How To Be a Non-Family Member in a Family Business

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Family businesses may be more pervasive than you think; they represent the greatest part of wealth of in the U.S. and account for 70-80% of the global gross domestic product. If your family doesn’t own a business, you may end up working at someone else’s family business, and that can create both challenges and opportunities.

If you’re going to interview for a position with a family business, in addition to the due diligence you’d complete for any potential employer, you’d be well served to familiarize yourself with its culture. Specifically, it will benefit you to know which of the following three philosophies drive the business:

  • Family First—The happiness of family members comes before everything else. Unity is favored, even if it results in negative business consequences.
  • Business First—What’s best for the business is put ahead of everything else. Professional business practices are followed and stringent rules are in place.
  • Family Enterprise—Striking a balance between the family- and business-first philosophies is the goal. Family satisfaction is created while the economic health of the business is supported.

In business-first family businesses and family enterprises, the fact that you’re not a member of the family may be irrelevant, since advancement will typically be based on competency rather than bloodline. The fact remains, however, that it can be daunting to work next to the wife, son or niece of your boss, and you may believe they receive favorable treatment.

If you work for a family-first business, you may face more challenges, along with career limitations. You must ask yourself whether you’re okay with the fact that family members with less ability and/or experience than you may advance to leadership positions not because of the value they bring, but who they are.

Whatever type of family business you work at, the trait that will be valued over all others is loyalty. Employees who demonstrate a commitment to the business will be worth their weight in gold, but if you’re someone who thrives on fairness, you may be frustrated with some of the decision-making.

For instance, a friend of mine worked with a family business that was practically run by three non-family members, but the owner’s wife and son were compensated higher and had better hours. When the “outsiders” brought this situation to the owner’s attention, he basically said “too bad”; family unity was more important to him than any business consideration.

As a non-family member, you need to know the “lay of the land” of the family business before you commit yourself to a role that ultimately disappoints you. You may also want to think about the following things, which will help you become a valued employee:

  • Be highly competent at what you do.
  • Be validated by your own sense of accomplishment; find joy in your work.
  • Know when to take a stand and when to say nothing.
  • Ensure your colleagues know you’re proud to be associated with the business.

Working at a family business can be incredibly rewarding for non-family members, but you can never forget that old adage: blood is thicker than water.

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