In this issue

The Editor's Corner

Who's responsible for who? Family matters.

What do I do with the kids? Finding a reliable babysitter – now an employer issue

What about the old people?

Need a couple of days for family responsibilities?

A fox in the henhouse – growing your business beyond family members

A fox in the henhouse – growing your business beyond family members
Ruth Trask

There are so many shapes and sizes of family businesses in Atlantic Canada, from husband-and-wife entrepreneurs just starting out, to well established household names. I don't wish to generalize, but there are some things that many family businesses have in common. The titular fox refer to the general reluctance felt by many small, family business owners about bringing in "non-family" employees.

How can you balance family harmony with the growth of your business? How can you maintain the sense of intimacy, collegiality, and loyalty which is integral to the success of your family business in the first place? How can you make sure that the new additions fit in to your close-knit group and add value?

There may be excellent reasons to bring in an "outsider" to your family business, even if it may initially seem uncomfortable, risky or unwanted. The particular skill set that is needed may not exist within your family. You may simply need more people to manage your growing business! The objective perspective brought by a non-family member may add considerable value - and turn out to be anything but the proverbial "fox".

Retention will be key, particularly if your business is small. Think about how you can keep your employees happy and productive. An obvious answer may be salary and other monetary benefits, but for a smaller business, this can make times tough if there is a downturn in revenues. Perhaps you can use the unique structure of your business to offer extra flexibility or non-monetary benefits. Some opt to give high-level employees a share in the company, but if this is not palatable to your family, another option is to offer bonuses or incentives which are tied to the prosperity of the company.

Working with a family member can be by turns rewarding, and frustrating. If you are called upon to manage or direct family members as well as other employees, inconsistency in your management "rules" can cause headaches for employees and managers alike. Non-family employees may feel slighted - resentful even - if members of the owner's family consistently receive preferential (or tougher) treatment. While it is not realistic to treat everyone exactly the same, strive for fairness in managing all your employees. Apply the same standards and consequences (within reason) to all, family or otherwise.

It is my preference to avoid giving non-earned benefits to family members who do not work for the company. Special favours given to family or friends can have a demotivating effect on your workforce.

When you are running a family business, you may not have a dedicated HR or labour relations department. Many entrepreneurs tend to be "jack of all trade" types who simply do everything that is needed to keep the business running. It is worthwhile, if you have non-family employees, to designate one person who is responsible for managing the issues that arise with your employees. This will minimize the potential for confusion and miscommunication. Ideally, that person would keep apprised of labour standards, occupational health and safety laws, and the like (and perhaps, payroll), and ensure that the interests of your employees are being met. This is a worthwhile exercise for the legal health of your business, in that it will minimize the risk of an employee bringing a claim.

In the long run, any successful employment relationship depends on mutual trust. If you keep communication and fairness top of mind, your company - and your family - can continue to grow and prosper.

Ruth Trask
St. John's, NL

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