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Fraught Family Fortunes: Reasoning with Relatives in the Workplace‏

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell


Most literature regarding “family and the workplace” refers to the difficulties of balancing time and energy between our family role at home and our employee role at work. But what about when our family role follows us to the office? There are many ways that you might find yourself employed above, below, or alongside a family member in your professional environment. It can be convenient, helpful, and gratifying; it can also add new dimensions to workplace conflict. This newsletter is about some of the challenges of working with family, and how to confront them.

Last week newspapers were smattered with headlines covering the infamous Rupert Murdoch as he made his son the chief executive of 21st Century Fox. Among the chatter was this New York Times piece buzzing about the delicate and fraught process of handing down a dynasty the likes of Murdoch’s media empire within a family. This is a very high-profile example of family in the workplace (I’m guessing most readers don’t have their own  New York Times beat page, nor do most of our family conflicts involve $75 billion enterprises), but it made me consider how often our personal and professional realms do mix and mingle, and how rarely the unique difficulties of this alchemy are really addressed.

Family in the Workplace: Ethics

There’s a whole slew of slippery ethical boundaries when working alongside someone with whom you also share a personal connection. Conflicts of interest can arise when those personal connections hit up against the broader best interests of an organization, and sorting between them can be a tricky business.  Acting as a supervisor to a spouse or family member is often particularly rife with legal and ethical pitfalls, and must be carefully delineated and handled in workplace policy. In some cases nepotism might be subject to legal action.

Such legal and technical issues pose real challenges, but related – and perhaps even more difficult to manage – is the threat of harmful workplace conflicts arising out of family dynamics.

Family in the Workplace: Conflict Risks

Though we’ve already recognized that Rupert Murdoch’s “family business” isn’t run of-the-mill, there are many small and mid-sized businesses that are started or maintained through familial connections, and this business structure does come with its own set of conflict risks.

Often a family business is organized around a leading figure; historically this has often been a paternal or patriarchal figure (though we should fully recognize the many female entrepreneurs who start their own businesses!). This can mean two things. First, that paternal or patriarchal figure might have a particular relationship to the business. He is likely to have a great deal of personal investment, a strong sense of ownership, and a very personal association with business successes or failures which are likely to influence his leadership choices and style. Second, it affects the relationship of the employees to the employer: it can be very hard to maintain a sense of independence or emotional boundary with a very paternal or patriarchal supervisor, especially if there is a personal relationship involved. Though such a strong and invested leader might lend to a sense of solidarity and a driving momentum to the business, it can give rise to a whole slew of conflicts related to power and authority. Because of this,  Harry Levinson at the Harvard Business Review claims, “The fundamental psychological conflict in family businesses is rivalry, compounded by feelings of guilt.”

As we see from the Murdoch case, leadership transfers can also be particularly difficult, from a senior member to a junior member for example, as the personal connection will allow the senior member to maintain a kind of presence that can make it difficult for the new leader to fully step into their place in their own unique way.

Additionally, if employees from outside the family are involved,  it can be difficult to ensure that they don’t become disillusioned and feel they will never be able to achieve in the work environment as an ‘outsider.’

And, of course, there is the rather simple fact that those personal spats from the kitchen can’t be fully left behind when the same people are transported to an office. Suddenly a rather benign disagreement over a business decision can grow into a wave of discontent, imbued with the hurt and misunderstandings that came with from home. This leads us to the challenge of dealing with conflicts when they do arise among family members in the workplace.

Family in the Workplace: Dealing with Conflict

Karen LaRose from Mediate.com writes in her article on conflict in family businesses that “In a family business conflict, relationships are embedded in a system of family dynamics and a business system. It is impossible to separate the two components: familial relationships and business relationships. One informs the other in a circular fashion.”

Thus when we approach a family conflict in the workplace, the hope of “leaving personal baggage at the door” is simply a fallacy. It’s very important to take account of all the dynamics in the room, and if necessary make space to air them in a responsible manner.

Involving a third party neutral in a dispute which includes work colleagues whether they be family members or not, will change the dynamic of the parties’ interaction. A third party will be able to help conflicting parties discover which parts of the conflict relate to the business at hand and which may be personal dynamics which could possibly be sorted out at home.

It’s also important when you find yourself in the room with a bemused muddle of familial and professional conflict that you have clear and well thought out company policies to refer back to for guidance. These should be universally applicable to everyone in the workplace and be recognized as such. Referring back to official company or organizational policy reduces the chances of misunderstanding and accusations of favoritism that often arise in family business.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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