You Can’t Pick Your Family, or Can You? Treating Employees “Just Like Family”

Posting by Jacqueline M. Thompson, CPA, Principal

So often we hear of a business that seems more like a family, whether or not they are related.  “I treat my employees just like family.”  Well, a few episodes of the E True Hollywood Story teaches us that not all “families” operate well together, but in general this is meant to be a positive.  Often the owner has a more paternalistic management style, and they feel that everyone works together and is treated well, no one being treated less worthy than another.  Chik-fil-A and other companies close on Sundays, for instance, to give their employees and their families a chance to spend quality time together.  But just as a parent and a child may disagree on the fairness of something, such as how much allowance the child should get weekly and what they need to do to earn it, it cannot be assumed that an employee being treated “like family” will see the same generosity that the employer does.

I read about this family business in Germany – Trumpf – quite large and successful for many years.  Thousands have been employed, and for a long time enjoyed a huge overtime pay and steady work, often finishing school to work there for a lifetime.  That kind of security is a nice thing to have, but no one can guarantee the future with 100% certainty.  The owners (families Leibinger and Kammüller) have approached the treatment of their employees as family, and have taken measures to guarantee work and security even in hard times.  But times are harder, and as in Rashomon, one person’s point of view in a situation may be very different from that of someone else in the situation.

Family businesses are less likely to lay off people than public companies, who face more pressure from investors.  Hanging on to some employees too long, however, can be bad for business, much as a parent letting their child live at home long past college, into their 30s and 40s, could be bad for the family.  In the case of the Trumpf company, the owners made a decision to cease overtime, in order to let everyone keep their full-time jobs.  They considered this to be a generous and protective step to care for their employees.  To their great surprise, the employees were annoyed and definitely unhappy that the overtime they had enjoyed for so long was gone.  One of the owners stated that he expected “a high degree of loyalty” from these employees / family members, yet business consolidations and adding commutes to keep their employees working are having the opposite effect.

How does your family business, be it here in the Greater Washington, DC area or elsewhere, view your other employees?  Do you consider them to be family, valued employees, team members?  And more importantly, do they reciprocate the feeling?  Just as a family may have to cancel that trip to Disneyland during a particularly tough financial year, a family business may have to face some unfortunate disappointments in order to make it through to the other side.  Maybe it isn’t enough to assume that they see the situation the same way you think they should – open and honest communications with your employees, whether or not they are family members, may go a long way in ensuring everyone feels respected and heard.

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