Have you ever sat in an interview where your prospective employer has said “we are all one big happy family here!”? Does this statement inspire you, or fill you with dread? Is this something you look for in an organisation, or would it automatically rule them out as a prospective employer?

It is surprising how often the concept of “family” is still readily applied to workplace culture and how it can actually do more harm than good.

An article by leadership development trainer Joshua A. Luna for the Harvard Business Review The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a “Family” succinctly describes the way the workplace family can have detrimental impacts on employee morale and productivity.

“While some aspects of a “family” culture, like respect, empathy, caring, a sense of belonging can add value, ultimately trying to sell your organisation’s culture as family-like can be more harmful than psychologically satisfying. Placed into a work setting, loyalty can get misconstrued as expectations form to go above and beyond to do anything to get the job done. When employees work under this mentality, it’s only a matter of time until performance and productivity drop due to burnout.”

This kind of pressure can have significant potential effects on culture and employees’ well-being. When employees feel the way to show loyalty is by doing more or stepping in to help the “family”, the lines between professional life and personal life get more and more blurred. Work time seeps into home time and without the opportunity to disconnect and recharge, employees can experience stress and burnout. When employees become too close to one another, like in a family, poor behaviour can sometimes go hidden or unaddressed. Employees feel uncomfortable speaking up if they see something they don’t agree with, or if they feel colleagues are not pulling their weight. On the flip side, some will speak with too much familiarity, forgetting professional standards or boundaries. Some people will take advantage of this, to the detriment of the overall team.

Some of the ways “our workplace is one big family” misses the mark:

  • Employees may feel obligated to work additional hours or take on unrealistic workloads and if not addressed, they can feel resentful and stressed
  • To maintain close relationships, like in a family, employees may feel pressured to share personal details about themselves, engage in out of hours social activities, or are made to feel on the outer if they do not
  • Employees may cover up or choose to ignore the poor behaviour of colleagues. They may not notice gradual changes in their own behaviour that reflect that of the family
  • To get along with others, employees may fail to challenge ideas or offer alternatives which can prevent innovations or new efficiencies
  • Employees don’t feel empowered, they feel the need to just go along, which can lead to dissatisfaction, alienation and ultimately high staff turnover
  • Disciplinary action, performance plans or redundancies can feel personal, not professional, having a dramatic impact on an employee’s mental health.

As Luna explains, “not everyone wants to connect with their co-workers on a deeper level, let alone create a dependency to the organisation. Employees may emotionally attach themselves to the organisation. While it can reduce conflicts and disagreements within the organisation, a fear of causing a strain in the relationship with their superiors could leave employees feeling like they must share any information that is being asked of them”.

What you could be doing instead:

Luna recommends thinking of your business as a sports team, or even just a team, with a sense of belonging, shared values and goals. Team members are empowered to work together, but with the right structures, KPIs and individual targets in place to keep things separate – and accountable – when they need to be. Be clear around expectations of employees and don’t make them feel like they need to work 18-hour days to get their work completed. Instead of throwing around blanket statements like “we’re all in this together” or “we’ll get this job done as a family”, it is much more effective to be clear on what you are working towards. Sharing the company’s objectives and strategy ensures all team members feel involved and can encourage loyalty beyond just the guilt of family commitment.

Lead by example:

Don’t let burnout become a weight on your team. Encourage time off and if you observe an employee working outside of their normal working hours, offer support if needed. I have an acquaintance who is employed to work three days a week in a professional capacity for a resources company. Her direct boss was very clear there were no expectations for that employee to work outside of her agreed hours unless there was a special project underway, or a temporary arrangement was discussed and agreed such as “this week I would like to work two full days and two half days.”. When the boss noticed the employee repeatedly responding to emails on her days off, she addressed it straight away, politely reminding the employee that she could action the email when she was back on deck the following week. By showing she cared about the employee’s right to some time off, she further reinforced the company’s position on maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and the employee’s respect for her manager grew as did her admiration for the company she worked for.

How to manage personal friendships and professional responsibilities:

We all spend a lot of time at work and naturally close friendships can form. But this can make things tricky when there’s a behaviour that needs addressing, an issue that keeps emerging or a task that’s yet to be completed. Luna’s advice “is to establish clear personal/professional boundaries. “You can always have conversations where you start by saying, ‘it’s time to take a step back and look at why this project is falling behind’”.

To sum it up

Referring to your organisation as a family can be a quick, blanket term thrown around to encourage a sense of loyalty, closeness, support and connection. However, creating an inclusive, team culture – and calling it as such – can be more effective. Employees and potential candidates today are savvy. They are looking for more and more in the positions they are applying for, not just a job for life or a new family to be a part of. They expect information to be available to clearly set out what is in it for them in a role. A “family” culture which blurs responsibilities and professional/personal lives is not appealing for the 2022 candidate. Instead, spend the time explaining what makes your business exciting, the interesting challenges offered by the role you are recruiting for and the way you encourage healthy work-life balance.

If you would like to discuss anything in this article, please get in touch.

Happy recruiting!

Alexandra Monks

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