We are not a family 🏡
The toxic effects of calling your workplace a "family."
As a student-turned-expat who lives in a country that is not my own, I’m constantly on the search for “my people” – whether it’s at work, in my weekly exercise class, or just in everyday life (warning: this can cause unintentionally creepy staring, so please be mindful the next time you decide to people-watch in broad daylight).
Social belonging is a fundamental human need, so it’s unsurprising that organizations today are starting to pay more and more attention to belonging in the workplace. Having a sense of belonging at work means you feel seen, heard, and valued for who you are and what you bring to the table.
But, what happens when there’s maybe a bit too much belonging going on?
…I’m talking about “family.”
I always thought I wanted to work for an organization with a “family culture.” I’d see my brother in the hoodie-wearing, game-playing developer. I’d find my mother in my nurturing, often politically incorrect manager. And I’d detect a bit of my dad in the grumbling but well-meaning accountant who regularly needs tech support.
We would love each other (on a professionally appropriate level), accept each other’s flaws, and have a good laugh. The average person will spend around one-third of their lives at work – why wouldn’t we want to spend this time with people we consider family?
I’ll tell you why…
In a Family Culture, Employees Get Taken Advantage Of
Working at an organization with a family-like culture presents an interesting power dynamic, where low pay and a lack of benefits are overlooked because “we’re a family.” Employers can also take advantage of your passion for the organization’s mission and your sense of belonging, asking you to work overtime or on projects unrelated to your role, which can potentially lead to burnout. They can also use your passion as an excuse to pay you less.
Family Cultures Encourage Unethical Behavior
Research shows that employees who work within a family culture often fail to report wrongdoing and unethical behavior. The researchers explain why:
Collectively, we may hastily conclude that someone who doesn’t act in the face of wrongdoing is selfish, cowardly, or morally bankrupt. But as our research shows, remaining silent after witnessing wrongdoing can come from a compassionate place. Concern over the welfare of a person who commits a crime can prevent whistleblowing, especially in close-knit groups.
Family Doesn’t Mean the Same Thing to Everyone
If an employer says to me “we’re like family here,” it might make me feel warm and fuzzy inside because I would think of my own family, whom I love – but not everyone has a positive relationship with their family.
Some of us might have certain issues or trauma that come up when we think of our families (or specific family members).
Here is a list of a few famous families I’m happy NOT to be a part of:
The Lannisters (Game of Thrones)
The Smiths (as in Will & Jada)
The Roys (Succession)
The Manson Family1
However, if the devastatingly attractive Skarsgård family has any openings, I will happily volunteer. I’m half Scandinavian half Asian, so I feel like I’d bring in some diversity while upholding our Nordic roots. It’s a win-win!
If We’re Not a Family, Then What Are We?
I’m all for keeping it simple. What happened to just calling a team a team?
In his book “No Rules Rules,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings talks about “talent density,” describing the company’s focus on retaining a higher proportion of high performers and minimizing (or ideally, completely removing) average performers. He says:
A high-talent-density work environment is not a family.
Instead, Reed and then-Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord likened their culture to a professional sports team:
They celebrate together, console one another, and know each other’s plays so well that they can move as one without speaking. But they are not a family. The coach swaps and trades players in and out throughout the year in order to make sure they always have the best player in every position.
Whatever your company calls itself – a team, a crew, a squad – it’s important to always:
Define high performance.
Clarify your purpose.
Set clear boundaries.
The only companies that can call themselves a family are family businesses – and even then I’m on the fence.
Take It Away 💃
In a “family culture,” employers can take advantage of employees’ sense of belonging, using it as an unspoken agreement to offer low pay and a lack of benefits.
In family cultures, loyal employees are less likely to report unethical behavior. Healthy cultures value fairness instead of loyalty.
Family doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, so don’t assume that working in a family-like culture sounds appealing to everyone.
How can you prevent toxic family cultures? 👇
Define what high performance looks like in your team and wider organization.
Think about how you reward high performance – with high salaries? Extra benefits? Free food? Would you feel satisfied with this reward? Is it fair? Don’t use your mission and culture of closeness – however well-intended and noble it may be – to justify treating people unfairly.
Don’t call your company a family. That’s all.
DEI Win of the Week 🏆
I know the Oscars were technically last week – and there’s only one thing people are talking about…
But I’m not going to talk about that.2
Instead, I wanted to take a moment to recognize some landmark wins and nominations at this year’s Oscars. I’m not a fan of these award shows in general (I find them self-congratulating and a bit pointless), but I’m certainly an advocate for seeing more diverse representation on screen so I wanted to shine a light on that.
Without further ado, at this year’s Oscars:
Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer actor of color and the first Afro-Latina actress to win an Oscar (for her performance in West Side Story).
Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man – and the second deaf actor (the first being Marlee Matlin) – to win an Oscar (for his performance in CODA).
With Jane Campion’s win (The Power of the Dog), this is the first time two female directors have won the award back-to-back (Chloe Zhao won last year for Nomadland).
Billie Eilish became the first Oscar winner born in the 21st-century (go young people!). She won Best Original Song.
Denzel Washington became the most nominated Black actor of all time with his nomination for The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Yvett Merino became the first Latina to be nominated in the Best Animated Feature Film category (for Encanto). She also won alongside her co-producers Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Clark Spencer.
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It’s the Will Smith-Chris Rock slap, in case you missed it.