Is it healthy to create a family atmosphere in the workplace?

Having worked primarily in big business in my early career, I was surprised when I started working with SME’s to find how many describe their culture as being like a ‘family’. The ‘family culture’ obviously has different meanings in each workplace, but the consistent desired values I have seen are: everyone has a personal connection to the business, high levels of trust, and that employees take an active interest in each other, supporting the team to succeed.

But can the ‘family’ model really succeed in the workplace?

Culture is created in one of two ways, either by design or default. A family’s culture is often created over many generations, with stories, values and rituals handed down from one generation to the next. However, whilst there are usually good intentions, workplace culture often ‘just happens’. The company values are proudly displayed, but they are not how employees work or behave.

Creating a culture that treats your employees as family can engender high levels of engagement and ownership, which can only lead to a positive impact on your bottom line. Employees want to feel valued and they need to know you care. But operating under a family paradigm is not without risks and here are a few of the common pitfalls I’ve witnessed:

This is a workplace, not the pub

Whilst we want to encourage a workplace where employees look out for each other, support each other inside and outside of work, we need to maintain a level of professionalism. Boundaries can be crossed when employees become over familiar, which leads to conflict (and often formal complaints). A Code of Conduct and regular updates on your Equal Opportunity policy can help establish the boundaries. As a manager or owner, you need to lead by example and demonstrate the behaviour you want from your employees. Getting drunk with your employees at the pub on Friday night won’t encourage the culture you want to see.

You are not their parent

Whilst the workplace can be a great place for establishing long-term friendships, you are not your colleagues’ sibling, nor your employees’ mother or father. You need to know where the boundaries of your role lie, and when to encourage or assist them to seek outside assistance. You are not their credit lender or their marriage counsellor or their doctor. You may be their shoulder to cry on, but know when to seek help from the professionals, such as financial assistance providers or offering counselling through an Employee Assistance Program.

Personality clashes

As the saying goes ‘you can choose your friends, but not your family’. Similarly, senior managers often manage the recruitment process and employees don’t get to pick their colleagues. When recruiting for a new position, considering team fit is equally as important as technical skills. This can be measured through behavioural interviewing and reference checking, but if you want a more scientific approach, consider psychological profiling, such as DISC.

Even with the right recruitment process, sometimes the dynamics in a team can change and personality clashes occur. As soon as you notice conflict, you need to take action. The earlier you resolve differences, the least amount of impact it will have on productivity and the rest of the team.

It takes a concerted effort by managers to create and maintain the culture you desire. It is important to lead from the front and to manage the cracks as soon as they begin to appear. Because you don’t want your culture to be “shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.”– Gruenter & Whitaker


Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three primary-school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.

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