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The perils of working for a family owned business

Family owned businesses are big business in the United States. While some are the stereotypical "Mom & Pop" store, others are Fortune 500 companies. In fact, there's a pretty good chance that you're working for a family owned business. According to the Conway Center for Family Business, family owned businesses account for 6o percent of U.S. employment.

So, what do you do when the boss's relatives show up and make your life miserable? Now, it isn't likely that your job as a cashier at family owned Walmart is going to be plagued by repeated visits from Walton family relatives, but it is likely that if you work for a small family owned business that the family will be a part of your life.

I received an email from an employee whose boss decided she needed coaching. This is a normal thing for a boss to do, and actually, it would be great if more bosses would be willing to provide coaching to struggling employees. The only problem was, this boss knew the perfect coach -- his wife. This "coach" came in, demanded attention, refused to listen (a critical skill of true business coaches) and went running to her husband to complain about the employee.

Another reader was an administrative assistant who reported to both spouses, who were co-owners of the business. Everything was fine until divorce proceedings began and she became something they battled over. With each spouse trying to turn her against the other, her life became a nightmare.

And a third got in trouble for not joining a Zumba class -- being taught by the owner's wife. No matter that it was after hours, and unpaid, it became a "mandatory fun activity" for everyone in the office.

These things make life pretty miserable.

So, what do you do when you're in this situation? Remember that a slight majority of jobs come in the form of family owned businesses, and even when the boss isn't the owner, sometimes relatives can push their way in. Here are a few things to do.

Set boundaries early. When the boss's son wants you to type up his school paper for you, say, "I'm sorry, but I need to do this work right now, and I'm afraid that won't be possible." Now, if the boss says that you have to type Junior's paper, you need to make it clear that there is a cost to that. Not a straight financial one, but a time one. "I'd be happy to do that, but please understand if I type that paper I will not be able to do accomplish my other tasks for today. Would you like me to skip A, B, or C?"

Don't get involved in drama. When there is family strife, simply repeat this phrase, "I'm sorry, I need to get back to work." If someone tries to get you to take sides, you can add in, "I like everyone equally, so I can't discuss that, and I need to get back to work." Use headphones if necessary.

Realize that there are limitations. Good family run businesses are simply businesses that happen to be owned by people related to each other. Bad family owned businesses are like family service projects where every worthless relative is given a chance. If you're in one of those situations, understand you will never be the Vice President of any department unless you're willing to marry one of the cousins. So, don't get frustrated when you don't get the promotion that you deserve. It's not going to happen.

Realize there is an out. People often feel stuck in jobs, but you don't have to be. After you've worked at place for a reasonable amount of time (hopefully two years or more), you can feel comfortable moving on to something better.

Accept the quirks. This may just be the way the family operates. If the business is successful and you otherwise like your job, then accept the invitation to Zumba every once in a while, and chat with the boss's wife when she comes in, and recognize that they are going to defer to grandma even though she hasn't been involved in the day to day operations for 3 years.

Do you have a family owned business horror story? Share in the comments, or send an email to

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