You 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.