Career Advice

The Ups & Downs Of Working With The Family Firm

If your holiday dinners fit any of the usual stereotypes, they probably include awkward conversations and a vow that you’ll never sit next to your creepy uncle again. But what if dealing with exhausting family members happened 40-plus hours a week?

The majority of FINS readers report that they’d be apt to take a job that mixed family with business, or one that could require them to deal with someone else’s family issues on the job.

In FINS’ informal online survey, Sign or Decline, 81% of 748 respondents said they’d accept their dream job if their new boss would be the chief executive’s daughter. Only 57% of 725 respondents said they’d take it if their boss would be their brother or sister.

Family-owned businesses are far from uncommon. According to the Family Firm Institute, 80% to 90% of businesses in the United States were family firms in 2003, and they contributed 64% of the national GDP and employed 62% of Americans. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that 40% of young men have at some point worked for a company their father also worked for.

Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of client services with Boston career consultancy Keystone Associates, says she’s not surprised that people would be willing to take a job under the CEO’s child, but cautions that candidates do their due diligence – twice – to make sure it’s really the dream opportunity they’re looking for.

Why twice? Having a thorough understanding of your new supervisor’s management style is important to investigate with any job offer, but when working for the CEO’s daughter (or son), you need to also understand the relationship he or she has with their parent in the office, Mattson says.

If that relationship isn’t professional, you may be subject to the same whims of the parent that the child goes through. When Dad throws a temper tantrum, it will filter down to you. If the family makes decisions based on who they like or don’t like, your performance on the job may be irrelevant to getting better pay or promotions, Mattson says.

When considering working with one of your own kin, however, Mattson says the lines can get blurry fast. “Reporting to a family member is so tricky simply because of the fact that they’re family,” she says. “They know a lot about you, perhaps to an extent that you wouldn’t really want an employer to know.”

It’s also important, again, to not rush into this type of situation without weighing all of the pros and cons. “Part of it is the job itself, but you have to like who you work for as well,” says Mattson. “You need to make sure this person has a leadership style you would work well with.”

She also advises you recall that, family ties or not, businesses encounter problems. “Your brother or sister might make a business decision that you disagree with, for example,” she says, “or worse, they might have to fire you, or lay you off because of a restructuring of the organization.” Being related to you won’t eliminate pressure coming from the top tiers of management or the company’s shareholders if something goes awry.

Also consider how your relationship with a family member in business will be viewed by unrelated colleagues. Do you really want to go through your career defending your achievements and accomplishments against complaints of nepotism? Mattson says this can become an overwhelming burden.

Overall, Mattson says she agrees with FINS readers. “Most people would rightly be less apt to work for a family member than they would be to work for the CEO’s child,” she says. In both situations, clear boundaries and a measurable performance-tracking system need to be in place. “You might suggest a six-month review,” Mattson says. “That way, you can have verification that things are going smoothly and that this relationship is working.” – Originally posted on the Wall Street Journal by Kelly Eggers