Abuse in a Family Owned Business

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about abuse in a family-owned business:

I have worked in a family-owned business for a several years, since I was in high school. I am currently in college now, and I help out when I have free blocks and days off in my schedule. I work alongside with my mother, who is the owner of the business.

In the beginning, things seemed OK, but as times progressed, it has gotten worse. She treats me differently than the other employees (I am her daughter after all).The way she treats me is pretty cruel. She constantly screams at me to get things done, when I am trying to do it, and if I make a mistake, she gets on me more compared to the other workers. For instance, she will scold an employee for about 3 to 5 minutes, but for me it can go up to more than an hour.

She humiliates me in front of her employees by describing personal matters or telling employees about a conflict she and I had at home and tries to make the employees side with her. It makes me uncomfortable and even afraid to even go into work, because I feel I’m being mocked at not only by my mom but the employees as well. There was one incident when an employee chuckled when my mom called me to come upstairs into her office. She talks to me as if I am a dog and rushes and yells at me to do things. She’s nicer to the employees when asking things to be done compared to me. She even has hit me at work. She constantly calls me names, insults me and she curses at me. There was even once when she hadn’t paid me for days that I have worked..

I have never hated a job so much like I do now. The job is bearable when she’s not around at work. I’m not the type to quit when things get hard and I have had incidents at my other job where I was dealing with a manager that would talk behind my back to other employees and make roundabout insults. I did speak up to them and consulted the manager for that situation and it helped a lot. But considering that my mom is the boss I do know what to do. I am contemplating on just quitting but I know she will give me hell at home and make me regret it. I like the workplace, but I just hate having to work with her.

I still have my other job but I don’t get a lot of hours for it usually 15 to 20 hours, and I need the money to apply for programs after graduation. I know my mental health, as well as my future, are important. But having to deal with this monstrosity for a little while longer with a mom that constantly belittles and embarrasses me in the workplace…is it worth it to just suck it up? I’ve been with her for about eight going on nine years now.
Signed —Never Hated a Job So Much

Dear Never Hated a Job So Much:
You close your description of an abusive mother-boss with the question “Should I Suck It Up?” and saying that this has been going on for nearly nine years. In short you have answered your question by saying it is time to vote with your feet. The decision of choosing emancipation from your mom, however, hinges on if you are willing to take full responsibility to care for yourself. One thing going for you is that you are willing to work and that means avoiding going deeply into debt for college, something that too many do.

Apparently, you still live within the home of your mother. Are you prepared to rent your own place? Have you thought about who pays the heating and cooling bills, buys and prepares food, does the washing, cleans, including windows, maintains the exterior of the house, does the yard work of your family home, and pays the taxes? I predict that you might do some chores, but I doubt that you and your mom have frankly negotiated what should be an equitable sharing of responsibilities. Do you have the courage to talk with your mom about moving out and taking on the responsibilities of an independent individual?

Should mom treat you like a dog, scream, and belittle you to other employees? Obviously such behavior is deplorable. You say such verbal abuse and even hitting you once occurred over many years. So far you have put up with this because you are not independent. You still live with her. You have not completed college.

It’s good that you imply you have endured this too long. It’s also good that you know such abuse occurs and should not be acceptable. Bossing at its best is respectful, civil and engaging. Your mom probably learned a bully kind of bossing from her parents or by trial and error in raising you. Many parents never learned effective parenting skills. Now as a young adult you are a target because in addition to being your parent she is your workplace boss.

The odds of her changing her ways are not good. Why? Because she sees you still as her child and probably always will. Moreover, she needs the work to go smoothly and for her business to make her and her employees a living. Obviously she and you have not conferred about what is required to own and manage this business. You are not seen as a full-time employee nor are you seen as one who is learning the business who might one day become a partner. So face it. Your decisions to work in it when you have blocks of time are for your convenience and are despite your mom’s abusive ways.

Ideally, I advise an owner/manager of a family business to involve employees in how the business can best be managed succeed. This entails straight talk about who does what, when and where. It includes collaborative decisions about how assignments are given and who Oks if a product is ready to go out the door. Employees are informed of cost of supplies, overhead, and they learn what is required for the business to make a profit. Employees are not just there for the benefit of the owner, but are treated as extended members of the family business. Such an approach is far from what you describe.

Might you help your mother learn to be a coach that engages her employees in a different way? Probably not. You don’t have those skills and neither does she. Is it impossible to make some strides in that direction?

Possibly, you might begin by privately discussing with her your future and candidly sharing your frustration with the patterns of bossing you have experienced. That will require upfront an agreement to talk calmly and to take time out to do that. One small step to improving your mom-boss relationship of you could be to collaboratively list do and don’t rules about how you talk to each other. Such don’t rules are easily drawn from what has humiliated you: Don’t yell, don’t slap, and don’t talk about her and your matters in the presence of coworkers. Do ask rather than bark orders, do discuss how a job fits with other jobs, do involve employees in ways to cut wasted supplies, time, money, do make it a habit to use each others names (not mom and hey you or honey), say please and thank you and cheer work well done. Such a do/don’t session might begin a process that transform your mom-daughter relationship. But initiating it and following through would take determination, courage, and a lot of forgiving.

The question before you is: are you ready to take steps required to get from dependence to independence and then to interdependence. You don’t just have to suck it up now, if you have the courage to confront your mom and to persuade her to boss civilly. That probably can’t happen until you are demonstrate what ways you will share the responsibility for being an adult member of your household. You might need to move out before you are willing to return and for her to treat you as an adult daughter and employee.

Please find someone outside your family, such as a counselor at your college, church, or in your community whose judgement you respect to help plan short-term and long-term career moves. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. It will be good to learn if any of this advice makes sense and what you elect to do. –William Gorden