removed everyone else from the insurance, changed our access to the office, and removed access to several clients’ accounts, all without warning. His reason, “this partnership makes no sense for me and my family.” Oddly for this guy, our partnership made perfect sense, over a year prior, when we worked together to pitch and land the account; and the partnership made sense when used as a reason not to have contracts preventing him from being able to take the money and run. 

A company not being a family isn’t a reason to be a jackass to your colleagues. I don’t expect anyone to stick out a job that no longer makes sense for their family. However, honoring agreements and not behaving so selfishly as to risk a trade relationship turning into an enemy is a pretty fabulous idea. Answering every 2:00 am phone call from your boss as if they were your mother is probably not such a steller way to live life.

In my experience, at least 70% of the people who ever described their company to me as a “family” meant that I should give up my nights and weekends, because well, it’s all for the family. A large chunk of these people ended up at some point not paying me or paying me chronically late. At best, these “we’re a family” people were naive; at worst, they were manipulative, and the reality was usually a combination of both. 

Writing for Fast Company, Nicole Miller of Buffer gave an excellent explanation of why she stopped calling her teammates her family. By her account, she used the “family” term both liberally and without maniacal intention. Also, by her account that naive use of the word created problems culturally within Buffer, including forcing employees to rank their actual families and their work families. 

In every trade dynamic – even when “we’re a family” is said by a well-meaning individual, I feel justified in my reaction to back away slowly. Work is work, family is family, and both function much better when you make the distinction between the two.


Mason Pelt is a managing director at the digital ad agency Push ROI and writes sporadically around the internet.

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