Work Isn’t Family, Nor Should It Be

Posted: August 13, 2013 in Relationships
Tags: , , , , , ,

WorkIsnotFamilyYou may have heard a business owner or manager at times say something to the effect of “We’re a family here” when referring to the relationships among employees.  I can’t recall the last time I heard it (thankfully), but I know that I have in years past.  I confess, though, that it simply doesn’t ring true in any business I’ve ever been a part of except the one that my wife and I ran out of our home for a number of years.  I recall hearing such comments and thinking to myself, “No, this isn’t family – only family is family,” yet everyone heard the sentiment, smiled or nodded and went on their way, probably thinking like I did that such sentiment was wishful thinking on the part of management.

For several years, my current company used the Gallup Q12 survey to measure employee engagement.  Many employees shook their head unsure what to do with the survey item “I have a best friend at work.”  While many may have been able to answer affirmatively, many others were befuddled by it and felt nothing wrong with truthfully answering negatively to the item.  They didn’t expect to have a best friend at work.

Except for family-owned businesses that really are made up of relatives, let me say clearly that groups of employees in businesses are not family nor should they feel like they ought to be.  Work relationships may well include some very dear people that become friends for life, but most coworkers – especially in a large business – are colleagues with whom you will never communicate again once you leave that place of business.

And that’s OK.

My company has nearly 50,000 employees.  Is that a family?  No.  It’s a workforce.  I do not know and will never know individually most of my fellow employees.  I know well and thoroughly enjoy the friendship of my closest colleagues.  I have many good working relationships across numerous departments and locations, but the only family I have at work is my youngest son, Jason, who happens to also work for the same company.

The word “family” is special.  It is reserved for those few who are united forever with me because we are, indeed, relatives.  As a Christian, I am also comfortable using the term to refer to the larger body of believers in my family of faith with whom I expect to share eternity.  To use the term “family,” however, for environments where the focus is something as mundane as a temporary career which could change by choice or force in a moment is to cheapen the meaning of the term.

This is not to say that work is not important – far from it.  Many of us spend more waking hours at work with our colleagues than we do at home with our real family.  Having good relationships at work helps make the experience more meaningful and fulfilling and should be a goal of every employee.  Frankly, though, I am quite fine with trying to have a well-oiled machine at work made up of professional colleagues who strive together toward the same goals and who show professionalism and emotional maturity along the way.  That is what the business employs us to do – not to be best buds along the way.

Managers and leaders, please think twice the next time you are tempted to say in a talk or email or elsewhere that your business is a family.  The hearers may not openly disagree with you, but they will probably not believe you, either.  Just work on getting everyone moving in the same direction, working toward the same goals, demonstrating the same core values, showing emotional maturity and professionalism in whatever they do, and you will be doing what the business is intended to do.  Leave the term “family” for that one-of-a-kind institution that we come home to after work.

  1. HR Professional says:

    I completely agree with your sentiments. Companies make decisions for the best interest of the company and not the individual. Most families are invested in individuals and sacrifice for the whole. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that RARELY happens in the business world. Family like love has lost much of its importance and significance due to the over use and improper application to lesser meaning situations. I have dear people that I would hope to stay connected with after I leave, but I’ve also found that even the slightest change in work assignments/ jobs within the same company can have a significant impact on relationships. We are more love the one you’re with at work than true family. So I agree, let’s stop using terms to define things that are not as them might appear. Familiarity does not equal family!

  2. Jeff Ross says:

    There has been some good discussion about this today on our internal social network at work with many agreeing and some disagreeing a little or a lot with my post. In response to those comments, let me suggest the word “community” as a better option for describing a group of coworkers who are close-knit and have good relationships with one another.

  3. CrazyPanamanian says:

    I get the point you are trying to make in the use of family. I algo understand how the term “community” has a better application in the work environment.

    That said, I’ll put this debate as a cultural difference. I come from a culture where I was raised to have no silos among social circles. This is not to say that some people get more of my time than others rather there are no pre-conceptions as to some people need to be called this or that, and others need to be on a separate group.

    In essence, I got used to seeing coworkers invite my parents to their children birthday parties, baptisms, graduations, tea hour, etc.

    In other words, I was raised to walk into any place and build strong relationships with the ones I spend time with.

    There are 2 things I dislike about the US culture, is their baised towards titles and segregation through circles. But that’s life, every culture is different.

    In the end, I agree with the term family saved to the bloodline, but I see no wrong in some coworkers or friends to reach that level of confidance, trust, respect, and love.

  4. Kay Hagan-Haller says:

    Another term that is disturbing to me is ‘work wife or work husband’ as this paints a picture that is not appropriate for the work environment. I, too, have family at work because my daughter works here. Last week she texted me that there was a sign in the breakroom that said something like: Please clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here. We laughed because she wanted to write on it–MINE DOES!
    Also, since my daughter works here, people assume that they can call me Momma. I told one woman that I barely knew that I was NOT her mother and that term was reserved for my children. I might be a mother-like figure to some people because that is my nature, but I am NOT their mother!

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