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Separating Work From Family In a Family Company

Working in a family business is often a fun and very rewarding experience. However, working with family members also presents a set of difficulties and challenges that don’t exist for non-family employees. What do you call your parents at the office? How do you separate work and family business? How do you fight the perception that family members in the business get special treatment over non-family members? These are all issues that many MHEDA members have faced.

What To Call Your Parents?

One of the most fundamental issues that employees in a family-business face is what to call their parents at the office. “I always called my father by his first name, Al,” says Jeff Stohr, president of Conveyer & Caster – Equipment for Industry (CC-EFI) (Cleveland, OH). “If things were tense, I called him Albert, but never Dad. That applied to both the office and customer sites. From the time I began work at CC-EFI in 1989, we were conscious about keeping things professional at work.”

Nathan Andrews, vice president of Morse Manufacturing Company, takes a different view. “I would be hesitant to call my father ‘Dad’ in a sales meeting with prospective customers. However, most frequently we work with dealers who are well aware that Morse is a family business,” he says. “In the office I call my father ‘Dad’ and it has never been an issue.” Bryan Anderson, from EPS Partners, agrees. “My father and I are business partners. When we go on a sales call together, I introduce him as my father and am sure to also mention his name,” he says on the MHEDA LinkedIn group discussion board. “As long as you are professional and knowledgeable, it doesn’t matter what you call your parent.”

Separating Work and Home

Another issue that sometimes arises is the ability to separate work from personal life. Andrews says, “My father and I always make sure to allow ourselves enough time during the week to address outstanding issues. It can be tempting to discuss work issues at family events but it typically is not a good idea.”

Stohr agrees. “Early on, we could never separate work and family issues,” he says. “If things were tense at work, we brought it home and discussion continued. We realized very quickly that it was not healthy for our work or family life and adjusted accordingly. Now we separate work and family as best we can.”

Other family members must be considered as well. “Whenever we had a crossover issue, someone in the family would point out that we should not be discussing that matter at home. Our family not only works together but shares a vacation home together. It is very important to leave work-related issues at the office and family matters at home,” says Stohr. Andrews echoes that sentiment, saying, “We have found that discussing work at home or family events tends to alienate family members who aren’t involved with the business.”

No Silver Spoon

Family members in a family business tend to have to fight the perception that they have been handed a silver spoon. Albert Stohr Jr., board member at CC-EFI, wrote an article for The MHEDA Journal Online that details this issue. “I’m a firm believer in self-made success. I made up my mind that my sons, Jeff and Trevor, would have to work for another company for three to five years before I would even consider hiring them,” he says. “When they did join the firm, I made it clear that they were the same as everyone else working here. If they didn’t pull their weight, they’d get fired.”

Nathan Andrews suggests the same tactic. “I think it is extremely important to work outside the family business for a period of time. It goes a long way in building credibility among other employees,” he says. “When I started working for the family business, I bought a pair of steel-toed boots and was issued a work uniform that said ‘Nate.’ I spent the first six months working on the shop floor learning the products from the ground up.”

Other Things to Consider

“My father had a strict no spouse in the office rule. It started with his belief that he and my mother would have a better relationship if she never worked in the business,” says Jeff Stohr. “It carried forward to my brother and me. We both have talented wives, but they will not be bringing their talents to our company.”

Andrews notes that succession planning in a family business provides a unique challenge and can sometimes become a very messy process. While he is the only sibling that works at Morse, other companies have multiple family members from the same generation working at the company. When that issue arises, it is vital to have discussions and succession plans in place before the situation gets out of control.

While working in a family business is often a great opportunity, there are certainly unique challenges to consider. What other problems or challenges arise in a family business? Let us know in the comments section below.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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