How to Manage Close Relatives at Work

Working with family members can be fraught with peril. Read this article to help navigate a bit better.

A few days ago, I was informed my department would need a new employee, and I was asked to find and introduce this person to the company. Of course the first people I thought about were my friends and relatives (maybe that’s natural, maybe I need to become more professional, I don’t know). Should I manage close relative at work?

But after careful thought, I remembered a relative who currently works in a position that would have given him more than enough of the skills we needed for the position, so I contacted him.

However, this got me thinking. I have heard so much of the negatives that come with managing relatives, and as it turns out, I’d be managing the person hired for this position.

And truth be told, there indeed are many negative sides to managing close relatives, most of which are based on the fact that “they’re your family, and you love them”, hopefully anyway.

This otherwise pleasant fact may give rise to all forms of inappropriate office dynamics. You are likely going to show some level of extra favor to your relative than you would others. Or, depending on the kind of relationship you have (let’s be frank here), maybe even criticize them more, or manage them strong-handedly.

Whichever way the pendulum swings though, we can agree that this would not be good for you or your relative’s professional careers.

Here’s a shining example of how close family relationships can lead to bias in the workplace. The following question was submitted to Alison of

I have a daughter who is one of our employees, and I am her manager. She has a seven-month old baby and works part-time from home for our publicly traded company…

She brought her baby to work recently…A coworker – unbeknownst to us – took a picture of my daughter’s baby playing on the floor at work during this short time and sent it to the HR director at corporate – telling HR that my daughter was bringing her baby to work in the office and that she was afraid to say anything because she feared retribution…

The HR director would not tell me who sent the picture…

I am concerned on two levels – first of all, what gives this employee any right to take pictures of another coworker’s child and share them with anyone? Is there recourse here? Secondly, without know[ing] who has done this, my level of trust for all of our employees has been diminished, as I must now suspect all five of the people in this particular office”

Please go back and look at the phrases I bolded. Now pause and think, would this manager have reacted this strongly if this was a report about any other employee? Would she not rather investigate to see if an employee is not acting in the best interest of the company?

Clearly, in an ideal world, work and family relationships should never mix.

But that’s not always the reality, in many cases you cannot help but manage your relatives. However, there are steps you can take to ensure you work with relatives as you would others, and these steps are explained in this post.

Before Recruitment

Let’s say you, like me, got wind of an opening, and decided to bring in a close relative. In this case, it is best to set the tone from the very beginning.

When you inform them of the opportunity, let them know you’d be managing them in this position. Explain what this would mean and how you would hold them accountable like all other employees, and (this is important) explain that you can find another opening for them in the future if they are uncomfortable with you managing them.

For example, here’s an excerpt from the message I sent my relative regarding the job opening:

“I’d be managing you in this position. This means I’d be the one to assign tasks to you and give deadlines, etc. If this seems a conflict for you, then I can instead…”

You understand how the rest of it goes. Once again, always set the tone before recruitment if possible.


When You Are Already Working With The Person

Have a defined job description with goals, expectations, and objectives

If this is not already in place, take time to create one. Ultimately, you want to have all your staff working toward measurable goals that reflect their productivity. This is even more important with relatives because there is the chance that they may not feel as accountable as others, or may even not be motivated to accomplish as much.

A job description which includes goals and expectations from the position can go a long way in preventing (and fixing) such a situation.

Clarify the work process that will be used each day

Is there a chain of command that they are failing to follow? Are they bringing things to your table that should go somewhere else, just because they have access? Is there any confusion about their daily tasks and activities? And most important (in my opinion at least), are they imposing themselves and their opinions on other people’s activities?

If the answer to some of the questions above is “yes”, then there is a problem.

Aside from having a job description which shows an employee’s productivity over a period of time, it is incredibly important that short term goals, daily activities, and work processes are clearly defined.

This is especially so for relatives as there is the possibility that they might feel entitled to do things however they see fit.

Do not give relatives more than usual access

Be it to information, ongoing projects, etc. If a relative makes a request, and you think you would have declined if this was anybody else, decline to your relative as well.

This is one point you have to consider carefully, and frankly, one that is very hard to apply.

Consider this scenario:

Your cousin (who you are very close to) just gave birth and she seriously needs some help for a few weeks. Your younger sister who works under you, and just came back from a vacation 3 months ago, comes up to you with the request to take 2 weeks off to help her out.

Would you grant her this time off?

Would you grant this to another employee who recently returned from a vacation?

For many, the answer to the first will be “yes”, and the second “no”. And this is why you can very often see verifiable claims of bias when family relationship mixes with work.

And then there’s compensation. You want to ensure that this is commensurate with each employee’s performance, and not influenced by anything else. Unfair compensation to relatives can be particularly demoralizing to other employees.

Don’t abuse your relationship

Some managers, in an effort to show that they are upright and ethical, hold family relatives to a higher standard than others.

This is wrong!

Your aim as a manager should be fairness to all. If you are unusually strict with family, you may feel good about yourself. And, some may praise you for being upright, but are you really?

There is no difference between a manager who favors family more and another who favors other employees more than family. At the end, they both allowed non-work issues to create a bias.

Do not discuss business after business hours

As much as possible, keep business conversations to the office. Discussing business in personal settings (even when there are issues that directly involve you and your relative) is a sure way to introduce relationship bias into the conversation, and probably end up deciding wrongly.

Some who live in the same house and work together, make the rule that business conversation would not happen after 6pm.

Of course they would need a lot of discipline to adhere to such a rule. But, you surely cannot argue with the logic behind it.

Manage by proxy

Sometimes, even after taking all necessary steps, you may still observe bias in your work relationship with your relative. Or your relative may not take you as seriously as is necessary for a business relationship.

If you observe that despite your best of efforts, your relative shows up late, handles tasks shabbily, takes liberties with company resources and time, bosses fellow employees around, etc. The next step should be to manage your relative through someone else.

Make your relative completely accountable to this person. And, this should preferably not be someone he/she is already close friends with (we don’t want to end up in the same hole we’re trying to dig out of).

Ensure that this person has the power to review your relative’s activities, make positive or negative recommendations, give warnings and penalties, and even fire, if all else fails.


How Can You Apply This Information

First, as much as you can, avoid managing “very” close relatives. There is almost always going to be a problem with that.

But if you have to, show from the beginning that when you are in the office, what you have is a business relationship. And, specify that it cannot be influenced by family ties.

However, don’t go to the extreme of being too strong handed. The key is to strive as much as possible to manage your relative as you would every other employee. And, the steps considered in this post can help you strike the balance. 


4 Ways to Manage Working Relationships with Toxic Family Members, Entrepreneur Magazine
7 Rules for Avoiding Conflicts of Interest in a Family Business, Inc. Magazine
Managing Friends and Family Members, MindTools

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