Working with Friends and Family

Working with Friends and Family

I grew up in a household with an entrepreneur. My Dad started a trucking company a number of years before I was born, so I’ve only known the life of living with a family-owned business. I suppose that is, in large part, why I like the creative process of new ventures.

I remember family vacations that were extended because my Dad could call the office and tell them he’d be gone longer than normal. I also remember Dad taking difficult phone calls while on vacation. I can recall business discussions between family members during holidays, birthdays, or special events. Now, I’m hyper-sensitive to putting work in a box and closing it when I’m not working. I try to not let work overtake my personal time as that will be my tendency (because I like to work!).

Working with friends and family can be great, or it can be a disaster. Many small businesses leave in their wake the bodies of dead relationships. So, before you do business with a friend, move slowly, and do the following:

Set clear expectations.
The difference between expectations and reality is disappointment. Keep the expectations clear, and then meet them. Reality happens, and you need to be able to keep the reality as close to expectations as possible – and exceed if you can. If reality is lower than expectations, you’ll create disappointment, which will be hard to keep from affecting the friendship.

Be careful with communication.
Familiarity creates a type of casual communication that can create misunderstandings in a business relationship. Remember to keep communication as professional as possible. Please, and thank you add grease to the communication wheels, and can help establish mutual respect. Familiar inside jokes can be read as exclusive and cause group to form in a business that others feel they can’t join. As a leader, you’ll need to be cognizant of the necessity of not being exclusive with friends in the workplace.

There is no rank in the game of life.
I work with some friends who call me “boss.” I cringe every time I heard it because as the boss I recognize that in some ways I’m the leader. I always hope they’re saying it because we know that I only hold that position because I’m good at it while we’re working. But, from a friendship, non-work standpoint, I’m just a guy doing my best, and there is no rank in the game of life. We’re all on level playing field. We may have different resources, and different skillsets, but we are all just pieces in a much larger puzzle. I am cautious about ever acting in a way that would suggest I have any additional authority outside the bounds of work.

Discuss what will happen if things don’t work out.
I have a friend who works with me, and when he started he said, “If this isn’t working out, I want you to fire me before it affects our friendship.” We mutually hold our friendship as a higher value than the business opportunity of working together. When you have agreed to a higher value of keeping your relationship intact and discussed that ahead of time, it will help make any awkward future discussions from having a broader relational impact.

Don’t play favorites – be fair.
Family and friends cannot have unfair special treatment in the workplace. This should be a cardinal rule of working with family and friends. I believe in this so much, when I hired my kids to do some odd-job cleanup, I didn’t make the agreement with them. Instead, I made it clear to the person who would oversee them that I wanted no part of it. They needed to be responsible to someone they didn’t know, do the job for someone who had the authority to continue to have them work, correct them, or let them go.

If family and friends get extra long lunch hours, extra time off, extra perks, it becomes increasingly likely that an “us and them” mentality with develop. Those who don’t receive special treatment will act differently around those who do. That will likely lead to an atmosphere of resentment which is hard to resolve.

Don’t be afraid to make the hard calls.
I’ve been in situations when I need to make a difficult decision that will impact a friend. During those times, I’m reminded of a story… There was an old man who loved his sick dog dearly. The dog had an infection on its tail that could not be treated. The dog was eventually going to suffer the pain of losing its tail. The man, loving his dog so much and wanting to spare the dog the pain of cutting the tail completely off, instead cut it off an inch at a time.

Don’t cut it off an inch at a time. If the hard call needs to be made – to change, to adapt, to cut off, then make the decision, and get on with it. If you’re a good leader, have a clear grasp of the situation, are acting fairly, and have good communication, then your friend or family member can probably understand the decision.

Keep work at work.
I can’t put it better than I did in the “Welcome to Thinker” document for new hires:
“Let me encourage you to live aware of balance. Work is good, worthwhile and necessary, but don’t work at the expense of living. Be as aware of your personal and family health as you are of the work you are doing. Spend your personal time on your personal life and leave work at the office, if you can. Likewise, when you’re at the office, dedicate the time to your work. You’ll find that mixing the two will create uncomfortable tension and frustration for yourself and those around you. So, don’t view balance as attempting to keep the teeter-totter in the middle – that won’t work. Instead, think of balance as spending the necessary time completely on each side – all the way up and all the way down.”

Working with friends and family can be very rewarding but it can also be very distracting and can end in broken relationships. I’ve lived both, but if you follow the recommendations above, you’ll avoid many traps.