Family-Owned Business

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about family-owned with difficult son:

I work for a family-owned business. Over the course of the 6 years I have been here, the environment went from calm and cooperative to volatile and hostile. This change has occurred as more unqualified family members were brought into full time positions. The latest addition is the owner’s son. This man is in his mid-thirties, has a history of substance abuse, has no education or background to qualify him for a position here, but we have accepted that this is how it is going to be.

He is in a low level position and earning as much as someone with an advanced degree. He treats work as an option, taking at least one day off a week and leaving early or arriving late one or two days a week. He likes to argue. He has had verbal confrontations with every manager in the office. He goes into their offices, shuts the door and yelling ensues. The latest explosion occurred because he left the office early on a Friday without telling anyone and got busted for it – someone told his dad. That same day, he had lied about needing to help out at the other family business causing him to be late to work by 3 hours. He has been in a volatile mood for four days now, has yelled at two managers, and made comments intended to antagonize people. Needless to say the father enables this behavior and will not do anything significant to stop it. What are our options?

Signed, Not In the Family

Dear Not In the Family:

Family-owned businesses too often suffer because of favoritism, quarrels, and mismanagement. What can you do? How can you personally respond to a son who is irresponsible and verbally aggressive? You probably don’t have many options; however, you do have a few, and you may think of others:

1. Avoid this lad and bite your tongue.

2.  Stand your ground when his behavior damages your work.

3. Several not-in- the-family encircle this fellow, like a pack of dogs around a Grizzly. That should tell him that his behavior is unacceptable.

4. Request that the dad shape this lad up or ship him out. (I’ll refer to him as Aaron.) This can come in a written or a face-to-face confrontation.

5. Initiate a team building process.

6. Look for work elsewhere. You’ve seen the atmosphere change from calm and cooperative to volatile and hostile. You’ve invested enough of your working life in this place so that you don’t want to simply escape the hassle. Therefore, you appear to be at a point of action rather than allowing the story of Aaron and other unqualified family members to play like a scratched record in your head.

You might start by unobtrusively listing Aaron’s destructive instances that you’ve observed and logging what you see for a couple of weeks. Be specific about what, where, when and who was involved or observed them. Then discuss what to do about this with one or two others who are adversely affected by him. Since you haven’t indicated the number of employees, I assume that the father is the one who needs to hear your thinking about his son. You can either go directly to dad, by-passing Aaron, or you can invite Aaron to go with you to learn what you have to say about him.

Rather than spilling all you have logged, ask for an investigation of how he is works and is regarded by those who depend on him, must work with him, and see him from afar. Think of this meeting as a problem solving collaborative effort to improve production and working relationships. Another of the options I mentioned is in keeping with our national push for lean management and team building; how to do more with less. This entails a concerted effort to involve work groups in finding ways to cut wasted supplies, time, energy and money. Also it engages small groups in finding small innovative ways to improve the quality of products and service.

The significance of the word lean is in contrast to the word fat; most workplaces have fat that needs to be reduced and cut out. The result of a lean effort is psychological commitment to the success of the organization. Individuals come to realize that their own interests are best served when they work for the good of all.

Ego is enriched by WEGO. Could Aaron get caught up in team building? I don’t know but there is evidence that individuals take on the norms of the group. And if his work group thinks and acts like a team that wants to win it will have skull sessions about what went well and what needs to be improved; and that includes how coworker and coworker communicate. Your narrative started with mention of working at this family-owned business that was pleasant and ended with despair that nothing could be done because the father-owner enables Aaron’s irresponsible behavior. In short, you ended with little hope, I think, because you fear to say what you feel and think. Hope doesn’t just happen. Hope is shaped. If you had no hope you wouldn’t have taken the time to send your question. So you are at a point of decision; either to muster up the courage to confront what is hurting this family-owned business or to seek work elsewhere. These thoughts are meant to stir you to voice what has been playing in your head and causing you to want to stay away for what has turned volatile and hostile. Don’t become obsessed with solving this by yourself. Don’t gossip about it with coworkers or talk endlessly with family, but do talk frankly to at least one other coworker and together determine what you will do.

Hope is hope only when it is spelled out on a pathway by one or more individuals who care and dare enough to risk voicing her/his/their concern. Working together his hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. By that, I mean good things don’t just happen. They are made to happen. There probably is no quick-fix, but I predict you care enough not to waste your time on blame and will do what you reasonably can so that every member of this family-owned business will once again make their work environment calm and cooperative and more than that; a happy place in which to work.

William Gorden