A pattern became apparent recently as I was listening to clients in a mediation session. Over the past several years, many of my clients—mostly organizations but occasionally individuals—have described their working environments as “like family.” That feeling, of course, predated the sudden turn of events that caused these “family” members to become estranged and to start litigating against each other.

However, as anyone deeply involved in workplace consulting or litigation knows, there are few sudden turns of events. More often, there is a long arc of linked events which lead to intractable conflict. A family workplace atmosphere has several problems, including making that road to conflict more difficult to perceive and difficult to remedy.

By a “family” workplace atmosphere, I do not mean a place where family members work; although places where family members work together have the same issues as discussed here, plus some others. And I do not mean a place where workers collaborate freely or where traditional hierarchies are absent; if done well, there can be great creativity and energy in such places.

By a “family” workplace atmosphere, I mean a place where topics that are not related to work become appropriate and customary to discuss during working hours; where supervisors and subordinates feel they can slide comfortably from working professionally with external vendors or customers, to talking with coworkers about the sweet and the sour of their personal lives, to palling around with supervisors and subordinates; where they are able to laugh a little loud or drink a little much or be sarcastic with the boss; a place where managers know more about the private lives of employees than they let on, and sometimes are a little extra accommodating because of it.

A family is ultimately defined by its members’ roles in it. In contrast, a family atmosphere in a workplace occurs despite its members’ roles in it. A workplace might seem like a family sometimes, but only during the good times. When there is a serious problem, a workplace does not function like a family, and the appearance—or community mythology—of a family atmosphere keeps a workplace from resolving problems on its own terms.

The Problem

Unlike most workplaces, families provide extensive opportunities to see their members in different lights as time goes by and circumstances change. Roles and expectations have more room to change—and there are more factors bearing on those changes—in families than in workplaces. And, whether one family member accepts another unconditionally or conditionally, there are not layers of laws enforcing behavior as there are in the workplace.

A workplace has fewer opportunities to remedy bad behavior, with graver downside consequences. In both workplaces and families, offenses add up until they reach a threshold. Both provide some opportunities over time to remedy the adversely felt consequences of bad behavior. And, if the individual who is offended by the bad behavior does not accept or forgive it, both the workplace and the family offer alternatives. Only the workplace, however, includes among the alternatives a range of legal actions that could target not only the employer but also the individuals engaging in the bad behavior.

Promoting or allowing a family atmosphere in the workplace invariably interferes with a clear evaluation of employees by their supervisors. In part that is because the focus of the supervisors becomes diffuse, distracted. From the perspective of the organization’s mission and effectiveness, that means that the subordinates’ role in the organization—good or bad—cannot be adequately assessed. It also means that the manager’s own performance as a supervisor is less productive.

From the perspective of the employees, it means that individual expectations of what a person should contribute and how the organization will respond are not clear. In the best of times, organizations risk having the expectations of an employee not aligned with the expectations of that employee’s manager, but the risk increases dramatically when other factors intervene, such as confusion over the supervisor’s focus, or concerns about what is private and what is appropriate to discuss at work.

The Fix

  • Recognize this fundamental truth about employees:

Generally, employees do not care about whether a workplace is lax or strict as much as they care about whether a workplace is fair and predictable.

  • Draw a line between your employees’ private lives and their work lives.

You can send the message that you are receptive to discussing the situation when an employee’s personal life affects work. You can offer an employee assistance plan, available from your benefits broker, that provides counseling for a range of issues, including those pertaining to family, finances, dependency, and violence. You can convert sick leave and vacation plans to paid time off plans, which is a win-win for employers and employees alike. Note, however, that discussions of privacy should be carefully tailored and reviewed to ensure that you are not engendering unintended employee expectations of privacy in organizational assets such as computer and communication systems, common areas, personal work spaces, etc.

  • Reassess what your employees should be accomplishing.

Their job descriptions and performance appraisals should be linked. Not only the subordinates themselves but also their supervisors should be held accountable for how well the subordinates are performing. Supervisors should be held accountable for incidents of employee complaints, and they should be given tools and training to help them minimize the conditions for such complaints. It may or may not be appropriate in each particular case to factor in personal issues when responding to an employee’s performance problems, but, if it is appropriate, a plan should be developed which addresses the work issues and not the personal issues.

  • Align the expectations of your employees with your new approach.

Announce that you want to be sure your employees feel secure in the privacy of their personal lives; that there are channels to raise those issues if they affect the workplace; that there are confidential resources to provide assistance with personal issues; but that, in the workplace, you are all there to work.