Bullying in the Family Business: What Should You Do About It?

JoAnne Norton

Your sister-in-law works in your family’s business right alongside of you and for some reason thinks she can do both her job and your job better than you can. You begin dreading the day as you drive to work knowing she’s probably already at the office ready to pounce on you yet again, criticizing and correcting you, surprisingly sarcastic for someone you once got along with so well. More than anything, it is her condescending tone of voice that makes you leave your family’s business each day feeling demeaned and demoralized. How do you make this bad behavior stop?

The titles of the best-selling books on the market would have you believe it is just a matter of having a conversation—a crucial one, a fierce one, or a difficult one. While all of the authors have excellent ideas and wise advice, the key word in all of the titles is conversations. You cannot keep putting up with bad behavior hoping your sister-in-law will magically change over night because that strategy simply guarantees more of the same bad behavior. You need to talk.

Bullying is detrimental to relationships in the business and in the family. Worse yet, it can have a serious impact on the family for generations. Children and grandchildren who witness disrespectful and hurtful putdowns learn: A) exactly how to behave this way, and B) it is okay to treat each other poorly. That’s why when these disrespectful dealings are going on, it is the business of the family to have a conversation about it.

To begin with, it must be made clear that all family members are required to speak to each other respectfully. Talking rudely and putting someone down are completely unacceptable behaviors. Bullying is counter-productive in a family culture and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

If a family member is feeling bullied, or if any family member witnesses bullying, it is time to have one of those conversations—a conversation that should take place with an objective outsider, maybe even a professional. The sooner the conversation is held, the less lasting damage will be done. But keep in mind that this is a critical conversation and one that should never be done by email or text. The preservation of your family is too precious not to be taken seriously.

For more information on how to deal with difficult issues, please join my colleague, Joe Schmieder, and me for our webinar on December 4 at 1:00PM EST when we’ll be talking about “The Ties That Bind: Facing Up to the Difficult, Sometimes Brutal, Family Business Issues.” For more information click here.

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