What life is like as a family employee

Three unique dimensions of life as a family employee

As you evaluate whether joining your family business is the right career decision for you, it helps to envision what life would be like as a family employee. Recognize that the fact that you are a family member will require more time, sensitivity, and action on your part than if you were employed elsewhere.

Here is a glimpse into three unique dimensions of the experience of a family employee:

  1. Acting as part of a system
  2. Wearing multiple hats
  3. Managing nepotism responsibly

1. You are part of a system: a family business system

As a member of a business-owning family, you will navigate the complex dynamics of a family business system

© Tagiuri and Davis, 1982

This system is comprised of three overlapping groups or “circles,” each with its own set of goals, interests, and concerns:

  1. The business (comprised of the organization and its employees)
  2. The owners of the business (those who hold an equity stake either directly or via trust)
  3. The family that owns the business (the owners, direct descendants, and spouses within the owning family)

Calling this a “system” is significant. It highlights the fact that these three overlapping circles are interconnected and interdependent. By its nature, being a system means that what happens in one group (or circle) influences the others. A circle in conflict can negatively affect the performance of the other two circles. Likewise, a high-performing circle can bolster the overall system. This leads to increased complexity in a family business, compared to a non-family business.

How does this pertain to your personal career decision? If you decide to join your family business, recognize that you will be changing your position in the system. Expect a ripple effect across all three circles that will need to be managed. Anticipate what that might look like: If you were to join, how will your role and relationships change? What impact might that shift have on you and others, such as your siblings, cousins, parents, or children?

Having a successful career in the family business ultimately requires you to be capable and respected in all three circles. You will need to develop your skills, knowledge, and reputation as an employee, as an owner, and as a family member. Different capabilities are required by you in different circles. Developing this takes time and dedication.

2. You will wear multiple hats

If you decide to join the family business, you will naturally have overlapping roles because you are a member of the family. A family member who is the vice president of sales has a family and a business role. It can be helpful to think of that person as wearing two hats: a “family member hat” and a “business employee hat.” If the family member is also an owner of the business, he or she would have a third “owner hat.”

© Cambridge Family Enterprise Group, 2022

Wearing multiple hats means juggling multiple agendas and typically, managing tensions as you try to meet the interests of all your hats. For example, as an owner and business leader, you may feel pressure from your family to increase dividends to the owners, and also feel pressure from managers to increase reinvestment in the company.

To manage the complexity of wearing multiple hats as a family employee, make sure to “wear the right hat at the right time.” It sounds simple, but it’s difficult to do skillfully. Following these three tips can help:

  1. Separate your conversations. Identify a time and place for employee-related conversations, family-related conversations, and owner-related conversations. Set a clear agenda for each discussion and include the right people.
  2. Name your hat. Explicitly state which hat you and others are wearing in a given conversation. For example, you can say, “For this topic, let’s put our employee hats on.” Or, “I want to talk with you now as your brother, not as your partner.”
  3. Don your employee hat at work. With colleagues, act like an employee first, not an owner or the son or daughter of the owner. If you are privy to sensitive information about the business because it is discussed in front of you at the family dinner table, it is your responsibility to treat that information confidentially and not use it for any personal objectives at work.

3. You will need to manage nepotism responsibly

Nepotism is defined as the showing of special favor or preference to a relative. Because of this, family employees are broadly assumed to be less qualified than non-family employees in their family business. This is an unfair assumption that is challenged in scores of successful family companies across the world. The truth is that family members who join the business can be very strong performers who have a deep understanding of the business, who bring a strong work ethic and humility to their role, and a loyal dedication to the company.

If you join your family business, it will be important for you to represent the best side of nepotism. You will need to demonstrate high standards of performance and ethics. You may have to work harder and be even more qualified than non-family employees to fight the broadly held biases against family employees.

Set yourself up to manage nepotism responsibly with these three tips:

  1. Learn from the ways other members of your family have managed nepotism (either professionally or unprofessionally).
  2. Prior to joining, follow best practices for family employees and spend at least 3-5 years working outside of the family business to gain useful experience and credibility.
  3. Be humble. Listen to others a lot and show respect to those with more experience. Do some hard jobs well to show others you are willing and able. Remember, lasting impressions are made in your first few years in the company.



Take time to understand the impact your career move will have on your entire family business system.

As a family-employee, you will need to dedicate time, energy, and attention to navigating the often-competing demands of multiple roles or “hats.” It is important to “wear the right hat at the right time.”

Family employees can be either professional or unprofessional, just like non-family employees. As a family employee, be prepared to face the broadly held bias that you are less qualified. Do everything you can to demonstrate high standards of performance and ethics.