We’ve all heard it, “our team is a family.” Organizations across every industry use this language. From non-profits to corporate teams, the idea that our working relationships should be as close-knit as our familial ones has become embedded into cultural norms, and even some of our mission statements. But “The Corporation Family” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
How a “Family” Culture Can Harm Employees
Employers want productive, high-performing employees, which are often individuals who work well with one another and produce results. Adding a “family” culture and sense of belonging might not sound harmful at first, but when used to foster relationships with the expectations of top-level performance, employees will rarely be set up for success.
Work and Family Have Different Expectations
Used to convey a supportive and synergistic business atmosphere, work “families” are rarely ever that. The label of the family itself in a workplace setting is a term that allows for exploitation. A company can’t love or comfort you on your worst day, and they are not bonded to you for life. Families are unconditional, and your job is a place where your conditions need to have a structure, or they become open to a destructive way of working. Families can also have a degree of dysfunction and remain intact, while companies need to perpetuate healthy functionality to sustain and grow. Dysfunction can mean death in the corporate world.
A “Family” Culture at Work Is Unhealthy
To put it simply, “family” at work is unhealthy. While this isn’t always the case, it truly is the norm.
In a family work culture, familial ideals like loyalty and dedication tend to be one-sided. The organizational leaders hope that lower level employees become emotionally attached to the company. This is a win for them because it reduces turnover and produces more dedicated employees.
But employees’ loyalty and dedication usually aren’t rewarded or reciprocated in family work cultures. Most organizations would still cut ties with employees if it helped them reach their bottom line.
Companies with family work cultures also tend to expect employees to be self-sacrificial. Employees should go out of their way or cross their own boundaries by giving up time off, working late, or doing unpaid work because it’s “what’s best for the team.” However, the company at large would never be sacrificial for the employees.
Ultimately, this mentality is not what’s best for the team or the individual, it’s what’s best for the organization’s bottom line.
The Family Metaphor Puts Too Much Pressure on Relationships
Most people have complex, multifaceted relationships with their families. They love each other, but they also argue, hold grudges, and struggle to communicate at times. Meanwhile, co-workers are usually just people you share a workspace with. When organizations see their office mates as family, it sets up unrealistic expectations for the level of closeness and loyalty required. If a colleague is struggling with a work-related issue and feels like they can’t discuss it with another colleague because they’re “family” and they don’t want to burden family, they’re likely to feel even more isolated and frustrated.
The Professional Becomes Personal
At the end of the day, business is just that: business. You can be applauded one day and fired the next. In a family-style dynamic, letting someone go, or even just providing critical feedback, will feel much more personal. After all, you don’t give a performance plan for a family member or fire them.
Not all employees want to form deep emotional bonds with their co-workers or bosses. Personal details are best kept to a minimum at the workplace and left outside the office. That’s not to say you shouldn’t share when practical, but you don’t want to develop a reliance on an organization to become your confidant and protector. It will not happen. The organization as a whole is not your family, and members of that organization will constantly be coming and going.
In a Family Culture You’re Probably the Child
This is the difficult truth that many family work cultures don’t want to talk about. In a family work culture, someone is the parent, and someone is the child. The bad news? You’re probably the child.
The “work parents” will be the higher ups who might rarely engage with all their “work children.” Usually, family work cultures amplify unhealthy power dynamics. Employees, like children, tend to have fewer rights and less autonomy. And a “because-I-said-so” mentality can stifle freedom and creativity.
After enough time of feeling discouraged and “parented,” employees may feel uninspired to even stand up for themselves, afraid they are outsiders. Employees fall in line, but then can fall apart as they are given tasks well outside their job descriptions. They silently yearn to be appreciated and leap at the opportunity to impress their supervisors, like a child to parent.
You’ll also risk masking illicit behavior among close-knit coworkers, because how often do you tattle on your family? Studies show that employees who operate within a “familial culture” often fail to report wrongdoing when they feel closer ties to the perpetrator. Feeling fear of the damage it might cause to the perpetrator keeps fellow employees quiet and complicit.
Professional Relationships Are Rarely Permanent
The expectations for our work relationships and our family relationships vary in many ways, including the duration of the relationship and the level of commitment. Working relationships are rarely permanent. Career changes such as getting a new job, promotions, and retirements are commonplace in professional settings, which means relationships are bound to change and even disappear.
However, there are general expectations that relationships between family members are more stable. In most relationships with parents, siblings, or children there’s the assumed expectation that the relationship is a life-long commitment (of course this is not always the case, but it is the default expectation).
There shouldn’t be the expectation that your relationships at work are permanent; your position with a company is most likely not permanent. Getting a promotion, moving to another company, and retiring can all cause grief for the loss of that employee or relationship. It can also be a time to celebrate.
If we ignore the fact that this complicated blend of grief and joy is common at work by pretending work relationships are as permanent as familial relationships, we miss out on the opportunity to learn and grow as we navigate them.
A “Family” Company Culture Usually Ignores Real Family Obligations
As an employee, it can be tough to balance work and family obligations. We all want to impress our bosses and be seen as dedicated team players, but when those same leaders constantly remind us that we are “family” at work, it can create confusion and guilt when we need to take time off for important family events. The truth is, we need both our work and families to thrive! That’s why leaders should focus on creating a culture of mutual respect instead of using guilt-inducing language. When we feel like our organization supports our family commitments, we’re more likely to be committed to our jobs in the long run.
The workplace as a family is an appealing proposition for job seekers looking for a collegial environment. And, yes, I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Yet a few layoffs, instances of mistreatment, and manipulative managers later, I realized that I’d fallen for a failed promise. The workplace is not my family. Nor was I alone in falling for it. This seemingly freewheeling culture emerged in the tech boom in Silicon Valley. Over the past fifteen to twenty years, companies from banking to agriculture have imported it to draw young talent, projecting an image of a hip, familial, perks-laden workplace.
Today, Ping-Pong tables, unlimited vacation, and “chief happiness officers” have been widely adopted. So has the overriding principle of “treating employees like family” been part of a widespread cultural shift away from work-life balance. Now, work is life and your life can be defined by your work and confusion and disappointment reign and stress levels and depression are through the roof because of the lack of true balance.
But the workplace as a family is based on the slippery idea of “cultural fit,” a hiring practice that groups colleagues into cliques. Families can be unwelcoming to outsiders. When a business is presented as a family, its workers may feel pressure to pledge an unreasonable degree of loyalty to their employer (I sure did)… all in the spirit of harmony and a shared purpose. This entangled culture alienates those who are cut from a different cloth than the typical “family” member. Such workplaces, as I found to my chagrin, are unable or unwilling to accommodate diverse personalities or skill sets, disengaging the black sheep of the family.
The pandemic only deepened this “integration” of work and life. Remote work dissolved any boundary between the office and home, establishing an umbilical connection between employers and employees. Many workers burned out and began ”quiet quitting.” This term itself presupposes an unhealthy relationship to work, it only exists at all because employers expect people to give their lives to their jobs at the expense of their well being and leisure and employees feel like a disappointment and have difficulty communicating if things aren’t working out.
In the last two years we’ve seen hiring freezes at companies like Google and Wealthsimple and layoffs at Netflix, Shopify, Snap, and Hootsuite. These are not just a response to economic uncertainty, but a stark reminder of worker’s disposability.
Even Mark Zuckerberg has warned about weeding out employees who “probably shouldn’t be here.” These actions lay bare a grim truth that I have sensed is inherent in innumerable workplaces: you’re family…until the going gets tough. Suddenly, it’s not personal, it’s business.
Being laid off reminds you how false the family metaphor is. No matter the circumstances, losing a job is crushing and destabilizing. Being fired by your “family” is impossible not to internalize as shameful rejection and personal failure. Professional setbacks can reinforce perceived personal flaws, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where failure feels inevitable because “I am a failure.”
What a Workplace Should Look Like
Work cultures should place value on their employees to establish and meet reasonable expectations, both for what acceptable performance looks like and for work-life challenges. A code of conduct and ethics should be outlined in the employee handbook, and the company should hold both staff and management accountable, with well-defined consequences for breaking the code.
Feedback should be regularly and transparently shared, from the greenest employee to the executive officer. A good employer will seek to take up their employee suggestions when applicable, or at the very least engage in a conversation to show interest in developing the employee. Pay and benefits should be equitable and proportional to the role and size of the organization. It should be mutually accepted within the organization that workplace relationships are temporary and transactional.
Working gives you the means to support your lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean you owe your employer more than what they pay you for. Keep your personal life, time, and real family matters to yourself; you certainly don’t owe your company any of that. Don’t jump on the bandwagon if you find yourself amidst a corporate family. You can and you will find value, quality, and professional protocol elsewhere.
Take it from a person that had been sanded down after years of unstable employment and exploitative “family” workplaces. When an organization refers to itself as family it can often imply a lack of boundaries and an expectation of loyalty that goes beyond what is reasonable in a professional setting.
So, the next time you hear someone use the term “family” to describe your work environment, remember to approach it with a critical eye.