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Friday, July 8th by Junkluggers
It’s one of the sacred foundational Business Management Commandments. As a new business owner, I heard it repeated often: hire friends and family at your own risk. Fortunately, I’ve never been one to stick to conventional wisdom, so I went ahead and hired my brother and several childhood friends, raising quite a few eyebrows along the way.
Hiring friends and family isn’t a decision to take lightly, and certainly isn’t a cakewalk.
But in my experience, the upside of hiring friends and family overwhelmingly trumps the downsides. Counting on my friends and family made me a more effective leader and strengthened our business in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
Working closely with friends and family can lead to some sticky situations:
Know that for every horror story and drawback, there are many success stories. Those just aren’t as sensational as the monumental failures that can occur when hiring friends and family without a good plan in place.
Your personal experience hiring friends and family will depend on the uniqueness of your company culture, along with your leadership style. Those aspects, combined with the quality of your relationships, can make working with friends and family not only possible, but preferable.
When I hired my brother and close friend as CFO, I knew I could trust them. They came into the business with passion and knew exactly what they wanted to contribute. Using my knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses allowed me to set them up for success and anticipate their needs, while our mutual respect and fondness for each other led to an immediate rapport and shorthand that made working together smooth and easy.
Working with friends and family can be difficult, but you risk the same difficulties with any new hire. I’ve opted to work with friends and family for many years with great success, and in the process, learned how to best manage the dual roles of being both CEO and a friend or relative.
Any time your team is unclear or doesn’t know what to expect, their confidence and efficiency plummets. Awkward team moments flourish in a confused and unstructured atmosphere, and you may find yourself wondering why you ever thought it was a good idea to hire a friend.
But you can set yourself and your team up for success by having clearly defined roles and expectations in place when you first hire. Take it a step further with friends and family, ensuring they understand the terms of their employment, how they’ll be assessed and disciplined, and spell out the circumstances that could lead to their termination. It’s never easy to terminate a working relationship with a close friend or family member, but emphasizing from the start that they will be held to the same standards as other employees makes it a bit more bearable.
When I said hiring friends and family wasn’t a cakewalk, I wasn’t kidding. I learned the hard way that hiring friends and family can be extremely problematic in the early years of The Junkluggers. My first hire was a close friend; and by “close,” I mean in proximity: when I look back, I realize I hired him because we lived together and had mutual friends. He was simply there when I needed him, but that didn’t mean he’d be a good fit for the company.
In retrospect, I realize that I didn’t think about how he would fit the culture I hoped to create. As a result, I suffered years of professional. My first COO and I butted heads on nearly every decision, disagreed on strategy, and clashed on execution. Lacking the confidence to face him down, I began to lose confidence in my leadership skills and allowed him to make decisions that put my company in immediate danger. Letting him go was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a business owner, but it was an essential step in saving the company I struggled to build.
From that first experience, I learned to hire people who share the values I want to instill in my company’s culture. This is true of any new hire, and especially true for friends and family. If you find the right cultural fit for an open position, they’re likely to learn the functional competencies of the work rather quickly, and that doesn’t exclude family members. If your cousin has the perfect personality and philosophy to be successful in your company, hire her. This standard also provides an objective compass when it’s unwise to hire friends and family. If they won’t fit the culture, don’t hire them.
Granted, this may not always be possible in your company’s early days when you’re handling everything from strategy to trash duty. However, if at all possible, place some distance between yourself and your friend or family member. Don’t hold all the authority and responsibility for discipline and enforcement, but instead put it in the hands of an objective party such as a Human Resources representative or even an outside consultant. With your company’s disciplinary processes and role expectations clearly defined, removing yourself from the situation as much as possible is a critical step to ensuring everyone is subject to the same practices.
When you already have a team of awesome people who aren’t related to you, they may feel threatened or slighted when you bring relatives or friends on board. They may suspect that the new hires won’t be held to the same performance standards or won’t be required to work as hard or long as everyone else.
If you hired this new relative or friend for the right reasons – they’re a good fit for the company and you can trust them to work hard – they should be eager to prove themselves to you and the rest of the team. Provide opportunities for them to demonstrate that commitment. Present them with a task nobody else is excited to take on. Put them on projects requiring them to jump in and help the rest of the team. Ask them to bring a few people together to solve a problem that you haven’t had a chance to approach. When the rest of your team sees them working hard to accomplish something significant, they’ll see your friend or relative was hired because they had what it takes to succeed — not just because you share a connection with them.
There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about hiring people from your social or familial circle. The practice is often met with skepticism or resistance because no one wants to unwittingly damage the most important relationships in their lives.
However, I’ve found tremendous success and built a strong, supportive company culture because I chose to bring several close friends and family members into my business. That’s not to say that everyone you know will be a suitable fit for your company; you’ll be lucky if even a few make the cut. But with the right preparation, expectations, and processes, you can work peacefully and successfully with those you know and love.
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