Conflict at work can turn any job into a hostile work environment. When you and the person you are fighting with share a dinner table, things can get even worse. You need to know what to do when conflict threatens the family business and/or the family.

No One Fights Like Family

Many families have internal conflict and disputes that have developed over years, or even decades. For some, favoritism can plague family relations over lifetimes. Resentments for past wrongs can live on and affect present decisions. Unresolved conflict can affect everything from game night to the next wedding.

When your family owns and operates a business together, family conflict takes on a new, often expensive, dynamic. Sibling rivalries and family tensions put a strain on business relations and affect the company’s bottom line. When what happened over the holidays affects your company’s day-to-day functions, conflict can threaten the very existence of your family business.

But it doesn’t have to. There are plenty of successful family businesses that grow and thrive despite the occasional domestic dispute. It all depends on your ability to work through conflict and focus on the company’s interests.

Keeping Work and Family Conflict Separate

It is critical, and difficult, to keep work and home life separate. All too often, family dinners will turn into strategic planning sessions or office meetings are spent rehashing domestic struggles. If you and your spouse, children, or other relatives hope to run a successful family business, you should set clear boundaries between home life and work time.

It is crucial to your business and your family that you maintain time for both. You simply must give your loved ones time to be “off the clock”. But when spouses and siblings work together all day and then go home to the same house, finding ways to separate work and family can be hard. You might:

  • Make a rule against shoptalk at the dinner table
  • Plan family outings away from the office
  • Insist that individuals take time away to themselves
  • Set aside specific time during the workday for strategic planning sessions
  • Develop a policy prohibiting discussion of family issues during working hours

Early Intervention Strategies to Avoid Conflict

By being proactive in addressing conflict resolution, you can make all your employees – family and non-relatives alike – feel that their voices are heard, and they and their skills respected. You may want to try these early intervention techniques before conflict comes to a head:

Put the Right People in the Right Positions

Family businesses are especially vulnerable to hiring or promotion based on nepotism or favoritism rather than ability. When a sibling his promoted just because they are older or a cousin is put into a position they aren’t trained for, it can create resentment. It can also, counter-intuitively, cause stress for the promoted family member who finds themselves in over their heads or in a position they don’t enjoy. A business consultant can help you evaluate your key employees’ strengths and challenges, help you assign them to roles that complement their skills, and provide development or mentorship opportunities to help them grow.

Build a Formal Conflict Resolution Structure

You’ve been around your children all their lives, so you may assume you know how to talk to them. However, in a business context, it is important that managers and workers feel respected, and treated professionally. One way to do this is to create a formal conflict resolution structure, giving all employees a safe way to raise concerns. Your business consultant can help you develop and implement these policies and can assist in removing any barriers to professional discourse.

What to Do When Conflict Threatens the Family Business

There are times in any business when conflict escalates, and hard feelings boil over. But when your business partners are family, you can’t just quit. Family relationships mean you need to resolve that conflict and get back to working – and living – together peacefully.

Often a conflict resolution specialist can help facilitate the conflict resolution process. This facilitator can meet with family members, managers, board members; etc. He will listen to their grievances, and help find solutions to these important challenges. This process can take time, and requires a commitment by all parties and the organization. But if you and your fellow family business members see it through, your family and your business will likely be better for it.


David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 30 years’ experience helping family businesses with internal conflict. Through one-on-one executive coaching, strategy sessions, and facilitated mediation, David helps family members work together to make their family businesses grow. Contact us to meet with David to start resolving conflict in your workplace today.