US employee termination: Four ways to avoid a family feud

Family FeudIf you thought terminating an employee was hard, try terminating an employee who already resents you and with whom you share the dinner table!

Following the traumatic (and literal) termination of Brian the Dog in the popular sit-com “Family Guy,” which mercilessly occurred during the lead-up to the family-centric Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I couldn’t help but turn my termination attention to family-owned businesses.

These four strategies for avoiding a family feud this holiday season can go a long way toward increasing productivity and morale for all employees, while guarding against costly, time-consuming and potentially damaging disputes which tend to blur the line between family and business.

Be Objective

Lack of objectivity, real or perceived, is perhaps a family-owned employer’s greatest enemy.  If your employees believe that you tend to play favorites with other family employees, then be sure that jurors, mediators or judges will believe it as well.

They may even assume that family tiffs, spats or rivalries drove or motivated termination-related decisions, making those same family disputes that you want to keep private relevant in a court of law. Believe me; you don’t want to air your dirty family laundry in court.

That’s why employers need to build true objectivity, often requiring many layers of checks and balances. For example, employers should nominate non-family members to lead internal investigations or to settle disputes involving family members whenever possible.

They should put these procedures in writing and circulate them to all employees to build trust and should be mindful of whether their internal policies on workplace investigations would draw attention from the National Labor Relations Board. If employers have in-house counsel, they should consider another layer of review by utilizing outside counsel when internal conflict arises.

Do You Have to Let it Linger?

You can get rid of an employee, but you can’t get rid of a family member. Not legally, anyway. This is part of why it’s so crucial that family-owned businesses not let family termination disputes linger. They may never go away, even if the terminated family member is no longer physically present at the office or facility. The guilt and the shame tend to weigh you down… or so I’m told.

Employers need to act swiftly and transparently when it comes to terminating family members. They should present a united front to employees, be candid about what caused the dispute or termination, and articulate a forward-thinking strategy. This will be valuable for maintaining good relationships with employees, customers and suppliers or vendors.

Consider the Stakes

It should come as no surprise to family employers that the stakes tend to be higher as well. Family-centric litigation tends to last longer and the results are more destructive to family-owned businesses because they tend to have a less diversified ownership.

Family employers should do everything in their power to resolve disputes before they get out of hand to protect both the family and the business. That includes many different types of alternative dispute resolution like mediation, arbitration and settlement negotiations.

And yes, family employers should even consider seeking help from family members who are uninvolved in the business.  Mom and Dad have some experience settling disputes among siblings, after all.

Reach for a Higher Standard

When family members are held to a lower standard than other employees in terms of their personal conduct, work performance, attendance, etc., it creates tremendous distraction in the workplace and a potential drain on productivity.  Slowly but surely, the bad thought processes will seep into the minds of your other employees, and they sound a lot like “if he can get away with it, then so can I.”

It may seem antithetical to evaluate your family employees with a finer toothed comb, but family-owned employers should hold their family members to a higher standard precisely because they need to lead other employees by example.  Better yet, employers should put these higher standards in writing by creating family-specific personal conduct policies extending from the office to the community.  After all, employed family members are representatives of the company at all times (not just from 9 to 5).

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