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Steven Strauss: Working With Family

April 30, 2012

My wife convinced me to hire her nephew. He did a good job for us – until he started dating my assistant. They broke up last month. Now there is tension in the air, he’s heartbroken, he’s not concentrating at work, and he is missing work. But how do I fire him without getting divorced? Help!

I think this brings up two interrelated issues. The first is whether it is wise to work side-by-side with family members in the first place, and the second is whether you should consider hiring family members to do work for you or having them hire you. My experience, and that of many readers I have heard from over the years, is that hiring family is fraught with danger.

I recall when I was a young pup in college, I got a speeding ticket and I needed a lawyer (yes, I was really speeding.) So I hired my cousin Louis. Lou represented me very well. Afterwards, I got his bill, which was, in retrospect, very fair. But at the time, I was young and dumb and made a stink about the bill – “but we’re family!” I cried.

It eventually got cleared up, but I will say when I practiced law I remembered my youthful mistake and made it a practice to try and not represent family members when I could avoid it.

But that leads us to the second issue, namely, should one work with family, and if so, how do you do so without going crazy? There are pros and cons of course; some people love working with family members and other can’t bear the thought of it.

Let’s consider both sides.

On the positive side of the ledger, one of the best things about working with family (and maybe one of the worst too) is the familiarity you have with one another. There is a shorthand that you have with family that you do not have with the world at large, and when you get along well with that person, that can really work to your benefit. Working with a family member you like can really be fun.

By the same token, family members know your strengths and weaknesses, and that too can come in very handy in the workplace. Especially if you work with a family member who has different strengths than you, then that give and take can save time and hassle since you have already spent years together.

Another great thing about working with family is that you will have someone around whom you can really trust. Not that you cannot trust your regular employees or partners of course, but there is just something about family that kicks that to a higher level.

Now lets consider the downsides, and they are not insignificant.

The first is that mixing business and family can hurt both entities. On the business side, if things don’t work out with the family member, disciplining (not to mention firing) that person is very difficult. Similarly, your loved one may not show you the respect that you deserve and need in the workplace; they may think that you are still jolly Uncle Joe at work and not the boss that you are. And that, in turn, can either hurt morale or invite similar disrespect among others in your organization.

In fact, family members may even feel that the normal rules do not apply to them, or they may resent your authority, or they may goof off, or they may not understand when you can’t or don’t give them a raise. And, like the question above, what do you do if they do a poor job? Or what if they miss too much work, or call in sick when you know that they are not sick? Of course you will have to take action, and that is where working with family can hurt the family. Family relationships can be challenging to mend after a rift at work.

The bottom line is that, unless you have an incredibly good fit, and everyone understands the rules and you have set up some guidelines, working together runs the very real risk of damaging all sorts of family relationships if things go south. And the problem there is that if things do go south, unlike a disgruntled employee who leaves, a disgruntled family member will be around for the long haul.

Today’s Tip: The Stevie Awards just issued the call for entries for The Ninth Annual International Business Awards. The Stevies are one of the world’s premier business awards competitions and all individuals and organizations worldwide – public and private, for-profit and non-profit, large and small – may submit nominations. The entry deadline is May 16th. Entry details are available at

Steven D. Strauss is a lawyer, writer, and speaker, and is one of the country’s leading experts on small business as well as an international business speaker. The best-selling author of 17 books, his latest is the all-new 3rd ed. of The Small Business Bible. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success Powered by Greatland, here, visit his new website for the self-employed, TheSelfEmployed, here, Follow him on Twitter, here, and Like TheSelfEmployed on Facebook, here. You can e-mail Steve at: © Steven D. Strauss

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