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Avoiding the “Family” Label: Why Business Owners Should Opt for More Professional Terminology
In recent years, there has been a growing trend among business owners to refer to their employees as “family.” This metaphorical language seeks to convey a sense of camaraderie, loyalty, and a shared purpose. While the intention behind such terminology may be well-meaning, it is important to recognize that using the term “family” to describe employees can have unintended negative consequences. In this article, we will explore why business owners should refrain from using this language and consider more appropriate alternatives.
Calling employees “family” can blur the lines between personal and professional relationships. While fostering a supportive work environment is commendable, it is essential to maintain a clear distinction between personal and professional lives. By blurring these boundaries, business owners may inadvertently undermine the objectivity and professionalism required in workplace interactions.
Business owners hold a position of authority and power within the organization. Using the term “family” to describe employees can create an exploitative dynamic where employees feel compelled to work long hours, take on additional responsibilities, or make personal sacrifices to prove their loyalty. This mindset can result in employees neglecting their own well-being and lead to burnout.
Inequality and Favoritism
Referring to employees as “family” can give rise to favoritism within the workplace. Family dynamics often involve preferential treatment and nepotism, which can erode employee morale and create an unfair working environment. Employees may feel that promotions, rewards, or opportunities for growth are being unfairly distributed based on personal relationships rather than merit or qualifications.
While emphasizing a sense of unity and loyalty is desirable, using the term “family” can inadvertently manipulate employees’ emotions. Business owners may exploit the deep emotional connotations associated with familial relationships to encourage employees to work harder, accept lower compensation, or tolerate poor working conditions. Such emotional manipulation can hinder open communication, trust, and the overall well-being of employees.
By calling employees “family,” business owners may inadvertently hinder the professional growth and development of their workforce. Viewing employees solely as “family” can undermine the importance of skill development, training, and career advancement. It may discourage employees from seeking external opportunities or pursuing new challenges outside of the organization.
Instead of using the term “family” to describe employees, business owners can adopt more appropriate language and approaches that foster a positive work environment:
- Team: Emphasize the importance of teamwork, collaboration, and a shared sense of purpose among employees.
- Community: Highlight the sense of belonging and support within the workplace, without blurring professional boundaries.
- Respect: Promote a culture of mutual respect, fairness, and equal opportunities for all employees.
- Professional Development: Encourage employees’ growth through training, mentorship programs, and opportunities for career advancement.
- Work-Life Balance: Prioritize the well-being of employees, promoting a healthy work-life balance and avoiding excessive demands.
While the use of familial language may be well-intentioned, business owners should refrain from calling employees “family.” It is important to maintain clear professional boundaries, avoid favoritism, and foster an environment that values objectivity, fairness, and individual growth. By adopting alternative approaches, business owners can cultivate a healthy work environment that encourages collaboration, respect, and personal development for the benefit of all employees.
Why Shouldn’t Business Owners Call Employees “Family?”
You might have seen this. It is been a trend for the last three decades to say, “Hey, we are like family.” You know, this is the ABC company family. We look out for each other. We care for each other as family. Why is that not a good idea? Because for two reasons. First, it sets up unrealistic expectation in a relationship. And second, everybody has a different definition of family. If somebody had a difficult relationship with parents or siblings, they may not want to be in a relationship with someone else (family relationship). So on the spectrum of what people think about family relationships, there are people who have had very bad experiences in family to people who love their family more than anything, and those are the most wonderful people in their lives. So family means a lot of different things to different people. Also, in an employment relationship, it cannot possibly be like family because government laws apply and there is a financial component that will never exist in a family. In a business, if businesses cannot pay all the employees’ wages, they have to let the employees go. They are not allowed to just keep employees and not pay them. But with family, you don’t let family go. You don’t say, “Hey family, I am cutting you off because I don’t have enough money.” The general view of family is, “Family is family for a lifetime.” And it is not a contract. It is not a temporary relationship. People are family members until they are passing. And that is a very different dynamic than what you must have in a business.
Why Calling Employees “Family” Can Be Problematic
A business is confined by financial restraints in a way that a family never will have. And so practically, what does this look like? Well, I can’t tell you how many times I have talked with disgruntled employees who have said, “Yeah, they said it was a family until money came up and then they had to let me go.” Or I have talked with business owners whose hearts are breaking and they say, “It is a family here, I can’t let these people go. We always say we are as tight as a family. We look out for each other as a family. But my CPA is saying we don’t have the money to keep them. I have to make that decision, and I feel awful. I feel like I am betraying people.” And you know what the answer is? They are. They are betraying those employees because they set up the expectation that they are like family and they never can be. So I think it is far more important to be precise and accurate in relationships and acknowledge “we are aligned right now for a time.” We have a shared interest in bringing success to a company and working together. There is great synergy here between these teammates in our company, but let’s be realistic about those expectations. Let’s be honest about them. And I love to have conversations with people in advance to say, “Hey look, if we are having some trouble, I don’t want to just have to give you a two-week notice. I want to give you a much longer notice.”
Positive Experience with a Supportive Boss and Career Transition
I had a boss. I had two bosses in the same company, and with one of them, I was concerned that if I told him I was going to go to law school in the fall that he would have just given me a two-week notice or maybe even immediately cut me off. But I had another boss that I trusted and it was just a wonderful boss. And I went to him and I told him I am looking at going to law school in the fall. “I wanted to let you know now, so the company can make arrangements for my replacement but I would love to continue to work here, and I will continue to work hard my whole time here.” He was so wonderful and gracious. He gave me some tips about going to law school. He encouraged me to talk to some lawyers and offered to make introductions to some of his lawyer friends. And I ended up working at the company until I transitioned to law school and it was a great transition. I will always be grateful to that boss, his name is Tom, for the opportunity that I had to work with him and to learn with him. And he was an example to me of what a great, mature, thoughtful, and caring boss can be. And I always said, “If I am ever in a management role, it is my desire to be able to have that sort of trust and relationship with employees.”
Building Trust and Open Communication with Employees
Now, if you have had some experience in management and employees, you know that statistically, you run into people who can’t be trusted. As you work with somebody, you find out that they don’t have that same degree of integrity and trust, and so I am not suggesting that bosses should work with every employee in that way because that would be naïve. There are employees who are not trustworthy and bosses need to be careful with them. And for example, if they are going to be let go in six months because the financials are not doing well, the boss may not be able to give that employee notice for six months because the employee may engage in improper activity with the company’s resources, start taking things or bad-mouthing the company, or whatever that the employee wouldn’t respond in a good way. But where you have employees who are mature and reasonable, and you have a good transparent relationship or at least an open and honest relationship, I have seen so many times where I have been able to have conversations with those employees six months in advance where for some reason it is not going to work to have them continue with the company as I originally had thought; maybe dynamics change, maybe financials change or markets change. And I have been able to remain friends with those employees today. They didn’t feel disgruntled. They didn’t feel resentful, and it is wonderful when you can have essentially an alumni of former employees of a company who speak well of that company.
So I think all of that comes back to not calling people family, but instead being more precise about the open and honest relationship that you have, the alignment in your values and goals, and not setting up unrealistic expectations that this is a permanent relationship, which is what you have with family.
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