This month, let’s talk about one of the struggles of returning to normal that has truly unique impacts on family businesses: the stresses of deciding which employees to bring back to work and when. While some family businesses--particularly very small ones--are entirely family-run, many have mixed employment: it may be owned or managed by a group of relatives, but hire outside the family for many roles. This setup always contains inherent risks: displays of favoritism (or the perception thereof), accusations of nepotism, and the very real worries of striking the right balance between being a great employer and taking care of your own family.
The Question of Hiring Family
Business owners and managers are in a truly unique position in our society as they get to decide who does and doesn’t get any particular job. That seems like an obvious statement, but it’s a huge power with implications that aren’t always fully recognized. This hiring power not only directly affects the people being hired, but it also guides the way the business grows and the way its culture develops.
In particular, the decision to hire family members can dramatically alter a business’s identity as well as expectations going forward. When hiring a stranger, there’s not much thought given to the purpose of hiring; it’s relatively simple: you have a job that needs doing, and this person is the best person you’ve found for the role. While it’s certainly possible to hire family because they’re the right fit for the role (often because the family connection gives you unique insight into their skills and abilities), you’re also left with other questions: are you hiring this person because they’re the absolute best, or because they’re qualified enough but your desire to work alongside them pushes them up in the rankings? Are you explicitly hoping to hire a family member as a way of supporting them financially, or providing them with a career trajectory? Are you hiring someone in the hopes that they’ll take your place when you retire? Are you hiring them because you want “family business” to be part of your company’s identity?
Even if the answer to every single question is “no” and your family member is simply the most qualified individual for the position, you need to reflect on these questions, because even if you don’t ask them of yourself, your non-family staff will almost certainly be asking them amongst each other. Employees have a keen nose for nepotism, and even if you’re completely above-the-board, you’ll need extra transparency to make sure your staff knows you’re treating everyone fairly and equitably.
Negotiating Nepotism (Again): How COVID Can Reignite Old Issues
This transparency is especially important during difficult economic times, like we’re experiencing right now as the world returns from the covid pandemic. Non-family employees that were more-or-less content with the family part of the family business pre-pandemic may be more willing to question the fairness of the arrangement if they’ve been laid off but family members haven’t, or if family members are the first to return. It’s important for you to reflect inwards to see if they have a point--your love for your family during a uniquely challenging year may lead you to favor taking care of them without realizing it.
This is, of course, entirely your decision. Many family business owners may make a conscious decision that as the business returns to normal, priority will be given to members of the business family. If this is your choice, just understand the extra work you may need to do to maintain the trust and loyalty of your non-family staff members.
All businesses are facing never-before-encountered challenges right now, and this goes double for family businesses trying to ensure they do right by both the business family and any non-family members they may employ. For more advice on taking care of both your family and your business after this difficult year, pick up The Soul of the Family Business by Tom Hubler. Through personal anecdotes, real-world case studies, useful tools and frameworks, and more, Hubler offers an in-depth look at the challenges faced, strategies employed, and successes achieved by all sorts of family businesses. You can pick up The Soul of the Family Business, available in hardcover form on Amazon.com, directly through Itasca Books, or at a bookstore near you. And of course, if you’re ready to take the next steps, you can always contact Hubler for Business Families today.