Even Family Firms Need Policies

            Most employers call me in my role as an employment attorney when something has gone wrong in the workplace—an employee is using drugs, not showing up for work, being unproductive or demonstrating a bad attitude.

            When asked about what has happened in the employment relationship before this problem arose, many employers will tell me that they have been running the company like a “family”.

            Because it was a family, the employer didn’t want to be very strict, didn’t adopt a written policy manual, failed to institute any formal rules or take the time to carefully clarify expectations. Generally, the employer has interpreted being a “family” as an excuse to be passive, tolerant and to avoid conflict.

            Sounds great. Doesn’t work.

            I don’t know about your family away from work, but mine doesn’t look like that. At my house, I have clearly-defined rules for my son and I convey certain expectations

            I’m not in any way a perfect parent, but Hart knows my expectations about him unloading the dishwasher daily, cleaning his room and taking out the trash so well that he doesn’t question them. His father enforces similar rules at his house. Hart has been formally told what grades he is expected to bring home from school based on his abilities. He gets report cards every nine weeks showing how well he is meeting or exceeding those expectations.

            My son is a great kid. According to his teachers, he intelligent, well-behaved, enthusiastic, and a leader. While I mostly credit lots of prayer, I believe that one of the main reasons he is a great kid is because he is secure and happy in the knowledge of exactly what is expected. He has consistency and predictability in his life, which allow him to be responsible and respectful.

            One of my favorite parenting authors, John Rosemond, says in his book Parent Power, “Rules protect. They insure a child’s physical and emotional well-being. Rules are the mainstay of order. They regulate and mediate a child’s comings and goings in the world. Children are helpless without them. Paradoxically, a rule is both a constraint and a guarantee of freedom. . . . A child who tests a rule (as children always will) and finds it a predictable quantity is then free to function constructively within its boundaries.”

We all know children who have no formal rules at their house. We call them “brats.”

Many times when an employer calls me about a bratty employee’s actions, I understand the desire to fire. But the employee’s problems are often a result of my client’s failure as an employer in not setting down or enforcing any written rules or discipline, just like I think the parents are often at fault when a kid turns into a brat.

I don’t believe in laissez-faire parenting any more than I believe you can run a company with laissez-faire management. Employees want to know what is expected in the form of some reasonable written rules applied consistently.

You wouldn’t let your 16-year-old son drive your car alone without assuring that he has his license and is a good driver. If you are wise, you’ve talked to him about not drinking and driving, you provided him with an emergency instructions and you’ve assured yourself that he knows what to do if he is in a car accident.

But many businesses send employees out from their business to run errands or make sales without any policy on driving while on company business. Families do a better job with their teenagers than many “family firms” do with checking an employee’s driving record before letting her drive for the company.

What happens if your employee gets a ticket? Can she chit-chat on her cell phone when she is driving for your company? Does she have insurance on her car or will the company be responsible if she drives recklessly? A written policy can anticipate these questions and answer them before they become real-life problems.

Similarly, written requirements for attendance, vacations, sick leave, drug-free workplaces, grievances, discipline and other employment issues can stop many problems before they start and allow employees the freedom to work responsibly within those boundaries.


Leave a Reply