Business is Not Family

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Misunderstanding the reality of workplace friendships and "family" can put your career at risk.

Smarter Faster Stronger LLC just had their annual "Smarter Faster Stronger Family Fun Day" at which the CEO celebrated the corporate culture of "family first" and almost shed a tear as he described how everyone in attendance was like family to him.

Perhaps they were. Because those who had recently been ejected from the family weren't there. But since the event was held in a public amusement park, a few ex-Smarter Faster Stronger employees happened to wander by. One even purloined a t-shirt ("To burn later," he said) and grabbed a hummus wrap before slinking away.

For me the realization that business and family are very different should have come when my wife refused to participate in the annual performance review and my teenage son rejected his PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) and they both walked away whenever I wanted to discuss SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound).

But I didn't really get it until my own boss said to me one day "You've been an important part of our family here, and we really appreciate your contributions, but we're going to have to let you go." Really? What kind of family does that?

As much as any business tries to instill the feeling amongst employees that they are the "most important asset" for the organization, the truth is that they are not important – their output and contributions to the goals of the business are important. As human "resources" we all serve a purpose, and that purpose advances the goals of the business. Once we no longer serve our purpose (or can no longer do it cost effectively) then the business will cut us from the herd.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It is the nature of business. What may be wrong is giving employees the impression that they are more important to the business than their performance contributions.

Three observations have kept me sane and steady during my many years of gainful corporate employment:

  • Business, even a family business, is not family.
  • Run your career the way a CEO runs a business.
  • You are a mercenary, like it or not.

I realize this goes against the grain of the current "family friendly" and "employee centered" facade most human resource departments aspire to today. But let's be brutally honest – even HR exists only to serve the business goals. They are there for you, until they're not.

This doesn't mean that employees aren't important, of course they are. But no one is served well by pretending they are "family," except perhaps the business itself which creates a sense of bonding and loyalty on the part of the employees. So the business can reduce unplanned turnover. Again, this shouldn't be perceived as bad or unethical or even mildly frustrating. It is just the natural state of business culture.

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