Verbal Abuse in Family Owned Business


I have read many of your topics on verbal abuse and harassment and found them to be beneficial. My problem is a little deeper as it involves family. I am part of a “family business” where my parents actually own the business and I work with my older brother and two younger sisters as the management team. My husband and three daughters also work for the company. My problem is the verbal abuse that my brother spends on myself and my girls. He seems bent on getting us out of the company. I have put up with this for years and if I try to say anything to my parents or other siblings I’m the one who is deemed as the trouble maker. It is wearing heavily on me and I have suffered large medical bills due to the constant stress…I love my job and my family…what do I do?


Had Enough


Dear Had Enough:

Sibling conflict in family owned businesses is a common situation that often damages both the family and the business. Marshall Northington has written a book about family owned businesses, and includes a chapter on the topic of sibling issues. This is a link: From what you say in this message and the follow-up emails we exchanged, your brother has been allowed to act this way for a lifetime. You say he doesn’t treat your husband this way because your husband wouldn’t tolerate it. But, you mention that your brother has always treated you this way and now treats you and your daughters in a rude, almost threatening manner. There may be a gender issue as well–although I’m not trying to psychoanalyze your brother. He likely sees your daughters as an extension of you, and therefore treats them in the same way he treated you when you were younger–and still does to this day. And, it appears that unlike your husband, you have not done enough to stop it.

This is one of those situations where you certainly can bring about a change, but there is a price to be paid for that, and you may not want to do what it takes. That would be understandable, since what it will take will be for you to never, ever, ever again tolerate rudeness from him.

Obviously that will stir things up a lot and people might take sides. He might say you can’t keep working there. Then what? Are you willing to draw a line in the dirt over this treatment? Do you really think they would get rid of three family members if you approach this in an unemotional and fact-based way?

That’s for you to decide, of course. But, I wouldn’t think it likely your parents or the others, would allow that, if you and your husband and daughters are valued members of the business and contribute to it.

Here are the steps that would work, though they are tough to follow:

1. As difficult as it will be, take the family aspect out of it in your mind. If you and your daughers think of him as a brother or uncle, you will always tend to knuckle under. If he was just a co-manager or boss in a regular business, all of you would have probably quit a long time ago!

The same thing applies to you and your working relationship with your daughters. Think of them as valued employees, but try to take the emotion of it when they are treated rudely. He is being rude to valued employees, not to your children–that will be helpful all the way around. If you should be supervising them, keep it to a supervisory relationship, rather than a mother-daughter relationship.

Do not talk to other family members about this, except as part of a business conversation. These things can consume a family and your life. If they bring it up, change the subject and tell them you are doing it to avoid ruining your family life.

2. If your daughters are adults, you should confer with them about this as you would with any employees. Sadly, they have grown up watching people tolerate your brother’s behavior. So, they may need your permission to confront it. Tell them of your commitment to make this a professional response on your part, not a family fight. Ask them for the same detachment. Only by doing that will you be able to avoid dragging in things from the past and personalizing the situation.

3. Keep this in mind: The way your brother acts would not be acceptable in any well-run business. He only gets by with it because of the nature of your family business. His behavior, as you described it in your email, is not normal or acceptable. So, you are correct to be offended by it.

There will always be a degree of conflict in workplaces and even a bit of contention now and then. But, there should not be overt rudeness. You don’t want to jump on every small thing that hits you wrong, because you would need to learn to work with occasional problems in any work setting. But, the chronic verbal and physical actions that are upsetting you should stop immediately, just as they would be required to stop in another business.

4. It will help to have the support of your parents, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. However, I think it would be good to talk to one or both of your parents, as the business owners, to explain how you feel and to let them know that there will be changes in your responses to your brother from now on.

Something like, “Mom, I’m not asking you to take sides about the problems I have with Tom. I’m asking that you treat us like co-managers in your business and that you react as you would if we were two people you depended upon to keep the business going. I’m not going to look for problems, but the days of me tolerating being treated rudely and in mean way are over. I’m telling you that in the same way I’d tell a business owner anywhere I worked. If you can see that I’ve done something that creates problems, let me know that as well. But, only from the role of a business owner, not Mom and Dad. Can we talk to each other that way?”

Then, stick to that concept, no matter what they say. Probably they wish it would all go away, and they think of both of you still as their kids who are squabbling. So, they need to think of you as a manager who will not keep working there if you are being made sick from what is happening and from your reactions to it.

5. Rather than focus solely on what your bother does that you don’t like, identify times when he behaves appropriately and use that as an example of good behavior. Then, compare it to bad behavior. But put the focus on the fact that he CAN behave courteously and appropriately–he just needs to do so consistently and with each person.

Consider also the things that seem to set him off. Are there things that he ought to behave differently about, but that you or others should be doing differently as well? For example, an employee wrote recently to complain that his boss yelled at him all the time and gave him an ulcer. But, we found out the employee had done many wrong things and actually should have been fired. So, the yelling was wrong, but the provocation was great! I’m not saying that is the case here. But, at some point it might be useful to discuss those things with your co-manager and others, to see if there needs to be improvement all the way around.

6. The ideal situation would be a council meeting of all employees to develop “Guidelines For Working Together.” However, I don’t think it is likely your brother would participate in something that is going to restrict his behavior, or that he would take as being critical of him. If you think it would work, that would be a great way to bring everyone together. If that wouldn’t work, develop a similar list on your own, as a way to establish firmly in your own mind what is the best way to treat people at work. Among those guidelines are:

*We will treat each other in the same way we would treat a valued external customer, using care in our tone of voice, words, facial expressions and demeanor.

*If we have a serious conflict we will talk about it directly and in a calm and courteous way rather than behind each other’s backs or angrily.

*We will work to avoid doing things that will irritate and frustrate others, or that will distract them from work or result in bad feelings.

*When there are problems related to work quality or quantity we will talk about it in a helpful way and work together for a solution.

Dr. Gorden’s concept of WEGO fits in this list as well. (Working together, instead of working from a self-centered perspective.) When you prepare a list of those guidelines, you will also have a ready-made list of suggestions for how you want your brother/co-manager to treat you and others, and how you should be treating him and others as well.

7. Have a few memorized statements to help you respond to your co-manager/brother if he is inappropriate in his remarks or actions.

*”Tom, stop. I feel like you’re yelling at me and that isn’t the way we should talk to each other. Stop. Tell me what’s bothering you and let’s talk about it.” (A key to this is that you must be willing to talk about his concerns. If all you want him to do is to stop expressing his concerns, that won’t work either. You both have a right to your worries or frustrations about work. The issue is how to express those worries.)

*”I can tell you’re upset. Let’s sit down and talk about it.” (Rather than criticizing him each time, simply state another approach. That will avoid it sounding like you think you are the wise one and he is out of control.) *I’m going to the bathroom now and when I come back we can talk about it. But, it has to be both of us talking, not you talking AT me.” (Leaving the room is sometimes the only way to stop the flow of anger. Going to the bathroom is a good way to do that without looking like you are stomping out in anger.)

*”You’re doing that because you know it irritates me. I can’t ignore it and it’s keeping me from work. Stop it.” (At some point you will have to decide when his teasing or taunting is too much to handle and you will get up and tell the business owners that you are leaving until things get back to a professional level.)

*”Tom, that hurts my feelings. It really does. When you look at me like that and talk to me in that tone, it makes me feel like you hate me. If you hate me, say so and lets get it out in the open. But if you don’t hate me, please stop treating me like that.” (That kind of honesty is sometimes the best approach of all. He may not even realize how hateful his behavior seems and being honest about how you feel may be the thing that finally jolts him. Someone who wrote to me about the way her father treated her at their work, told him, “When you yell, my stomach ties up in knots and I get sick. I guess I care enough about you to take it and stay sick, but I wish you cared enough about me to not make me feel that way. Do you?” That accomplished more than all of her other arguments about behaving differently.

8. Just as you would if this was a private sector business where you were employed, have a final point at which you will not stay working there. Dr. Gorden refers to this as voting with your feet. If you will stay there, no matter what your brother does–if he yells, pushes you, hits you, destroys your property, etc. etc.–he will continue to do it. But if you have the negotiation strategy that you will leave unless things improve, you will have a powerful reason for him to stop his behavior. He might want to continue his behavior but he knows the results would be too negative. If you will not leave for financial or personal reasons you need to develop something as a strategy that will be an “or else” response. There has to be an “or else” or most people will not change. The ideal would be that your brother would not want you to be unhappy, but if that doesn’t work, something else must be used.

Your co-manager is not your boss, he is a peer. Work cooperatively as long as he is acting appropriately. When he no longer acts appropriately, stop interacting with him, even if it means stopping your work for a short time until things change. Frankly, your goal is to make it more advantageous for him to be polite than to be rude. So, making him panic a bit about how work will get done may not be a bad thing!

9. While all of this is happening, you need to make sure you are being a strong contributor to the team and to the business, just as you would if you were not a family member. I don’t know your situation there, so I will assume you are dependable, knowledgeable, skillful and appropriate in your own actions. Strive for even more.

A huge issue is how you respond to your brother when you are upset. If you drag it to the level of grade school fighting you will look equally responsible. Keep this on a highly professional, unemotional level. Take your ego out of it and focus on the link to building a stronger company and a more cohesive business team. Emphasize that everyone will work better when there is no conflict, and that customers and clients will sense negative feelings–and they do. Don’t look for things he is doing wrong. And, do your best to avoid having it be you and your family ganging up on him. If you and your daughters talk badly about him away from work, you will make it doubly difficult to deal effectively with him at work. Leave work conflicts behind when you are home, if at all possible.

10. Finally, you will need to make a personal commitment–and maybe ask your husband to help you keep it–that you will not give up or give in ever again. Stop the gritted teeth approach and let yourself be calm about the future. You aren’t a child with a big brother who is pushing you around, so you don’t need to put up with it and you don’t need to kick him in the shins. Just be a gracious adult who has boundaries and will stick to them. You may feel you are acting fake as you are doing this. That’s OK. What you WERE doing has not been effective, so you must try something different, and that might seem uncomfortable for awhile. Just think though, what a good example you will set of how a mature, emotionally stable person handles conflict in the family and at work.

I hope all of this was helpful. At least it will give you something to think about as you plan your action. This is a fixable situation–but you must know what you need changed, what it has to change to, and what your role is as well. Then, you have to stay the course and never let up.

You say you have spent a lot of money on medical care. You may want to seek the advice of a counselor there who might be able to help you more immediately and specifically.

Best wishes. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.