Matters Column

Tips to keep work and family separate in a family-owned business

December 28, 2018
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Often, a family business can be a 24-7 undertaking. However, in order to maintain a professional business environment, as well as family harmony, it is important to set boundaries. Below are a few tips for maintaining separation in your two worlds.

1. Only talk business with family while at work — save all talk about family issues and events for home family gatherings.

Family employees who blend family life and work life are likely to make business decisions based on considerations of family issues. Making the decision as a family to avoid business conversations while spending time together as a family is an impactful way to keep family and work separate.

Set this boundary together, discuss why it is important, and honor it. In addition, making distinctions in the way family members are addressed at home versus at work can help define family vs. business time.

2. Work together with both family employees and nonfamily employees to create a code of ethics to hold everyone accountable.

Consequences for family employees should be the same as those for nonfamily employees. Creating a code of ethics with both family and non-family employees and laying out clear consequences for violating regulations can help maintain a division between family and work. This keeps everyone on the same playing field and avoids the appearance of favoritism.

3. Have conversations with family employees that set clear expectations about their role as an employee.

Family employees need to have a clear understanding of their role and expectations. Role ambiguity is more present in family businesses due to the overlap of roles (e.g., role as a family member versus role as an employee).

Often, it can be tempting for an existing family business leader to exert too much control over a young family member who has been given a new position of leadership. This can compromise the new leader’s confidence and authority.

On the other hand, a new family employee may be criticized or not be given enough direction. In this case, the business will be negatively affected due to the creation of role ambiguity through the blurring of family and work dynamics. Uncertainty of expectations in one’s work role has been linked to decreased work performance. Therefore, open conversations that set expectations, responsibilities and boundaries will help create role clarity.

4. Respect the privacy of family members both at work and at home.

Family employees should respect each other’s privacy at work as well as at home. Although the ability to create physical space within the work environment varies depending on the type of business, it can also be very helpful to utilize separate workspaces when possible.

Creating this physical boundary helps family members stay focused on business and decreases the temptation to discuss personal family affairs while at work.

5. Implement family meetings to discuss professional and personal issues.

The goals set above will be reached by having open discussions and allowing everyone’s voice to be heard. Family meetings are the place to make this happen. There’s no better place to set boundaries and have a difficult conversation than at a meeting where all are gathered.

Discussing role responsibilities, privacy and physical space are key requirements for work/family harmony. Family members may have different expectations set for their work and home environment. This may be difficult for the entire family to remember at times, but open dialogue will ease the situation.

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