The Pros and Cons of Working with Family and Friends

Not long ago, I received a letter from a reader that posed a difficult dilemma. What would you tell him to do?

Dear Mr. Strauss: I have a small business that I enjoy very much and have owned it for a dozen years. A couple of years ago, my wife convinced me to hire her favorite nephew as a salesman. I needed the help, liked the kid, and so we hired him. He has done a good job for us – until recently. About nine months ago, he started dating my assistant. They broke up last month. Since then, not only is there tension in the air whenever the two are near each other, but his head is not in the game. He’s heartbroken and it’s affecting his work. But how do I fire him without getting divorced? Help!

Although I am no Dear Abby, I gave him the best advice I could, namely, to the extent possible, treat this as you would any other business issue. Sit the nephew down like a manger would, tell him what you expect of him, give him a warning or put him on probation, and follow up as necessary. I also told him he had to explain to his wife that business is business.

But that begs a bigger issue: Is it smart to work with friends and family? While the answer necessarily depends upon the situation and relationships, personally as a general rule, I say no; the risks outweigh the benefits.

Consider:

The Pros

  • You get to work with someone you like (presumably!)
  • They know you, your quirks and strengths (and vice versa)
  • Instant camaraderie
  • Trust

Now let's consider:

The Cons

  • It is harder to discipline a friend or family member
  • It is very hard to fire a friend or family member
  • They will view you as a loved one more than a boss
  • They may resent your authority
  • They may feel that the rules don’t really apply to them
  • What do you do if they do a poor job, or miss work, or call in sick when you know that they are not sick?
  • It can ruin all sorts of family relationships if things go sour

Recently I had need to hire a contractor and someone suggested that I call my friend Randy as he does exactly what I needed. But I demurred and hired a stranger because, although I am sure that Randy would have loved my business, my overriding fear was: “What if he does a poor job?” Then I would not only have a business problem, but a personal one too.

All of that said, there are of course exceptions to the rule. Working with friends or family can work out when ground rules are laid out, when the two parties have a clear understanding of the different sort of relationship they are entering into, and when they work well together. In that case, having someone close to you at work can be great.

But when it’s not – look out!

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