Leaving Business Back at the Office

If the family business is seeping its way into every off-hours conversation, it's time to draw the line on shop talk.
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6 min read

This story appears in the September 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Does this scenario sound familiar? "When Allan starts discussing business at the dinner table, I ask him if it's something that can wait until later," says Renee Berkon. "If he says no or appears upset, we talk about it. If he says yes, we move on."

In these subtle conversations, the Berkons, owners of the Fireproofing Corp. of America, an industrial cleaning service in New York City, are dealing with the subtleties involved in trying to set boundaries in a family business. For many, this seemingly simple task can quickly become a frustrating paradox. On one hand, a successful family business is so pervasive, it's impossible to expect it won't spill over into your family life. On the other, if you let it overwhelm your personal life, you run the risk of ruining your business and your family relationships.

Out of Bounds

Without some boundaries, family members involved in a family business could probably talk shop talk every moment of their waking days. It's easy to do, says Dewey LaRosa, 28, whose family life has always revolved around Philadelphia-based Triple Play Sports, the imprinted-sportswear business his father started 30 years ago. Dewey, who lives at home, says eating dinner with his parents is hardly an occasion for warm and fuzzy family chitchat. "It's like having a board meeting," he says. "We talk about the things we don't have time to talk about in the store."

The problem with these informal board meetings is they frequently produce a negative impact on the business. When family members talk and listen only to each other, they don't gain the benefit of outside opinions, such as those of non-family employees who may be able to offer their own solutions.

Letting business life permeate home life can also influence family relations. Arguments among colleagues at work can usually be compartmentalized and put aside once the workday is done. But because family history is laden with emotion, arguing with a relative at work carries more complications. So, for example, when parents fume over one of their children's mistakes, or when a son complains to his spouse about a parent's intractability or lack of respect, resentment builds. It can easily erupt when the family gets together for what they expect to be a purely fun and social time.

These problems occur for a simple reason: Families and businesses are completely different entities. Families function best when they collaborate and coordinate, and when no one person is really in charge, says Quentin Fleming, a Los Angeles management consultant and author of Keep the Family Baggage out of the Family Business (Fireside, Simon & Schuster); but businesses are successful when they demand performance, attach authority to roles and strive for specific goals, such as making a profit. A family member might be very sympathetic to another's weaknesses; a business associate is less likely to offer that unconditional acceptance.

"So as artificial as it might be to set boundaries for family members in a family business, it's essential," Fleming says. And the only way to set those boundaries is to get together with the relatives and hash it out. "Communication in a family business is like location in real estate: It's everything," says Sidney Barton, executive director of the Goering Center for Family and Private Business at the University of Cincinnati. He recommends all family businesses set up a family council to discuss family members' participation and conduct in the business-and how, or if, they're different from other employees.

"It can be a liberating mechanism for bringing up difficult subjects about how the family and business interact," says Barton. Family members need to talk about their business roles, responsibilities and accountabilities so they minimize the conflict and have less to stew about at home. They also need to plan how they will deal with work-related conflict. And they need to understand that, in a business setting, they are colleagues-not father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife, or uncle and niece.

Symbolic boundaries that divide the business from the family are also useful. Among them:

  • Watching business demeanor. Fleming suggests addressing each other by name only in the workplace-not "Mom," "Dad," "sonny" or "dear." "If you [use familial names], it sends a signal to employees that you're insiders and they're outsiders," says Fleming. And, he adds, it puts the family relationship back into play. "Even if a member of the upcoming generation has clear reasoning and data to support himself, how can a child successfully challenge someone he calls 'Dad'?" Fleming asks. "Parents can be too intimidating."

Renee Berkon says she's especially careful not to interrupt Allan when he's talking to another employee-even though they both realize their husband-and-wife relationship would allow it. "It's intrusive," she says. "Unless there's a crisis, I'll wait my turn to talk to him."

  • Limiting business discussions outside the office. "At family-only celebrations or get-togethers, make it a strict rule not to talk about business-even if you're having a problem on the production line," says Fleming. Save it for a more appropriate time.
  • Getting creative. For example, Renee Berkon takes a later train to work than her husband, and comes home a little earlier, just to establish an imaginary boundary. "Many times, especially in bad weather, he'll say, 'Come on, we'll go together.' But I pretend I need to do something else and make up an excuse. I need to feel that our personal and business lives are separate."
  • Thinking before lashing out. Allan Berkon, for example, says that when he finds it difficult to accept his son Joel's criticism, or when he's annoyed at Joel for something he did or didn't do, he takes a few days to analyze what's happening. "Sometimes we don't talk during that period," he says. Then, "after a few days, we'll go out to lunch and try to solve the problem."

Dewey LaRosa, on the other hand, uses a much more direct approach when his father, Frank, continues griping about some work-related incident at home. "Because I can't stand things dribbling over, I usually tell him to 'give it a rest,' " says LaRosa. "And it works."

Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author of two books: Managing Alternative Work Arrangements(Crisp Publishing) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage(Betterway Press).


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