Relativity in the Workplace

There is an old Hollywood story that warns of family-run businesses:

Despite their joint ownership (with Albert and Sam) of Warner Brothers studios, little love was lost between Jack and Harry Warner (who once chased Jack around the Warner Brothers lot brandishing a lead pipe, threatening to bludgeon him).

Albert Einstein was given a tour of the Warner studios. “This is the great Professor Albert Einstein,” an executive declared by way of introduction to Jack Warner. “He invented the theory of relativity.”

Warner suddenly perked up. “Well, Professor, I have proved a theory of relatives, too,” he remarked.

“Really?” Einstein replied.

“Yes,” Warner declared. “Don’t hire them!”

In my law practice, I often advise businesses in which several of the owner’s family members are employed. While many families are able to successfully avoid stepping on the landmines that are planted just below the surface of family businesses, others seem to blow up either the family or the company by forgetting to follow a few simple principles to avoid the explosives:

  • Make sure your family members are qualified to work in the role they are fulfilling in the company. I know of a successful entrepreneurial husband who wasn’t interested in worrying about the day-to-day tax, employment, accounting and management details of his business. He was a salesman and a very good one. So he left all those other details to his wife. She had no MBA, no training and no experience with the technical and financial aspects of running a business. Their business eventually suffered several large setbacks because neither spouse was qualified to manage the niggling but necessary details with which every business has to deal. The moral: either hire qualified non-family members to do the jobs which you and yours cannot perform, or require immediate and extensive training for any family member whom you expect to perform unfamiliar job duties.
  • Don’t discriminate between family and non-family members. If you have a policy manual that prevents all employee from smoking in the building, prohibits the use of alcohol while on duty or pornography on the company computers or requires all employees to show up on time, do not allow family members to break these rules. In fact, in my experience, the family members should meet even higher standards to set a good example and because they are always under more scrutiny by employees to determine whether there is a double standard applied.
  • Be careful about practicing your family’s faith in the workplace. I never advise an employer to cut out all references to faith in a business, particularly since following the tenets of your faith can create a much more ethical and wholesome workplace. However, the more family members or others of the same faith you have working in your business, the greater the possibility that applicants or current employees will feel like they have to pass a faith test to work in your business. This would of course be discriminatory, so you will have to be even more diligent about enforcing your equal employment opportunity policies, hiring employees of varying faiths, and making disciplinary decisions without regard to an employee’s beliefs.
  • Watch out for apparent authority problems. In Texas, those with apparent authority to speak for the company can bind the company to contacts and get the company in legal hot water for employment decisions. If it is well-known to your vendors and employees that your daughter is working at the company and is being groomed to one day take over the business, don’t be surprised if she is treated legally as having authority to make all decisions for the company, even if, as the owner, you don’t believe she is experienced or mature enough yet to actually make those decisions.
  • Family dysfunction can really cripple your business. If your son and daughter-in-law both work at the business, what will happen if their marriage starts to fall apart and they eventually divorce? Will you automatically fire your soon to be ex-daughter-in-law? Could this create a sexual discrimination issue? Could she make a claim in the divorce for part of the ownership of the business as community property? Those business owners who plan for the worst and hope for the best address these kinds of issues long before problems arise by requiring buy/sell contracts, pre-nuptial agreements and employment contracts with family members.

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