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pitfalls of using family at work

The Pitfalls of Projecting a “Family Culture” at Work

“We’re like a family here” is a statement that jobseekers often hear from companies during the recruiting process. The organizations want to convey that they have a supportive, kindred team. And on the surface, the familial model sounds appealing. It resonates with people who want to work where they feel they belong.

But real families are complex and assume ties beyond what people expect or want from their jobs. Companies that genuinely care about their employees’ well-being must navigate the nuances of what it means to maintain an inclusive and caring culture.

The ‘Family Trap’

The idea of equating staff and family is understandable on some levels. Full-time employees often spend as much or more of their waking hours associating with coworkers as they do with their actual families. As a result, they develop bonds and support each other as they experience their organization’s challenges and triumphs together.

But unlike families, business enterprises compete in the marketplace and depend on their staff to drive success. Since profitability is most companies’ primary goal, the family analogy can take a dark turn in terms of what it asks of its members. As leadership development trainer Joshua Luna points out in a Harvard Business Review article:

“While some aspects of a “family” culture, like respect, empathy, caring, a sense of belonging can add value, ultimately trying to sell your organization’s culture as family-like can be more harmful than psychologically satisfying.”

The danger of portraying a workforce as a family implies obligations beyond the scope of employment. In a blog for DataDrivenInvestor, Johnny Handsome explains that a family-like culture carries unspoken expectations and pressure to behave in a way that encroaches on personal lives. He notes:

“While these expectations are rarely articulated, they are palpably present, creating an environment where declining to participate can lead to feelings of guilt and fear of being perceived as not a team player.”

He writes that the dilemma worsens because employees in this kind of culture tend to internalize tacit expectations. They often push their limits and sacrifice their wellbeing because they feel obligated to their “work family.” This self-imposed pressure and that of the organization frequently leads to burnout.

Journalist Joe Pinsker noted a different aspect of families that can come into play in the work setting. He made this observation in an article for The Atlantic:

“I can’t help but notice another, entirely unintended meaning in this common corporate metaphor: Work is like family—in many unhealthy, manipulative, and toxic ways. We’ll foist obligations upon you, expect your unconditional devotion, disrespect your boundaries, and be bitter if you prioritize something above us.”

He observes that many families are dysfunctional, and comparing them to work relationships can uncover how organizational culture can be, too.

The Family Culture Toll

Joshua Luna specifies three ways a familial culture can harm employees.

  1. Blurred personal and professional lines
  2. An exaggerated sense of loyalty
  3. An uneven power dynamic


The company-as-family construct can be an imposition on today’s employees as they navigate a healthy way to establish work-life boundaries. Many feel pressured to allow work tasks to regularly creep into personal time because families don’t limit commitment.


Most of us would readily do whatever it takes to help relatives in need. Luna says that kind of family loyalty can be distorted in the workplace “as expectations form to go above and beyond to do anything to get the job done.”

He cites research showing that overly loyal workers are susceptible to exploitation by their employer. And they are more prone to participate in unethical acts, such as engaging in cover-ups to hide organizational wrongdoing.


Luna questions the roles in a familial workplace culture. “Does that make the employer the parents and the employees the children?” He points out that many people will harbor implicit bias about these roles if this is the perceived structure. The result may leave employees feeling unempowered.

In an article for Forbes, author, professor and leadership expert Jonathan H. Westover outlines two other drawbacks of a familial culture.

He notes the difficulty of firing someone and what happens when people who should be let go are allowed to remain. “The entire organization suffers when a disruptive or unproductive "family member" is allowed to stay because of a false cultural expectation.”

Westover also points out that inflexible family structures prevent organizations from evolving. “Real families benefit from stability, but for businesses to survive over the long run, they need to regularly and purposefully recalibrate.”

The Culture that Workers Need

Employees crave some of the benefits implied in a familial culture, such as a supportive and cohesive work environment. However, leaders can offer a healthier option by building a culture that generates individual and organizational success.

Joshua Luna recommends implementing structures that bring value to and offer a foundation for employees. He suggests leaders should view their organization more like a sports team than a family.

“In doing so, you retain a culture of empathy, collectiveness, belonging, and shared values and goals, while outlining a performance-driven culture that respects the transactional nature of this relationship.”

Luna offers the following guidelines to achieve a more balanced culture:

  • Define high performance and focus on purpose.
    Leaders should make expectations about job responsibilities and deliverables clear to avoid the open-ended commitment employees might perceive in a “family” culture. Luna advises leaders to emphasize a shared purpose to help staff understand the part they play in achieving organizational goals. This gives people a sense of belonging without the baggage of family obligations.

  • Set clear boundaries.
    There is often a grey policy regarding how many vacation days are acceptable in a family-based culture. Luna tells leaders to be explicit about the company’s standards, so employees don’t feel uncomfortable about scheduling paid time off. Vacations allow workers to recharge and help distinguish their work and personal worlds. Leaders should set an example by demonstrating balance and boundaries in their own lives.

  • Mutually accept the temporary and professional nature of this relationship.
    Most people don’t work for the same organization throughout their careers. Workers leave employers to grow professionally or for personal reasons. And companies sometimes trim staff to cut costs or eliminate obsolete positions.

While the relationship between employer and employee can and should be mutually supportive throughout its duration, it isn’t binding like family ties. All parties need to maintain a realistic perspective about the transactional nature of employment.

Jonathon Westover reiterates the need for leaders to emphasize that employers and employees share a purpose. He provides additional recommendations to help them meet the needs of employees and drive organizational goals.

  • Be transparent.
    Leaders should openly communicate relevant financial information, strategic plans, decision-making procedures, and challenges. Transparency leads to trust and buy-in and is often lacking in a family-based culture.

  • Promote continuous learning and growth.
    Westover stresses that a healthy company offers development opportunities for employees. Helping workers learn and grow creates pathways for future leaders.

  • Recognize diverse individual contributions.
    Companies that show they value what everyone brings to the table honor each employee’s unique aptitudes and accomplishments. They can convey this by embracing diverse perspectives and showing meaningful acknowledgment for good work. These are effective ways to enhance inclusivity rather than telling people they’re part of the family.

Organizations that want to convey a family-like dynamic may have good intentions. However, doing so can open the door for blurred professional and personal boundaries, limit professional growth, and lead to excessive conformity. All of this can be detrimental to employee wellbeing and job satisfaction, which can undermine the company’s success.

Instead, leaders should focus on developing organizational culture that promotes collaboration and a shared purpose and provides a wellspring of support and respect that employees need to thrive.