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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

All in the Family: 4 Keys for Working With Relatives

Take one look at me in my high heels and pencil skirt, and you may peg me as a desk-worker through and through, a complete stranger to manual labor. But give me 45 minutes? I can detail your car like it’s nobody’s business.

How did I come by such an unusual talent? Well, the used car dealership where I worked during junior high isn’t nobody’s business—it’s my family’s.

Although I eventually retired my work shirt and rubber gloves, my mom, dad, and brother are still there together—six days a week, 52 weeks a year. I’ve learned from them that while working with family isn’t for everyone, it can have big rewards if you have the right personality (and patience) to make it work.

Be Honest—Really Honest—About Your Relationship

Wondering if working with a relative is right for you? The first step is to take a cold, hard look at your personality and at your relationship with the person you’ll be working with. Are you the kind of person who leaves Thanksgiving dinner before dessert is served because you can’t stand to be around your family for one more minute? Do you and your siblings tend to get way too heated with each other when things get stressful?

If this sounds familiar, working with family is probably a bad call. Figuring out a business plan, worrying about bills, and splitting the profits can be tough even on the best relationships. And even working for the same company or in the same office can be too close for comfort if you’re the kind of person who needs plenty of space. As my mom likes to say, “Working together might make a good relationship better, but it will definitely make a bad relationship worse.”

Keep a Healthy Balance

Let’s be honest: In today’s hyper-connected world, there’s no such thing as “leaving work at the office.” Just about everyone spends some of their down time replying to emails, finishing up projects, or even just thinking up a to-do list for the next day.

Normally, spending time with your family or spouse gives you a chance to focus on something besides your job—until you start working together. Suddenly, it can seem like work is the only thing you’re talking and thinking about, and it can start to take a toll on your relationship and your mental health.

It’s important to keep a healthy balance by making sure that you maintain other hobbies and interests with your spouse, sibling, or parent. For example, my parents pour their out-of-work time and energy into renovating a ramshackle cabin. At 5 PM on Friday, all talk of cars and bills ends in favor of discussions about deer repellent and DIY deck-building. You can choose movies, cooking, shopping, or whatever it was that you enjoyed doing together before you became co-workers. The important thing is not what you do—it’s that you’re not focused on work and the stresses that come with it every second that you’re together.

Maintain Your Independence

Just because you scored a gig at the same office as your sister doesn’t mean you need to spend every lunch hour together, or every afternoon chit-chatting at her desk. Maintaining some alone time or time with other co-workers will help both of you keep your sanity and ensure that you actually have things to talk about when you are together.

Even if you’re working at a family business, try to carve out some space for yourself. Take a walk at lunch, find a quiet place to work, or even take a divide-and-conquer approach to office tasks. A few days a week, my mom stays at the office and pays the bills while my dad heads to a car auction to buy and sell vehicles. By the time they meet up for lunch, they’re both refreshed and ready to spend the rest of the day together.

Don’t Play Favorites

The minute you begin working with a relative, other employees are going to be on high alert for special treatment. This means that you should be on the watch for it, too. If you’re responsible for supervising a team that includes a family member, be sure you’re assigning tasks and giving out rewards according to talent and hard work, not genetics.

While you’re trying to avoid favoritism, though, don’t go too far in the other direction. My dad admits that he tends to be tougher on my brother than the other employees. He wants to push him to do his best, and he expects him to set an example for the rest of the staff. It took my dad a few years (not to mention some gentle reminders from my mom) to make him realize that nobody’s perfect—not even the boss’s son.

There’s no denying that working with family can be tough, but it also comes with amazing perks. My mom loves that she gets to spend her days with two of her favorite people. My dad and my brother have the kind of unique bond that only comes from building a business together. It’s not always easy, but at the end of the day, my parents both agree that after nearly 25 years in business, they wouldn’t change a thing.

Photo of family working courtesy of Shutterstock.