Should You Call Your Co-Workers Family? Depends on the Family.

Dawn Burke Business Development, Career Advice, Dawn Burke, Employee Coaching, Employee Communications, Employment Branding and Culture, Engagement and Satisfaction, Leadership, Managing People, Retention, Work Life Balance, Workplace Flexibilty

Mike: We’re all family here. Archie: Don’t remind me! —All In The Family

I saw an excellent Twitter chat that discussed if people should use the term “family” at work. For instance, do you work for an organization that claims “we are all one big family”? Or if the company is really high on itself, they may say, “We are all one big happy family.”

As a person who’s worked for a few companies that have skated that ice, I can easily say yes. You can think about your company, co-workers, or team as a family. Absolutely. Given the time spent together in a confined space, sharing mutual interests, it stands to reason employees will naturally form a familial-type of bond with one another. If you’re lucky that relationship will allow vulnerability, forge trust and prove loyalty.

Or your work family, like your real family, may just be bat-s**t crazy. So much so, that being around this kind of work-family involves setting lots of boundaries and talking to many counselors.

There Are Different Levels of Bat-s**t Crazy at Work

  • Level One: This level is harmless crazy. For instance, some employees may spontaneously re-enact scenes from Pretty In Pink in their cubes. Or perhaps, when someone brings the team Donuts, everyone yells “Get In My Belly!” like Mike Myers. All harmless.
  • Level Two: This level of crazy isn’t dangerous but it includes work “norms” that aren’t productive and do not inspire greatness. For instance, this is the case when your top software engineer is allowed to skip team-building because he’s just not into it, or when the CEO insists on interviewing every final candidate before job offers are made, or when the company has “sacred cows” who are always protected.
  • Level Three: This level of crazy is dangerous and includes complete and utter dysfunction to the degree of Enron. It embodies an environment so toxic and so untrustworthy, that one may develop PSTD when it is all said and done. This is where your CEO is so narcissistic you tend to question your own judgment and sanity.

Again, just like your real family.  

And frankly, if you work in a level two or level three organization you’d rather eat paint chips dipped in Vegemite than endure one more interaction with your work “family.”

How We Get the Term “Family” Wrong at Work

The problem with the term family isn’t so much the sentiment, but rather the lack of definition leaders give the term when used. If leaders (or employees) throw the word “family” around frivolously, it can become unreliable, invalid or worse, laughable–just like the values you have on the wall if they are not defined and actively modeled.

Also, if your company regularly uses the term to sugar-coat nasty stuff happening (i.e., indeed, we are being sued, but we will stay the course together, as a family), or uses the term to blow off handling conflict (i.e., come on you two, we’re a family), it’s being used as a crutch.

So, leaders, before you use the term “family” at work, you must define what exactly “family” means.

  • What behaviors are acceptable within this work family?
  • Do we use the term because we are actually family-owned?
  • Most importantly, do we allow people to be their authentic selves within our family? If not, what you may actually have is a cult, which is the worst kind of family.

Most humans want to be accepted and included by those around them, including whatever “family” they have at work. In that context, don’t be afraid to use the term if it makes sense for your culture, supports inclusiveness, and allows for individuality. However, if you use “family” without creating a definition or some boundaries, you may have an exodus of people who’d rather be adopted by another work-family.