Tips for Handling the Coddled Family Member on the Job

You hired your cousin Peter as the sales manager for your family business. He has not been meeting his quotas, and even worse, doesn’t seem to think it’s important, and the company is suffering. Or you hired your daughter right out of college as Director of Merchandising because you were desperate to fill that position and she needed a job. But she’s far more interested in how the packaging looks than in working with manufacturers and customers.

In my last post, “The Peter Principle at Work in Family Businesses,” I wrote about how the principle that employees tend to rise to the level of their incompetence is often true in family businesses. This often happens because a family member has been coddled at the business. The column included a quiz so you could tell if you are in this situation.

So you took the quiz and may have determined that you do have a family member who has been enabled, and you now understand that situation is damaging to your business. So what do you do about it?

You have three options:

1. Provide training or education

If the family member truly does care about the business and its success and wants to continue in his position, providing additional training so he can perform better could be your solution. Your brother may have been promoted to a management position but has never had to manage people before. Let him know you are interested in helping him grow professionally and part of that involves getting more training.

Ask him to find some classes or seminars he can take to sharpen his skills as a manager. If he truly does want to succeed, he will be happy to take advantage of your investment in his future.

2. Reassign the family member to another more suitable position

Sometimes a family member is just not suited to handle her job responsibilities. In the case of the daughter in the merchandising area, her major was in graphic design and she really has no interest in setting budgets and developing the skills she would need to be successful in merchandising. She is unhappy in her position because she doesn’t have the skills and really has no interest in acquiring them. To keep someone in a position that they have no interest in and can’t handle is a disservice to both the employee and the company.

If you have a design department and could use her help there, then discuss the situation and reassign her. If there is not a position available, you can suggest she go to work for another company to gain valuable experience, then return to yours when you do have a space for her. Make sure to let her know you do have her interests at heart and want her to be happy.

3. Terminate the family member

Sometimes it becomes clear that the family member is just not going to work out, for whatever reason. He isn’t motivated, she doesn’t want to be there in the first place, he is unable to acquire the skills necessary to work in the family business. It’s a tough call, but often it’s the only course to take if the first two options aren’t a possibility.

Firing a family member is a delicate process. You’ll want to consider giving the family member a generous severance, allowing him to save face by “resigning” and possibly funding out placement services so he can find a new position.

For more tips on how to do this, please read my post, “How to Fire Grandma and Still Get Invited to Sunday Dinner.”

It is possible work with family members that have been coddled or enabled and turn them into an asset, rather than a liability for your company. But if that doesn’t work, the best thing for everyone is to terminate them.

The Peter Principle at Work in Family Businesses

Perhaps nowhere is the Peter Principle more prevalent than in a family business. Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull wrote about the principle in their 1969 book “The Peter Principle,” which stated simply is “Employees tend to rise to the level of their incompetence.”

I thought about the Peter Principle when I was reading an article on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network about the effect enabled family members could have on a business. Keeping incompetent or unskilled family members as employees can be devastating to a business and can ultimately cause it to fail.

I’ve seen it so many times. Uncle Joe runs a division of the company because he invested a couple thousand of dollars when the business was formed 20 years ago but he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. A couple starts a business and their son takes over and runs it when they retire. But he’d spent most of his time playing golf and traveling, stopping by occasionally to pick up a check and flirt with the women in the sales department. The only thing he knows how to manage is his account at the country club.

Even if they don’t know how to do their present jobs, they sometimes continue to be promoted. And the business suffers.

The authors of the article, Josh Baron and Rob Lachenauer, co-founders of Banyan Family Business Advisors, included a quiz so you can determine whether you are coddling a family member. If you answer yes to four or more of these questions, then you probably are overindulging him or her. Here are their questions:

1. Has a family member worked exclusively in the family’s business?

2. Has he reported within his parent’s span of control for most, or all, of his career?

3. Has she never received 360 feedback on her performance?

4. Is the family member paid above the market-based compensation for his position?

5. Has the family member been promoted beyond his capabilities?

6. Is the family member’s behavior often outside the boundaries of acceptable value-based behavior of the company?

Do these scenarios sound familiar to you? Coddling a family member does no good for anyone. The business suffers if someone is incompetent to handle his or her job. The individual often knows he or she is not performing the job the way it should be done and is ashamed or may be embarrassed. Morale at the company suffers when the other employees witness the family member receiving preferential treatment and not handling their job responsibilities.

In a previous column I gave five tips for successful family businesses. If you have a suspicion you may be coddling a family member, I suggest you pay particular attention to one of these suggestions: Put the right people in the right jobs. I don’t care if Uncle Joe gave you seed money to start a division of your company. If he doesn’t know how to manage a department don’t put him in charge of it. Don’t let the Peter Principle be at work in your family business.

For tips on how to handle the situation of a coddled relative, please read my next post.