Keeping it in the family: Seven rules for working with relatives

Now don't get us wrong - we think starting up a business with relatives can be one of life's greatest pleasures. You already know each other inside-out, you know you won't screw each other over, you can be frank about the flexibility and pay needed to make the business' early days possible, and you get to share rewards with the people you love most. And for many, of course, enlisting the help of family members is the only way to actually get that endless list of 'sorry I can't pay you right now' jobs done.

But there are risks. So we assessed the seven greatest dangers of working together as a family, and devised these nifty rules so you can avoid them.

1. Don't be defensive

At Casa Mia, brothers Jonray and Peter shared chef duties, while mum and dad handled front of house. All seemed suitably Brady-Bunch-esque - but then came Gordon's hidden cameras, revealing the parents weren't passing any customer criticism of the cooking onto their sons. Even worse - they were positively off-key with customers who complained about the avant-garde dishes served.

Familial defensiveness can kill a business. The people running things need to hear what isn't working with it so they can refine and improve what they do. If you don't pass on complaints to your relative for fear of hurting their feelings, you are damaging the business. End of.

2. Treat relatives like any other employees

This follows on from the previous point. Yes, one of the great pros to working as a family is that you are, well, a family - rather than a bunch of people who have never met. But you still need to function like a business is you want to survive. Don't let emotion and the masses of history you have (good and bad) cloud your judgement. If you're feeling stuck or conflicted or overly wrought, try to figure out what you'd do if you were in the same situation with someone you didn't know. Sounds simplistic, but it works.

You also need to stick to this one to avoid charges of nepotism levied against you by other team-mates.

3. Only lend money you can afford to lose, or borrow money they can afford to lose

Much as we'd urge you to have anything you do with money contracted out (see our feature on borrowing start-up capital from friends and family to find out why), we know you probably won't. Which is fair enough - but trust us when we say that at some point the lending or borrowing of that money will hit a rough patch. You won't be able to pay back on time, and then what? Money matters have driven families apart many, many times before, and they will again. So cover your back before you even get into it, and avoid the stress and strain on all involved by not borrowing or lending amounts far beyond your relative's means.

4. Don't drag other family members into your disputes

A golden rule, because it's so unfair on the rest of the family, and it's unfair on your co-worker relative who you'll inevitably end up slagging off far more than you meant to. Find a good friend or partner you can turn to instead. You have to stick to this one, or you risk ruining the most important relationships you have.

5. Factor in time to be apart

Working as a family unit can feel incredibly claustrophobic. You have a massive pool of mutual loved-ones, you see each other at family events if not round the dinner table each night, and you both know you're inextricably linked for life, however the business turns out. So make sure you give yourselves time apart - whether that's an hour down the gym each night, weekends away from each other, or just eating lunch in different places. Again, these small things really do make the difference.

6. Don't bring up personal matters in front of outsiders

Much as we'd recommend it, you're almost certainly not going to be able to just leave your baggage at the door. You've got years of history together, and sooner or later the most begrudging memories will surface. But never, ever get into personal matters and debates in front of your staff, your suppliers, and definitely, definitely not customers. It's horribly uncomfortable for those around you, and you want the rest of your team to feel the atmosphere is professional. If you feel a personal slight coming on, go for a walk or go to a room together where others can't hear you.

7. Make sure your roles are clear

Like the money thing, ideally you should have everything contracted out. We know it's not that likely - but it's possibly even more important to get things written down in this instance. That's because you already will have some kind of long-standing, under-the-surface dynamic whereby one of you bosses the other one around or always knows better about something. Come on - you know it's true. If you start out with crystalline roles, written down, then you can refer to the piece of paper when you feel your toes are being uncomfortably trodden on. And referring to the piece of paper with your responsibilities clearly laid out will be far easier and more productive than getting into a shouting match about any and every instance you've felt like this since age four.

Do you work with family members? Share your own tips and rules below so others can learn the ropes too.

We use cookies to create the most secure and effective website possible for our customers. Full details can be found here