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 7 Comments

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.

Dawn Burke

Dawn Burke, founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, most recently serving as VP of People for Birmingham, AL’s award-winning technology company, Daxko (And yes, Kris Dunn and Dawn are making Bham the HR capital of the world! Who knew?). You can also check her out at and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.

Comments 7

  1. I have worked in all three types of “family” organizations. The last has left some scars. I would dare say there is a level 4, as you talk about CULT like behavior s and practices. Unfortunately, I have worked for one of those too. The worst part of cultish family organizations is the way you get pulled in to the crazy behaviors. And when you leave you are made to feel like you did something wrong…. instead of being honest that you just don’t want to be part of the business form of a Jones or Manson family.
    For now I prefer being an orphan!
    Great post Dawn!

    1. Mark! Yes – Level 4 is a frikkin’ doozy. I’ve been there too. Culture in the hands of a “manson” leader= bad news.

      I think we have to spread the word of what bad behavior looks like so employees can id quickly when things have become unhealthy.

  2. That’s surely true! Whether it is a definition of the term family in the workplace or anything, specific boundaries are required when you’re working with a team of more than two to three employees. Every person has a different level of understanding. Hence, it is necessary that they see the boundaries or they will slip out with a mistake.

    Great post indeed! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Boundaries are big. Many of us don’t even think about that term when it comes to work – or especially when dealing with leaders/c-suite. Many employees are just so glad to “be there” or to be engaged at all with that CEO, they follow the direction of that leader (aka accept their behaviors).

      Thanks for your comment : )

  3. Very interesting take. A while back a heard a higher up at a 150 person company say “We have to stop saying ‘We are a family'”. I questioned why and the response was “You put up with your family member’s short-comings. Would you fire your brother?” It makes you think, at what point does the feeling of “friendship” or “family” become a hindrance to progress? Howcan it be used to overcome a hindrance to progress?

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