When I was in my 20s, I worked for a small mom-and-pop company. The owner seemed sincere, and I liked that her motto was that her employees were like family. I was just starting out and eager to learn, and I felt I had found the perfect place to grow.
But just months later, I was desperate to leave. I learned that I didn’t want to be treated “like family.” I was expected to work overtime without additional compensation, to perform non-job-related duties such as babysitting or running
errands, and almost worst of all, the owner would overshare her personal problems or complain about other employees. In addition, being “like family” pit all the employees against each other — favored ones were granted special treatment, and those in the doghouse — well, let’s just say it was a paradoxical experience. You were both relieved and alarmed at once. In retrospect, she didn’t misrepresent herself — she did, indeed, treat me as she did her dysfunctional family!
I know that many companies will say “we’re like family” in a well-meaning way to convey a sense of their tight-knit, caring company culture. And workplaces can absolutely foster warm and supportive relationships where people genuinely care about each other. But I firmly believe that saying “we’re like family” is the wrong thing to say. For one, families do not fire or layoff one another as businesses will inevitably need to do. For another, families don’t hold its members to a performance standard. Both situations can leave people with a sense of betrayal.
Instead, business experts recommend likening your company to a pro sports team. Each member on the team brings specific and valuable skills that help the company “win.” The analogy especially works because it respects the transactional nature of the relationship while setting performance-related goals and establishing a company culture with an inclusive and clear purpose.
That last word — purpose — is especially important. If both employer and employee are aligned in their purpose, it can foster loyalty and engagement, so it’s imperative to clearly define what the company is trying to achieve and how the employee fits into that goal.
As for my previous employer, I’m not sure where she is today but I’m thankful for the lesson I learned there early on: “Family” is a red flag in the workplace.