In or Out-of-Bounds – Managing Expectations in the Family Business

Josh has worked for the family business on and off since he was 14. His most recent summer job was as a truck driver making deliveries to construction sites. So he thought nothing about asking to borrow the truck over the weekend to help move into a new apartment at college.

The truck was an open bed, and the weekend turned out to be very rainy. Josh and his roommates waited for the rain to subside, but it continued until early Monday morning. The boys got up early and worked hard to move the big items and return the truck.

On his way back from Lansing, Josh ran into rush hour traffic and showed up with the truck at 9 a.m. His father was furious, as was his summer boss who let him borrow the truck. The team in the field was waiting for a critical delivery that would now be over two hours late, wasting the time of a half dozen men. Josh had promised to have the truck back no later than 7:30 that morning if not the night before, and anticipating the reaming he was going to get, he turned off his cell phone.


Steve and Larry are twins who now work in their family’s retail store. They get along very well, for the most part, but when they erupt it gets ugly. One day when the store was quite busy Larry asked Steve to help him service a customer. Steve who was quite busy himself responded with a loud and belligerent, “I’m busy, do it yourself.”

Everyone turned to look at the interaction, and Larry felt insulted by the response. He retorted, “You haven’t grown up since our paper route and you still don’t get it!” Steve stormed out of the store.


Mary works for her father in his medical office. She is the “fill-in” receptionist that allows her flex time to care for her two children. One day she got a call from school that one of the kids was ill and needed to be picked up as soon as possible. Her replacement was due in 10 minutes and the office manager asked her to stay until she arrived. Mary threw a fit and as soon as she saw her father come out of an exam room she jumped at him with, “Daddy, Tyler is sick at school and I need to leave right now and get him.”

Naturally, not knowing the circumstances, her father said, “Sure.” And she stormed out giving the office manager a nasty look.


Each of these real examples illustrates how families who have family businesses can create conflict by not setting proper boundaries. While it might be acceptable in a family setting to be late with the family car, to bring up ancient history in an effort to be right, or to play one parent against the other, these behaviors are unacceptable in the business. In fact, they are out-of-bounds and have a negative effect on everyone around.

Families who own businesses need to clarify what needs to change in the business setting. Continuing with classic family behavior can be very disruptive and unsettling to employees as well as appear “unprofessional” to customers or clients.

Furthermore, out-of-bounds behaviors can have unforeseen negative impact on the bottom line. Like in any sport, business rules need to be defined and communicated. Is “on-the-line” in or out of bounds?

Sometimes they need to be defined down to the minutia -“ like how we refer to each other at work.

Is it okay for Mary to call her father, the doctor, Daddy at work, or should it be Dr. Jones?

Families who understand that running the family business like a business is critical to success, set policies that establish the boundaries. They might have a “Corporate Asset Policy” that addresses the personal use of company property -“ like a truck, or a laptop for that matter. There might be a “Code of Conduct” that addresses communications by family members, that would determine how we deal with old issues if they arise. It might also address things like yelling, or walking out if these are typical family behavioral stereotypes. Other policies might be more informal, like, “Call me Dr. Jones at work.”

Setting policies for the family in the workplace seldom works without some process, clear communication and consequences for failure to comply. If you expect your family to go along with policies, it is best to include them in the formation.

Even if they disagree with the final outcome, they are more likely to comply if they were involved in the beginning. Good communications are always tricky, but nothing works better than putting policy in writing. Doing so makes us become clearer by choosing our words carefully and it prevents the inevitable, “You never told me that.”

A written policy can then be shared at appropriate family meetings so that everyone can be clear about expectations. Managing expectations is one of the best ways to minimize conflict.

Sometimes telling the family that they are expected not only to be on time for meetings, but early and with the donuts in hand, can overcome a multitude of built up stress from dealing with those who find it necessary to be regularly late.

Telling the family that they are not allowed to take advantage of their family heritage in the workplace helps them understand that they are expected to behave in a manner commensurate with top management -“ even if they aren’t.

One last thought -“ most of this writing has been focused on the next generation’s out-of-bounds behavior. But, the seniors can be just as guilty and it is incumbent upon the family as a whole to set reasonable boundaries for all involved. Dad calling junior “Buddy-boy” all the time in the office is just as out-of-bounds.

Richard Segal is the chair of the Family Business Council, a membership organization of family owned businesses. He can be reached at [email protected].