Managing Friends and Family Members
Balancing Personal Relationships at Work
Elizabeth works in the family business with her older brother, Dave.
The problem is that, due to a change in the structure of the company, Elizabeth is now Dave's boss, and he doesn't respond well to her authority. For example, he often turns up late, he brings up past family conflicts, and he expects special treatment.
Elizabeth would have disciplined – or even fired – anyone else over these issues. But, because he's her brother, she's reluctant to take action, even though she knows that the rest of the team resent his behavior.
It can be difficult to work alongside close friends and relatives. In this article, we'll highlight the challenges that can occur when you manage friends and family members, and we'll look at how you can deal with them more effectively.
Common Issues When Working With Friends and Family
A number of issues can affect your ability to work successfully with friends and family.
Unlike the relationships you have with other team members, the bonds you share with these people are intensely personal. Childhood history, past conflicts, or current issues in your personal life can affect your interactions at work. This can make it difficult to be rational, fair, and objective, as can the desire to preserve good friendships and family relationships.
You might be tempted to change your management style and provide either too much guidance, or insufficient feedback on poor performance. Familiarity with these people can also cause you to discount their ideas quickly, or to be more critical of them than you would be with other team members.
On the other hand, favoritism is a risk with friends and family: it can cause conflict and low morale in the rest of your team, and it can harm your reputation, especially if you hand out choice assignments to these people. You may also find that exceptional employees leave your team, because they think that their career progression is blocked.
You can also alienate and annoy your team members if you make decisions or discuss work issues with friends or family members outside of work (whether this is intentional or not).
If you work in a family business, some relatives might have been "expected" to work in the company. It can be a challenge to motivate and manage them, especially if they aren't passionate about the work, or if they have different goals and values from those of the organization.
Strategies for Managing Friends and Family
Use the strategies below to keep the relationship professional when you manage friends and family.
Think Carefully Before You Hire
Before you hire friends or family members, think carefully about why you're considering them for the role. Do they have the knowledge, skills, and talent to work well in this position, or are you just doing them a favor?
Never hire someone you know unless you feel confident that they're the best candidate, that they embrace the culture and values of the business, and that they can bring valuable skills and expertise to the team. If you feel unsure, use recruitment tools such as competency-based interviewing, inbox/in-tray assessments, or test assignments to gauge how these people will perform on the job.
Careful consideration at this early stage helps you avoid conflict in the relationship later, and you can ensure that these people are a good fit in your team.
Unless this is a family business, it's best to remove yourself – and any other friends and family – from the decision-making process when you think about hiring someone that you know well. That way, you will avoid accusations of nepotism, and you won't look unprofessional if the recruitment turns out badly. (Even in a family business, it may be best for trusted non-family people to advise on the decision.)
Agree on Objectives
No matter how close you are to your friends and family members, you need to treat them like any other team member. This means that you must define their role, and communicate what you expect from them.
Write a job description that outlines their responsibilities, your expectations, and their performance objectives.
Next, review the agreement with them, and identify and agree on short- and long-term SMART goals. Make sure that they understand these goals and expectations, and ask whether they have any questions or concerns. This prevents ambiguity, and sets the tone for the relationship. Clear, honest communication like this also helps you avoid issues later on.
Your friends and family members know you better than anyone else at work, and they are privy to personal information that you might not want your team members to know. This is why it's important to set and manage boundaries.
Have an open, honest conversation about how you want your professional relationship to be. This means that you must set protocols for behavior and communication. For example, if you work with your friend, ask them not to call you by your nickname. They should use your first name, just like the rest of your team.
Both of you should agree to leave personal matters and history at the door when you come to work. You should also agree not to discuss work issues outside the office – this ensures that you don't cut other team members out of important decisions.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially with family members. Speak up if you feel that your friends or family members have violated the boundaries that you've set, and remind them to keep things professional. When you let small matters slide, it can cause resentment later on.
If you experience conflict with friends and family members, do your best to manage your emotions and stay professional. Try to ignore your personal relationships, and approach them like any other team member.
It's important that you compensate your friends and family members fairly. Their salary and benefits should reflect their knowledge, skills, and experience, not their connection with you.
When you set salary and benefits, it's a good idea to consult a colleague or HR professional to make sure that compensation is fair and competitive. This will also ease tensions, and prevent any suspicions that friends or family members are getting more than they deserve.
Also, be careful not to overcompensate them with resources such as people, equipment, technology, or training. Make sure that your friends and family members receive the same as everyone else, and nothing more.
Provide Regular Feedback
Like everyone on your team, your friends and family members need regular, constructive feedback, so that they understand what they're doing well, and where they need to improve.
You might find it difficult to be objective with these people. Do your best to keep emotions out of the discussion, and analyze their performance and growth as you would anyone else. Use the Situation-Behavior-Impact Feedback tool to provide clear and specific feedback.
Of course, positive feedback is always easy to give. But how do you handle friends or family members who aren't pulling their weight? And how do you fire someone that you care about? These can be uncomfortable situations, but you need to address them promptly and professionally.
To start with, look at what they've accomplished and where they're struggling. Their poor performance might result from a lack of skills or ability, or they may be unmotivated. Our article on dealing with poor performance shows you how to address team members who don't meet your expectations.
Sit down and talk to them one-on-one. Ask what you can do to help them perform better and meet their goals. They might benefit from additional training; and they may also flourish in a mentoring or coaching relationship with another professional.
Give them as much time to improve as you would to anyone else on your team. If you don't notice any progress, manage them appropriately in line with your organization's guidelines. It can be painful to let go of friends and family members, but if the relationship isn't working out, then you should find someone who is a better fit.
Be Honest With Your Team
Everyone on your team should know if you have a personal connection with someone who works for you.
Be open and honest about your ties to these people. It's likely that some team members might have reservations about the situation and about your ability to treat your friends or family members objectively. Your actions need to prove that you will treat them just like everyone else – this will build trust and help everyone adjust to the situation.
Craft a Role That Works
If you work in a family business, you might have to manage some family members who don't want to be there. They might have been pressured to work in the organization by parents or other leaders, they might see it as an easy option, or they might work there out of a sense of obligation. None of these is a positive reason to come to work each day!
As with any employee with motivational issues, re-engage them by finding out their career goals. What do they want to achieve in life? How can you help them build the skills and expertise they need to meet their goals? Look at training and mentoring opportunities that will help them progress down this path, while still using these new skills in their current role.
Next, look at their tasks and responsibilities. Which tasks make them happy? When do they achieve a sense of flow in their work? Where appropriate, use job-crafting strategies to work more of these tasks into their day (but ensure that you don't do this at the expense of other team members).
Last, make sure that your friends and family members feel a sense of accomplishment in their role. Help them find the deeper meaning in their work, and use tools such as Amabile and Kramer's Progress Theory to help them achieve small wins, so that they can recognize the progress they make.
However, if these strategies don't work, you'll probably want to encourage them to move on – you don't want unmotivated people on your team.
It can be a challenge to manage friends and family members. These people have a close, personal relationship with you, and their presence within a team can cause conflict, tension and mistrust if you don't manage the relationship with care.
When you manage friends or family members, treat them as you would everyone else on your team. Write a performance agreement that outlines their role and your expectations clearly. Set boundaries, and define how your working relationship should be; this includes protocols for behavior.
Also, compensate them fairly. Where appropriate, work with a colleague to ensure objectivity when you set their pay and benefits.
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