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No family member (child — including step child and adopted child — sibling, spouse, parent, grandparent, grandchild, father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, aunt, uncle, niece or nephew) may be hired or promoted into the same line of report as another family member.

Any employee hired after April 30, 2006 may not be promoted into a position with a title of Vice President or higher for as long as any of his or her family members are employed with the Company. Likewise, current employees with relatives hired after April 30, 2006 may not be promoted into a position with a title of Vice President or higher for as long as any of his or her family members hired after April 30, 2006 are employed with the Company.

No current employee may be promoted into a position that would place him or her into the same line of report as a relative or a higher position of authority within the same line of report as a relative.

— An actual work policy found in corporate America.


Reading that policy, it’s hard not to think that family members working together is fraught with danger.

It is.

There are the stories …  some benign, some scandalous; some are downright infuriating, and some are, well, simply not true!

What’s so toxic about relatives working together?

Family members know inside, intimate information about each other … Family members have conflicts in family matters that spill over into the workplace … Family relationships are always forever, even when bruised, even when broken.

Familial relationships invoke deep-seated feelings; attachments that inexorably move us to honor and protect.  Or lash out with fierce force when hurt or betrayed.

Risks abound when embedding those attachments inside the workplace.

Workplace policy and process requires objective decision making — what are the rules; what are the facts; what is the problem to be solved; what are the options available to solve the problems as defined; and what does an objective analysis of those options reveal as the best, most productive course of corrective action.

Family at work introduces a feelings-based subjectivity that lays in waiting to muck up the gears of such objectivity.

There may be an expectation of special treatment.  There may be favoritism, whether there was an expectation or not.  When the family bond breaks down, there is infighting, affecting non-related teammates in offices and cubicles in various and sundry ways.  When there’s a perceived threat, there is sheltering, or defensive action.  When there is significant change, there is information sharing complications; sometimes too much information is shared, which then spreads, and sometimes information is not shared, which creates vacuums…

There are issues.

But there’s another problem here, one we can’t place at the feet of the familial folks.  It’s not only family members failing to suppress subjective feelings and staying objective and productive while working…

… it’s also that the rest of us all around them don’t.

We see a promotion or transfer of a relative … or the assignment of a special project … or a leave of absence … even just an extended break or lunch! … and we perceive favoritism … preferential treatment … we infer infighting … We suspect, even anticipate, breeches of confidentiality … we feel compelled to rethink what would otherwise be straightforward actions on an issue once we realize that there are relatives involved (even tangentially!) and we reassess the dynamics in light of the relationships … who talks to who? and who might let so and so know? and maybe we shouldn’t go that route just yet and …


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What to do about all of this?

The comprehensive solution is a strong and sound company culture that promotes honest and respectful interactions and does not tolerate inappropriate behaviors of favoritism, rumor mongering, and the like.

Way, way, way more easily said than done.

While I don’t think specific policies are elegant solutions, they nevertheless are honest attempts to mitigate the risk.  Most workplaces have existing policies defining acceptability and unacceptability regarding workplace issues like breaks, lunches, attendance, and other workplace rules…

The absolute key here is the consistent application of those reasonable policies across the entire organization, regardless of the people involved and the nature of their relationships with each other and the organization.

Again; more easier said than done, to be sure.

So this boils down to four points —

1.  Family relationships are by their very nature subjective, which naturally makes it difficult to sustain the objectivity required to sustain consistency and productivity.

2.  Family relationships at work create the fertile ground for rumor, innuendo, and the perception of subjectivity-in-action, which can be highly distracting and unproductive even when there is no actual problematic behavior occurring.

3.  A clear policy, with reasonable restrictions that are consistently applied, can mitigate the dysfunction.

4.  This is not easy.

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So, at work, best friends?  Absolutely; yes.  The research supports the conclusion.  Along with some risk, there is significant lift; we should take that risk.

But I’m not so sure with family.

With family, it’s a challenge to keep everyone friendly…