hiring your teenage sister is often a really bad idea

A reader writes:

I am a manager of a seasonal outdoor pool, and I would love your advice on how to approach a slightly tricky situation. My younger sister, who is 18, is one of the employees that I manage. Is there a different way to approach performance issues? Our relationship is strained, and in the past she has been disrespectful of me and my management team: walking out of meetings, coming in late repeatedly, not wearing her uniform (swimsuit) when out on the water; we have many performance issues.

As a management team, we focus on consistency with every employee, regardless of relationship, and we apply the same rules, policies, and disciplinary actions to my sister as we do/ would to other employees who have performance issues. However, she does not see it this way – she feels that she is being singled out because she is my sister. It is really to the point where she should be fired – we have had many performance meetings to address why she is acting out and how we can move to work better together, but nothing has seemed to work. However, I don’t want to further strain our relationship by firing her. Even though I know she hates the job, me, and she resents my parents for making her work at the pool, I don’t think that firing her would be the best situation for her or our relationship right now.

Are there alternative methods to addressing her performance that you would recommend? I don’t want to be a jerk, but I feel like I’m running out of ideas and solutions!

Well, yeah, you should fire her, because it’s not fair to the pool or to your other employees to let her get away with behavior that would get someone else fired just because she’s your sister. And you are letting her get away with it — these endless meetings aren’t real consequences, because she clearly doesn’t care about them.

There’s no secret trick to making someone change what they’re doing if they don’t want to. When an employee is having performance problems, the basic formula is that you talk about where they’re falling short of the bar and what they need to do differently, and then if you don’t see the improvement you need, you have a more serious conversation and tell them what the consequences will be if the issues continue. And then you stick to those consequences.

The problem here is probably that she doesn’t care. Your parents are forcing her to work there, which means she has no incentive of her own to do a good job. She probably doesn’t care if she gets fired (because then your parents can’t make her work there anyway), although if she does get herself fired, she’ll probably happily blame it on you, because immature teenagers love to blame other people for problems of their own making. (I was an expert in this at that age.)

But one possibility for minimizing the damage to your relationship would be to have her “fire herself.”  Sit down with her and say, “Look, I’m in a tough spot here because if you were any other employee, you would have been fired a long time ago because of the issues we’ve already talked about. I really don’t want to fire my sister, but I can’t treat you differently than everyone else — it’s not fair to the other employees, and they see you getting away with things they’d never get away with. So here’s what I’m going to do: You’ve got to follow the pool’s policies, all of them, starting now. If you do that, great — we don’t have an issue. But if you don’t, then I’m going to take that as a sign that you’re not interested in continuing to work here, and we’ll have that be your last day. So it’s up to you — follow the policies or not, but if you don’t, know that we can’t have you come back after that. I hope you’ll decide to keep working here, but I’ll understand if you don’t.”

This is obviously way more informal than what you’d normally say, but she’s your sister and she’s 18 and it might be the way to go.

Then, if she breaks another policy, you say, “Hey, we talked about how if this happened, we’d need it to be your last day, and I know you know this was a policy infraction. So I’m going to take you off the schedule.” It was her choice, she made it, and that’s that.

Do take action though, because letting her get away with bad behavior is unfair to the rest of your staff, and plus you’re not doing her any favors by letting her think that jobs work this way.

By the way, this is why it’s often a terrible idea to hire friends or family members. You’ve always got to ask yourself, “What would be the impact on the relationship if I needed to fire this person?”

Maybe there are other things you can do to help the relationship in the meantime though — can you take her out for dinner or to a movie or do something fun with her that doesn’t have anything to do with work? Even if it doesn’t improve things now, in a few years when she’s out of the terrible headspace of adolescence, she’ll remember that you were making overtures and weren’t being a jerk at all.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. JessB*

    Perfect answer as always! I have a younger sister who is 17, and imagining we were in this situation, this would work great with her.

    It gives the sister control – make a choice for heaven’s sake! You’re either here, or you’re not here, but either way there are consequences.

    Looking forward to hearing how this goes.

  2. Dawn*

    Great advice! The only thing I will add is that the OP should be prepared to be blamed by her parents also. Maybe that’s not always the case, but they might feel like it’s the OP’s responsibility to do everything she can for her sister, regardless of the fact that she’s a terrible employee. Some parents don’t see it as a manager-employee relationship, which is what it is at the pool, but rather a sibling relationship.

    1. Natalie*

      One possible way to head that off, depending on the parents, would be to explain the situation to them before the younger sister does. Obviously you would want to keep it pretty brief and non-emotional, but at least they won’t feel blindsided.

      If the parents do bring it up, this is a great time to either learn to set boundaries or reinforce boundaries that already exist. “Mom, I understand you care about this and I’ve heard you, but I made the best decision for the [pool company]. I don’t want to discuss it any further.” And then don’t.

  3. Gene*

    One thing to add to Dawn’s comment; let your parents know in advance that your sister is getting the ultimatum. It may limit the fallout when she fires herself (and I don’t see any way that isn’t going to happen.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hopefully the parents can come to understand that handling is this way is actually GOOD for the sister. It’s really not helpful for her to learn that she can behave like this on a job and get away with it!

  4. MaryBeth*

    OP here. Thank you for answering my question!
    I agree that I am letting her get away with things, and we have talked about your advice this morning during our management team meeting. Though we are closed today because of the cold weather, we have decided to talk to my sister on Monday, her next scheduled shift. The “script” you provided is great – I think she will get the message. The informal message is better suited for our culture – nearly every employee is a teenager, and most are good friends outside of work as well. Giving her the power to continue to work or to fire herself is fantastic. That way, it’s her decision and her actions, and she can’t say that she was singled out.
    Gene- I definitely will alert my parents before I talk to her. They will be understanding, and I don’t think they’ll blame me for her decisions and actions. Our parents have always seen a distinct line between work and home relationships, especially since my sister and I have worked at the pool together for the last three seasons.

  5. Dawn*

    I would also consider giving her the option to resign instead of firing (at least on paper) her so she can tell future potential employers it was a voluntary termination. I know that may be giving her special treatment, but it sounds like it’s a pretty laid back employer so this might work. You get rid of a bad employee + your parents can’t be too mad at you = win/win

      1. Dawn 2 (?)*

        Yup. You’re definitely the O.D., though. I’ve actually read your comments on several other entries and agree with a lot of what you say.

        1. Melissa*

          College students who major in anything. My sister is a college senior and works at an aquatic center as a lifeguard and water safety/swim instructor year-round.

      1. class factotum*

        That is, college students who are majoring in English. Once they’ve graduated, they move on. But it’s a summer job for those of us who weren’t smart enough to figure out that you can make a lot more money as a waitress and you won’t destroy your skin in the process.

      2. wsilgi08*

        Or, those of us who value water safety, are pool managers (not just lifeguards), and have a passion for aquatics. It is a completely normal and acceptable (esp. on the coasts) to be a professional lifeguard. For those of us who take the job seriously, it’s more than “getting a tan” or “working with your friends,” lifeguarding and aquatic management saves lives.

  6. Cruella*

    I’m not certain that “giving her the power” is a good idea. That can cause a morale issue with the employees that are performing as expected.

    If this was just some random girl on staff who had done these things, would she have been fired by now? Why should this situation be any different?

    If your parents expect YOU to do YOUR job to the best of your abilities, would they not be just as disappointed that you didn’t fire a problem employee, regardless of who it was?

    If you were not the manager and someone else was, would they have caused a problem for that person when your sister’s performance issues caused her to be fired?

    One of the first things I had to learn as a manager was that I was there to get results, not be everyone’s friend, and that included those peers who I had been promoted from to supervise. It isn’t easy to do (thankfully I’ve never had to work with my siblings) but unless you get control of the situation, you risk being viewed as a pushover, and then your job is at risk as well.

    1. Mikey*

      It’s a pool staffed by teenagers though, not an office staffed by adults. Management styles need to suit the place of employment and the staff, or the style will blow up in the manager’s face. An informal solution is very appropriate in this situation.

    2. MaryBeth*

      As Mikey already pointed out, my pool is staffed by teenagers. Last summer I tried to have a more formal, “real world” kind of management style… and it completely failed. Yes, my real personality (and preference) is for high levels of professionalism and formality at work, however, that style does not work with our culture. Short of replacing an entire staff, it’s difficult to change the culture of any workplace. I think that “giving her the power” really is the best option here, especially considering our already strained relationship.

      If she was some random girl on staff who was just a random person, yes, she would have been fired. However, I don’t think there is anyone on staff who is just a “random” girl. My pool is… unique in that everyone on staff has been/ currently is on the swim team together since we were 8. No one is “random.”

      Honestly, my parents are more of a “solve your own problems” kind of parents. They’re there if I really need them, and I know they’ll always support me, but they have taught me to trust my own judgement, decisions, and abilities. And.. I haven’t lived at their house for several years now – while they probably care about my work, I don’t think they’d be “disappointed” in me about something I did at work.

      Learning how to manage my peers (including both my then boyfriend (now fiance) and my sister) when I was promoted to this job was very difficult. However, everyone I manage (and am friends with outside the pool) knows that when we come to the pool, the decisions I make are the way things are going to go. My friendships with them allow freeflowing feedback – both positive and negative in both directions, which really helps the staff grow in their abilities, and it lets me know how I’m doing as well. Yes, I know that outside relationships with employees is not always the best idea, and it may seem like it’s getting me into trouble right now… my relationship with my sister is not friendly or even close to one of a “friend”.

  7. Diane*

    If your parents are understanding, don’t talk to them first. It’s not fair to your sister/your employee. You wouldn’t talk to any other employee’s parents first. The point here is that you have a script to treat her like a responsible adult with the power to decide whether she’ll do her job or fire herself. Involving your parents invites triangulation. It’s her choice now, not theirs.

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