Non-Family Members In the Family Business: Here’s What to Know

Posted August 1, 2018

5 min read

Many funeral homes have been family-run for years, and eventually make the call to hire outside the family. Doing so can present a number of challenges.

If you already have non-family member employees, or you’re looking to bring new employees on-board who are outside your family, here are 4 common issues to avoid.

Potential issue #1: Not getting alignment before you hire

One of the best things you can do happens before you ever recruit or hire someone, explains Tom Hubler, a go-to consultant for family businesses. (Hubler owns Hubler for Business Families, a firm that helps family businesses with succession planning, conflict resolution, creating a common vision, leadership development, creating a family legacy, and much more.)

“Continually talk about your family’s values and make sure there is synchrony between the values your family has, and the values of any new hire,” says Hubler.

As a family, you can talk about questions such as the following:

  • Based on those values, what kind of behaviors do you want to see from new hires? What kind of behaviors would not be aligned with our values?
  • What kind of characteristics and traits does the ideal candidate have?
  • Ideally, what kind of company culture would they have come from?

If you hire someone who’s never been in the funeral profession, they may need time to adjust to what you’re already accustom to.

Potential issue #2: Perceived favoritism

“One of the biggest employee concerns from non-family employees is the perceived display of favoritism,” explains Hubler. “For example, when a business starts to grow, and takes on non-family employees as colleagues in equal positions to children who are working for their parents, many of these employees may sense that they are not in the same professional favor as the child. They may even believe that they do a better job or cause less issues and still get the brunt of the blame,” he says.

One of the ways to prevent this from happening at all is what Hubler calls a family participation plan. This plan sets the ground rules for family members working in the funeral home. The idea is that this outlines in clear terms the expectations of family members, including compensation. It also establishes an understanding in the company that the family members will not be treated in any special sort of way. That’s great for family member employees, too, so they don’t have to have any guilt at any point for doing what they are supposed to be doing.

“This will lay the groundwork for the employment contract the non-family supervisors should sign, which guarantees their job even if they are forced to hold a family member, under his or her supervision, accountable for his or her actions,” adds Hubler.

This can be beneficial to the funeral home in many ways. One way is if and when a family member employee makes mistakes. If they do make a mistake, they will be corrected and can learn from it.

But if they continue to make mistakes, as outlined in the family participation plan, they’ll be fired. This shows all employees there is no favoritism. “This is important for the business owner to communicate to his key employees his or her commitment to professionalism, and the fact that the family members are going to be held to a high, or higher standard in some cases, than the non-family employees in the funeral home,” says Hubler.

Potential issue #3: Not getting clear enough on roles and responsibilities

A participation plan can set expectations and guidelines, but it’s important to get even clearer on roles and responsibilities in any family business.

“In many cases for entrepreneurs, in spite of the fact that they know they should do it and they want to do it, it’s very hard for them to give up control and delegate responsibility to new people. It is important to have clarity about roles, responsibilities, and decision making,” says Hubler.

Consider formalizing the relationship between the non-family employee and the company. This can be beneficial in many scenarios, but one example in particular is if and when they are asked to train and develop the next generation.

“A non-family employee who is asked to train and develop a next generation family member can be fearful that if they correct the family member, they may be one day jeopardizing or hurting their position in the company,” says Hubler, who has seen this happen in many family businesses.

In turn, the non-family member gives the person in training a lack of proper feedback and support, so the next generation doesn’t develop as much as they should.

This kind of situation can be avoided with a clear agreement between the employer and the non-family employee. That employment agreement could guarantee they would not be penalized or fired for that, which in turn, can give all parties greater peace of mind.

Potential issue #4: Not treating business as business

Another potential issue is non-family employees who may feel as though they are pulled into family arguments or conflict. “Most people employed by a family business are looking to work and possibly move forward or gain necessary experience. The last thing they want is to be pulled into a personal argument about which they neither know nor care anything,” says Hubler.

Be sure your people have the understanding that business is business, and family is family. Again, that’s where the participation plan can come into play. “Your family participation plan should outline how family conflicts are to be handled in the workplace. This plan can help develop a policy for dealing with conflicts within the family and the business, including having discussions as opposed to fights and always maintaining a role-model status for other employees.”

“Ultimately, all employees will be happier and more successful if you work to keep business at work, and family at home,” says Hubler.

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