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Resolving Conflicts between Family and Outside Employees

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 15 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Managing Staff Staff Conflicts Employees

Conflict resolution is one of the trickiest aspects of running any business. In a family business there are always added pressures, and never more so than when conflicts develop between family members and outside employees. How can you set about resolving conflicts like these so that the underlying problems are solved, you are seen to be fair, and your staff are able to work together effectively in future?

Reasons For Conflict

There are many reasons why conflicts of this sort can develop, and these are not always what they may appear to be on the surface. When you identify a problem, think carefully about what might really be going on.

  • Family members can feel that outside staff are intruding into their territory.
  • Family members can feel that outside staff have been given jobs, or seniority, unfairly, at the expense of relatives.
  • Family members can resent the authority of people who were not a part of the original business team.
  • Outside staff can feel that they are overlooked for promotion in favour of family members.
  • Outside staff can feel that they are not accorded appropriate respect.
Naturally, you may also find conflicts developing for other reasons, as they do in other businesses - due to personality clashes, perceived poor performance, inappropriate flirtation, etc. However because of the nature of the relationship between outside staff and a family business, you will need to be sensitive in the way you handle these.

Fair Treatment

One of the most common complaints levelled against the owners of family businesses by outside staff is that they always side with their own relatives, regardless of who is in the right. Your instinctive response may be to resent such an allegation, but think carefully. Are you sure you're never biased? It's natural to have an emotional bias towards your own kin. Rather than denying it, you need to recognise it and work around it.

Sometimes it's easier to be emotionally neutral about managing staff if you imagine parallel hypothetical situations as a guide to dealing with the real ones. That is, you can think about how you might solve such a conflict between two strangers, then apply that understanding to the real life situation.

Whoever you side with, you may find that resentment develops, either because you are seen as biased towards your relatives or as somebody who overcompensates for that. Talk this through with your resentful staff member and ask them to consider what they would have done in your situation. Point out that it is usually impossible to please everyone.

Sometimes you may find that your relatives believe it is only morally proper that you should side with them, regardless of the circumstances of the conflict. In this case you should remind them that you re not acting as an independent moral agent, you are acting as a business owner, and it's the interests of the business that need to come first, for everyone's sake.

Ongoing Conflicts

If you find that you are constantly having to resolve conflicts between the same individuals, the best thing to do is to separate them, but in a small family business this is not always practical. In this case the best thing to do is usually to arrange a meeting with both of them and ask them to suggest solutions. Point out that the success of the business -and thus both their jobs - is at stake.

Outside staff in a family business will always worry that they're going to come off worse in cases of irresolvable conflict because, if someone has to go, you're unlikely to sack your own relative. However you should think carefully about the big picture. Who is the source of the conflict? If you keep your family member in the business and hire a new outside staff member, is the problem likely to occur again? It's difficult, but sometimes you do have to let problematic family members go.

Most of the time however conflicts between staff can be solved to everyone's satisfaction, provided that they are approached fairly and calmly. If staff members feel they can have confidence in you like this they will feel they have a greater stake in the business and will work more vigorously for its success.

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