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Working for a Family-Owned Business

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When is a family not a family? When it’s NOT YOUR FAMILY: not your parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, uncles, or your aunts. Sound like part of a riddle? It’s not; what it is, is a mantra you have to remember when you are considering working for a family-owned business or if you are currently employed by a family-owned organization and you are not a relation.

Yes, there can be a blurred line. You may experience cozy feelings that come from working very closely together with a small group of people, perks like bagel Wednesdays, common dysfunctional behavior between father and son or sibling rivalry, a communal kitchen where everyone meets in the morning to discuss their personal life, a sense of belonging to one big family who you see five days a week, an owner who addresses you by name, BUT make no mistake, this is a BUSINESS.

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To the owners of these family-owned enterprises, THIS IS A BUSINESS with a profit and loss statement and an accounting ledger. THEY may have a loyalty to their accountant, attorney, and perhaps their blood relations, but as a non-relative, YOU are an employee, and that’s what you have to remember when you are truly looking out for yourself. And as an employee, the family does not have to be loyal to you. Regardless of how safe any family-owned situation may feel the security can be a false one that is very seductive.

There are wonderful reasons to enjoy working for such an organization, but as with any situation, there are negatives to weigh as well. This type of work situation may be wonderful and give you everything you may need from your work environment as long as you DON’T ASSUME that this family will take care of you, as your own would.

I spoke with a group of experienced professionals whose careers range from architect to salesperson to doctor to copywriter, who have experienced these family business situations, to gather their insights and stories about working within a family-owned organization. Their overall sentiments about their experiences were very similar, although the details change from person to person, profession to profession. I’d like to present to you some tips that I gathered after talking with these professionals.

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If You Are Already Employed by a Family Owned Business

How do you overcome the pitfalls and yet embrace all the positive aspects of being an employee in a family run business?

Take responsibility for yourself and don’t assume others are there, at the company, to take care of you. Remember, the family members are there to make money, bottom-line, even if they act like they don’t care about it one way or the other. While you are there, “Drink the Kool-Aid.” Service the family as well as you can, they are your primary client. Agree with, abide by and respect the top dog’s business strategies. Perform and you can expect to be rewarded in the short term. Understand you can be let go at any time, particularly if you have not established a long-term history there. Protect yourself by making provisions for that possibility. At the same time, do everything you can to earn the trust of the owners and make money for them and for you.

Learn what you can. Since there’s generally a lack of bureaucracy and layers that you would find at a public company, there is a lot of opportunity to learn and be hands-on in a lean environment.

If you are entrepreneurial in nature, find a way to leave the employer gracefully. Find another job. This type of work situation is suffocating for your type of personality who wants to do things your own way. You will be uncomfortable with your lack of power within the organization, your inability to conduct business in the way you see fit, and the inability to move into a position of power without becoming a pawn for the family management. Also, you know that if you have aspirations of climbing the ladder, unless there is no one left in the family to carry on the family business, you will never be able to become a true business partner.

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The End of the Line

Once you have been laid off, fired, or have made the decision to leave, think hard about this work experience. If a family owned business opportunity hasn’t worked well for you, try to take the positive points from the experience and use them to your advantage. Don’t look back, just move forward and know that all job situations will not be like this one. It is work experience and whether it was good or bad, it taught you something. After your experience, you can calmly look back and decide whether the situation worked for you and if you want to repeat the experience.

Please note, as with any job, if you are in a job-related environment where you feel the business is operating unethically, is involved with illegal practices, you feel your physical safety is at risk or you are forced to do things that you know are wrong, LEAVE as soon as possible. No job is worth suffering for.

If You Are Considering a Job Opportunity with a Family Owned Business

If you are considering entering into this type of work arrangement, understand the situation beforehand and PROTECT YOURSELF. Realize that there will be no one at the company looking out for you, BUT YOU. See your potential environment for what it really is, the good and the limitations.

If you are thinking about the opportunity but are entrepreneurial in nature, don’t consider it unless you have no alternative. As I mentioned above, this is not the type of work environment in which you will be happy.

In conclusion, in these difficult economic times, particularly in some professions, family-owned businesses may have more job openings than other types of work situations. Being employed by a family-owned enterprise may just be the right decision for you and you may find yourself very fulfilled. On the other hand, it may not be the right move for you or you may never know that until you have experienced the environment for yourself. Whatever your circumstances and decision, remember you control your destiny. You are responsible for yourself.

One closing note, only 10 percent of all the professionals I interviewed would consider working for another family-owned business (unless they had no other alternative and were forced financially to make that decision). However, the 10% ,who have enjoyed the experience, while acknowledging the pitfalls, have thrived and have worked for at least three family businesses.

Susan Goldberg’s company, Susan Goldberg Executive Search Consulting, conducts retained senior level executive searches for start-up companies to large conglomerates and provides career coaching for both senior-level executives and recent college graduates. Her website is  www.sibylsearch.com

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