How to Escape the Family Business

Last Updated Sep 23, 2010 1:08 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have been working at a family-owned company for just over a year now. My mother has worked for this company for over 12 years. Now I'm dating the VP brother-in-law, and he's moved here to work for this company too. I feel I'm in too deep to get out of the business, but I'm not happy with my position and find the work unrewarding. (It's not what I want to do -- I have a teaching degree!)
How can I find a new job without upsetting the family? They all think I'm going to be here forever, but I'm really wanting another job. Is there a gracious way to get out of the family business?
Working with family is like getting a tattoo: It always seems like a good idea at the time, but getting out of it can be painful and expensive. Rest assured it's difficult for the bosses as well. If you're a lousy employee, they may want to fire you but still expect you to appear for Thanksgiving. Awkward can be a good word to describe it.

Fortunately for you, you're not related to the owner's family -- yet. Here are some helpful suggestions for quitting a job with the family. (These suggestions assume that the family is somewhat rational. If they are not, just leave in the dark of night, change you name, dye your hair, develop a new accent and deny ever knowing these people, let alone being related to them.)
  • Leave sooner rather than later. As soon as you start getting that "I don't want to work here anymore" feeling, it's time to leave. The longer you stay, the more resentment you'll feel, the more your work will suffer, and the more your relationship will be strained.
  • Change careers, not just jobs. Easier said than done, I know. But, for you this is easy. You have a teaching degree, so say "I would love to work here the rest of my natural life, but teaching 3rd grade has always been a dream of mine, so when the position at the local school opened up, I just had to take it." Make it sound like if only they had a 3rd grade teaching position available, you'd stay. For most people, it won't be this easy. But trust me when I say it will be more acceptable for you to leave for a completely new path -- to follow the dream -- than it is to move to a similar company in a similar position.
  • Say maintaining the relationship is the most important thing. And with family, it generally is the most important thing. Talk about how you love the family and you'd hate to have any business disagreements that would threaten the relationship. Always blame yourself. "You know how stubborn I can be when I get an idea in my head. I'd hate to have my stubbornness ruin your business and our relationship."
  • After you find a new job and leave, express regret. You know how you never want to burn bridges when you leave a job? Well, when the relatives live on the bridge you must visit often and sometimes come in on a weekend to help with inventory. Remember you are so sad you can't see these people all the time. And don't complain about the occasional inventory weekend.
  • Set clear boundaries. As I said, you still have to help with the once a year inventory, or tax time or whatever. It's part of being in the family. But make sure you set boundaries otherwise. You are no longer responsible for the new marketing campaign, so don't get roped into designing it for free.
  • Be unfailingly positive about your new job. Hopefully your new job will be splendid, but even if it's not, you can't be negative about it or it will just prove that they were right and you should have stayed. This, of course, doesn't mean you should lie about your new job, but don't give them reason to think you made the wrong decision.
  • Be unfailingly positive about the business, unless it's failing then be sympathetic. Now isn't the time to say "well, if I were still working there, I would have done X and therefore Y wouldn't have happened." You lose that right when you leave. Be supportive at home and at family parties. Listen to the rest of them chatter on without complaining.
Hopefully these tips will help you make a smooth exit. And make sure that boyfriend supports you in this. If he doesn't, it's time to look for a new date as well as a new job.
Photo by flattop341, Flicker cc 2.0

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