Treating Employees Like Family. Good idea? Or Not so Much?

thanksgiving table

Recently, I came across this CNN Small Biz Tips video on Haydel’s,  a family bakery that attributes some of its success to a philosophy of  treating their employees as family. As I listened, I was happy that the bakery is thriving, using an employment model that evidently works for them. But I was wary of this implied message: treating employees like ‘family’ is a practice other employers should emulate.

First of all, a quick glance around the Thanksgiving/Easter/Passover table should remind us that  many families are a little nutty, if not downright dysfunctional. Aunt Sally and Aunt Myra  haven’t spoken for decades, though they don’t remember why. Uncle Joe arrives to family events half tanked and flirts with his nieces, who cringe and say “ewww”  while sending cryptic status updates to FaceBook. You get the picture. How do you deal with those and other family dynamics when they spill into work?

Secondly, the challenges of working in a true family business are well-known. If that’s your path, you deal with the realities, both positive and negative. But if that’s not your reality, why go looking for it?

Thirdly, the employee-as-family model might work in a very small organization. But is it sustainable as you reach 15, 20, 50, 100 employees and with each step, increasing employment law requirements are layered on?

Finally, what does ‘treating employees as family’ really mean? I think it’s pretty likely your employees may arrive at a different interpretation than management.  If you insist on embracing the employee-as-family philosophy, I suggest, at minimum, spelling out the terms. Does it mean that you take people’s word rather than writing agreements down? That  people never get terminated? Or conversely, that you love your employees unconditionally while simultaneously kicking them to the curb?

I’m not an organization development expert, so those that are should feel free to weigh in. But my personal opinion is that the workplace is usually not a family arrangement and shouldn’t be construed as one. We can be employee-friendly, we can be people-orientated, and we can share some characteristics of family (caring, community, etc.) without identifying ourselves as such.

Agree? Disagree? Thoughts? Please comment.

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