In the foreground, a woman has her arms crossed and looks away, seemingly upset. In the background three people are chatting, close together.
Not always all in the family
by Phillip M. Perry

Productive employees make profitable companies. Every employer would like to cultivate an effective team that goes the extra mile to satisfy customers and reach revenue goals at minimal costs.

However, not every company succeeds in developing and maintaining a workforce of “A players.” Family businesses, in particular, face the unique challenge of motivating non-family workers who too often feel under-appreciated, ignored in company planning sessions and overlooked for chances to advancement into management positions.

“At too many family businesses, non-family employees feel like no matter how hard they work, they’re treading water,” said Sam Brownell, founder of Stratus Wealth Advisors in Kensington, Maryland. “They feel they will always play second fiddle to the kids or the cousins or whoever it is that gets special treatment.” 

Treating non-family workers like second-class citizens can erode profits. 

“People who feel like ‘outsiders’ see no point in putting in 100% effort,” said Brownell. “As a result, customer service can drop off and the business can start seeing issues with inventory management and vendor relations.”

In the worst such cases, dysfunctional family dynamics can impact retention—an especially costly issue in today’s tight labor market. 

“People who don't feel their efforts and accomplishments are being appropriately rewarded have a motivation to look elsewhere,” said Travis W. Harms, the leader of Mercer Capital’s Family Business Advisory Services Group. 

“The worst possible thing is to lose high-performing talent to a competitor,” he said. 

Reviewing Your Business

Family businesses thrive when they create a work environment where all employees feel at home. 

“Any family business that grows at any appreciable pace will very soon become dependent on people who are not family members,” said Craig Aronoff, chairman of The Family Business Consulting Group in Chicago. “And it behooves that company to ensure they feel included rather than excluded.”

Equal treatment for everyone stems from a vital principle: The enterprise should be a “business first” rather than a “family first” operation. 

Here are some specific steps that will help create a work environment that stimulates productivity among all employees—family members or otherwise. 

1. Work hard at fairness.

“Non-family employees should be treated, managed, evaluated and compensated on the same basis as family members,” said Aronoff. “It’s also important to maintain clear distinctions within the family group as to each individual’s role, whether that be employee, supervisor or manager. Within each of those roles, it's extremely important that there is perceived fair treatment of everyone—whether family or not.”

Reverify your payers’ timely filing limits on a regular basis. Most payers do not email or mail updates to providers, but simply house them on their websites. "

2. Prepare the next generation.

“There is a temptation for the founders’ offspring to feel entitled, to become less productive than they might be, and to take the business for granted,” said Aronoff. “The younger generation needs to understand they must constantly look for ways to improve operations and to ensure the enterprise remains relevant to its market.”

3. Promote for performance.

“Advancing the right person to upper management can be a complicated and difficult process,” Aronoff said. “Choosing a family member may seem to make the decision a simple one, but it's not. It’s certainly not a way to build the best possible business, nor is it the best way to help the new generation maximize their own lives and experiences.”

Successful family operations plant an early seed of responsibility. 

“Make clear that it’s not your genes that prepare you for a position,” he said. “Rather, it’s your knowledge, experience, drive and how you interact with other people. The person who gets advanced into a higher position will be the best person for the job.” 

4. Avoid empty positions.

Too often, family businesses create meaningless positions with impressive titles so members of a new generation can be brought aboard. This practice creates morale problems and saps profits. 

Aronoff noted that the family member who requires career and employment help can get financial assistance or training opportunities outside the business structure. 

5. Earn stripes elsewhere.

“Assigning family members without adequate experience or training to management positions can create a sense of entitlement, which is frustrating for everyone,” said John Joseph Paul, a Portland, Oregon-based family business consultant. “Instead, family members should prove their mettle by working at entry-level positions in other, similar types 
of companies. This experience will give them the opportunity to learn practical skills." 

Many companies require family members to gain experience at another company for five years before joining the family enterprise."

6. Communicate family business policies.

"Having the right family business policies is one thing. Ensuring everyone is aware of them is another.

“It can be frustrating for non-family employees if they feel like their advancement opportunities within the company are limited because a family member will eventually come in and snap up a job they’ve been working toward,” Harms said. “That’s a pretty common frustration.”

This situation can be obviated by communication. Family and non-family workers must understand the policies that govern promotions. 

“Clear guidelines on how the family is going to be treated personally and professionally must be clearly understood by everyone,” Brownell said. “Transparency in these things can make a huge, huge difference because everybody will know what's expected.”

7. Maintain clear chains of command.

"New employees frequently find themselves juggling contradictory directives from more than one family member. This creates operational and morale problems. In the worst-case scenario, the frustrated worker leaves for another employer.

“Family businesses must maintain robust organizational charts that illustrate clear chains of command so that no employee ends up reporting to multiple bosses, whether formally or informally,” said Aronoff. “It is the responsibility of top-level management to create a clear system of authority.”

8. Distribute perks fairly.

"Non-family employees should share equally in company niceties such as paid time off, flexible working hours and work-life balance initiatives. 

“If family members are given special perks, it is noticed by everyone,” said Aronoff. “And that can lead, again, to morale problems and a decline in commitment. While this kind of treatment will be accepted by some people, it will not be accepted by those who can provide the greatest return for your company.”

9. Reinvest profits.

One of the most critical family issues is that of financing: Will profits be re-invested in operations or distributed to family members? 

“Your company might have lots of exciting investment opportunities,” said Harms. “But if shareholders press for large dividend payments or share redemptions, the drain on funds can crowd out otherwise attractive projects. That can be very frustrating—especially for non-family CEOs and COOs.”

Those not intimately involved in daily operations are more likely to want immediate returns. Such conflict can become especially intense as the years go by and the family tree becomes populated with second, third and even fourth-generation members. 

How can this situation be avoided? Nothing so complicated has a one-size-fits-all solution, but ongoing education can help. 

“It’s important to make sure family shareholders understand that businesses often grow by heavily re-investing earnings,” said Harms. “A dollar distributed or used for redemptions is a dollar that’s not available to make the business succeed.”

10. Share your success.

Equitable pay and promotions are one thing. But who benefits financially when the business becomes more valuable as a result of employee performance? Too often, the answer is only the family members who own shares of stock. Executives who lack equity also lack the ability to participate financially in the upside. That can lead them to jump ship, taking their skills to competitors.

“In my experience, frustrations by senior level employees are less about cash compensation and more about the lack of potential to share equity,” said Harms. “Family businesses must develop some alternative means to incentivize non-family executives.” 

What’s the solution? Just like publicly traded companies, privately held corporations have shares of stock that not only represent ownership control but also facilitate the allocation of financial rewards through share appreciation and dividends. Harms said it’s wise to set in place a financial vehicle that channels such financial rewards to non-family executives through equity-like compensation while allowing family members to retain operational control.

A number of vehicles are available to accomplish this task. One of the most common is a profit-sharing plan, but there are others such as classified and phantom stock. Additionally, an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) can channel appropriate compensation to executive and non-executive employees alike. Be sure to consult your attorneys and accountants before making big financial decisions.

Something Greater

Family businesses that follow the guidelines outlined above will ensure their entire teams maintain good morale while remaining invested in the success of the enterprise. 

“There are many ways to show non-family members that you care about their contributions,” said Brownell. “Everyone will perform better when they understand their labor is going toward something greater than just the net worth of the family.” 

Award-winning journalist Phillip M. Perry has published widely in the fields of business management, workplace psychology and employment law. Perry is a two-time winner of the American Bar Association’s annual Edge Award for the best article of the year as well as of that organization’s “Value to the Reader Award.” Visit