Hired the Boss’s Son? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I work in a large global organisation. The president for EMEA (UK and all of Western Europe) is my boss’s boss. I recently hired his son into my team.

He gave a good interview and seemed totally committed to the role. Since then, I find him very challenging. He mimics his father, who is several levels above me. He doesn’t show up for team meetings (or gives a weak excuse why he can’t join) and he challenges the way we operate within the organisation with phrases I assume he has heard from his father. I need him to perform his role, not his father’s, and I feel that he thinks he is protected.

Recently I had a special project where his father intervened unexpectedly and unusually for someone so high up in the organisation, at a time I had briefly discussed the project with his son. How should I deal with this behaviour? I don’t want his conduct to spread like contagion through the team, and I also don’t want to give him special privileges just because of his father’s position.

Hired The Boss’s Son

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Dear Hired The Boss’s Son,

Isn’t this a can of worms! I wish I could wave a magic wand and send everyone back to the starting line so that clear agreements about how to proceed when family members join an organization could be designed before you got started. But of course that isn’t very helpful, is it?

You have two choices here, and the direction you go will probably be informed by your own sense of how much power you have in the situation and to what extent you feel secure in your job.

Choice One: You nip the unacceptable behaviour in the bud. Have a serious sit-down with The Prince and explain:

  • That your job is to help him be as successful as possible in his current role, and that you look forward to seeing him advance quickly so that he can implement all of his ideas about how things should be done when he is in the position to do so.
  • The chain of command and the inappropriateness of his going over your head.
  • Your expectations of all of your team members, including him, that everyone attend team meetings.
  • Your expectations of anyone in his role: what the job is and is not.
  • Your commitment to fairness; your belief that privilege is earned, not granted because of family connections; and your need to see a marked change in his behaviour.
  • That his performance evaluation is at stake, and that if he cannot control himself and show appropriate respect for the team and for you as his manager, he will not be successful in the organisation. (Be sure to be crystal clear on this one.)

If you feel safe enough to do so, you may ask for a meeting with the father to enroll him in your quest to help The Prince be as successful as possible in his current role. If the father can’t see how wrong his son’s behavior is, and doesn’t have your back, this route will probably not go well. Finally, you also need your human resources business partner to know what is going on, so HR may be able to intervene as well. It was up to your HRBP to see this coming and provide the necessary extra preparation before you hired, but I guess the practice of nepotism must be new to everyone. It is one of those things you don’t know until you find out the hard way.

Choice Two: If you don’t have support from HR and the big boss, you will probably need to suffer the annoying behaviour until you can shuffle the kid upward and away from you. It wouldn’t be the first time a problem child got promoted so that someone could avoid conflict. I hate to even suggest it, because this is exactly the kind of responsibility-ducking that contributes to the weakening of organisations. But if you believe your own job could be at stake, you may not feel like you have a choice. The risks with this are that you might lose the respect of the rest of your team (although they may understand how untenable your position is)—and you may also endanger your reputation with whoever his next boss is when they realize that you fobbed off a disruptive, entitled brat onto them. Then again, if the big boss can’t or won’t see the problem, everyone will have to suffer together.

This conversation is close to home for me as a family member who works in a family-owned business. We actively practice nepotism, in that we are delighted to offer opportunities to our own friends and family, and those of our employees, who have the requisite skills and experience. The key, however—and we have indeed learned this the hard way—is that there is no preferential treatment when it comes to performance and adherence to the company values. Maybe the most important message we have learned to share with the folks who come into the company with privilege (whether it is real or simply perceived) is this: Privilege comes with increased responsibility to demonstrate alignment with the company values and be an unimpeachable performer and a contribution to one’s team.  You might want to add this message to the list of bullet points above.

You inadvertently stepped into a bit of quicksand and will have to proceed very carefully to extricate yourself without losing your self-respect, possibly your reputation, and of course, at the very worst, your job.  Get as much support as you can, and feel out the power dynamic to decide your path. Keep your wits about you. And be deliberate whether you choose to go into battle or duck and wait it out.

The one thing I can say for sure is this: even if The Prince doesn’t learn a little humility at this stage of his working life, he will at some point. Life humbles all of us eventually. Would it be better for him to get the memo now, while he is young enough to really benefit? Of course it would. It just may not be your job to make sure that happens.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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