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Stay neutral in family feuds

Question :

I work in an SME run by a close-knit family. Normally it’s fine, but things get tricky when some of the family members feud with each other. For those of us who don’t share the same last name, it’s like treading a tightrope when talking to the other ‘clans’. It is so inefficient, especially doing projects with different departments, let alone getting deals done. The politics and environment is toxic. We don’t even think about career advancement or promotion. What do people do in this kind of company?

Posted by Humpty Dumpty on Saturday, 11 Oct 2014

Comments :

In a typical family-run SME, everybody does everything and conflicts can occur more than in large non-family-run organisations. These conflicts can often escalate because family members often try to ignore them. 

Most SMEs do not follow any formal management protocol. I can imagine how challenging it is to work in the family business. However, there are tips that may help you steer out of trouble. 

Whenever there is a disagreement or conflict situation among family members and you are asked for an opinion or help, the question you need to ask yourself is: “what would I do if they were not family members?” 

The best strategy is to focus on fairness; on the problem and not the personality involved, nor where the power base lies. There shouldn’t be apple polishing on either side. You will gain respect by acting like a professional

Most family run businesses do not have a corporate governance policy; it would be a good idea if you could suggest to the family that they learn about this topic. They need to understand the importance of setting up policies, roles and responsibilities of employees, relationship with suppliers, handling related transaction issues such as personal and business expenditure, creating a performance review system, and developing hiring guidelines. 

A company might want to improve team communication among departments. It is even more important if they are growing and eventually moving towards a sizeable organisation in the future. 

You mentioned about career development. It is your choice to work in this type of environment. Certainly the pros are that the work environment may be more relaxed, and people are working towards a common goal. The cons are that the risk of mixing business and family decisions. 

If you decide this type of workplace is not for you, then there is no point spending unproductive time in handling issues, particularly those you are not in control of. However, if you like to work in this type of company, all you have to do is stay neutral, be flexible and reinforce your value to the owners. 

It is likely they will find you a valuable member of the team.


Sidney Yuen, chairman and CEO, HBC, is an expert in the human resources outsourcing, technology and consulting fields.


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