How to Survive as an Outsider in a Family Business

How to Survive as an Outsider in a Family Business

Monday morning you get to work early, as you know you are having a busy week. To complicate things, your sales partner is slacking off, making your plan on catching up and getting a head start on work nearly impossible. In most work situations, you could take the issue of your partner’s poor work habits to your boss. But this is not most “work situations” because you are an outsider in a family business. Your sales partner, Sarah is the boss’s daughter. He dotes on her and is not prone to liking any criticism of her at work.

Outsiders working in a family business often have wonderful experiences during their time at the company. But, while many family-owned businesses run as normal companies, in some, the politics and environment of a family business are challenging.

These tips will help non-family employees of a successful family business cope and thrive:

You are not a Member of the Family

Unless you marry a son or daughter of the owner, you are not, and never will be a member of the family. Expecting that your treatment will be no different from how family members treat each other is unrealistic. Within the family, there are inside jokes, personal situations, and family gatherings that apply to all family members but not to you. Do not take this personally. Every family member believes that he or she is your superior. Make sure to ask for a clear hierarchy – it is important that you and the family have a firm understanding of whom you report to.

You are There to Work, not Pass Judgment on the Family

While it is always good advice for employees to refrain from office politics, in a family-run business it is the golden rule. Office politics, in a regular workplace, are often vicious as people try to advance their careers and agendas. But, politics in a family-run business reveals all kinds of things that you do not want to get involved with – parental issues; sibling rivalry, middle child syndrome, jealousy, and guilt are things you need to avoid by just staying on the sidelines.

Never Gossip

The thing about gossip is that the target, usually hears about who said what. In a normal work setting this can wreck important relationships, in a family business expect other family members to side with the person gossiped about (if also a family member). If you take part in the water cooler news, expect that family members will shun you. When you insult a co-worker, you are insulting a brother, sister or cousin. Even if the person gossiping is a family member, keep in mind, families make up and blame the outsider.

Rights of Succession

When you agree to work for a family business, keep in mind that your advancement opportunities sometimes have limitations. President Dad’s succession plan could be for Vice President Daughter or Son to succeed him. But, if you are more qualified for opportunities in the business than a child is, the best course of action is for you to prove you are a high quality, trustworthy employee.

Today, it is common for knowledgeable family business leaders to bring in top people from outside the family. Most family businesses go out of business or sell after three generations. In order to insure the longevity of the family owned business, owners now bring in outsiders to serve in positions such as CEO, CFO, Director of Marketing and other key placements for which a suitable family member is not available. So, by doing an excellent job, it just may lead you to a higher position in a family run business.

All in all, working for a family business as an outsider can be tricky. But demonstrating a diplomatic and professional behaviour is the key to survive the challenges involved. Have you ever worked for a family-run business? Do you have any interesting stories to share? Please comment.  

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