your workplace isn’t your family — and that’s OK

“We’re like family here.”

Not words you should want to hear from an employer.

I did a Q&A with the New York Times about why that phrase tends to pop up at dysfunctional workplaces — and tends to breed more dysfunction too — as well as how you can navigate that kind of culture and a healthier way to view work.

You can read it here.

{ 196 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago

    I absolutely love the “team as family” dynamic in TV shows (Leverage, NCIS, Criminal Minds, etc), but it is absolutely one of those things that works so much better in fiction than in reality.

    1. rldk

      Or even the Nine-Nine :]
      But yeah, they definitely have really bad work boundaries. Makes for great entertainment and drama but in real life?!?!

      1. Detective Amy Santiago

        Can you even imagine the letters Alison would get from those characters? :) That would be a fun open thread discussion. Just not sure if it would be more appropriate for Friday or Saturday.

        1. Doug Judy

          Oh goodness, yes. So much potential. Although it’s secretly my dream to work for the Pawnee Parks Department or the Nine-Nine.

        2. Pathfinder Ryder

          I actually once asked about fictional character letters on a Saturday thread and got asked by Alison to move it to Friday because it’s still work :D

      2. Damn it, Hardison!

        That’s one of the reasons I find the Office Job episode of Leverage so entertaining. All of the boundary issues are magnified!

    2. katrinka

      I always love on “workplace family” TV shows when there’s a wedding or a funeral or something and the only people who show up are coworkers from the show. These people have no cousins or old college roommates or hiking buddies. Only work friends.

      1. Bea

        I had an old coworker who had nobody else. His best friend died and then his mom died. We rallied for him after his mom died, it was absolutely awful.

        1. Xarcady

          At the funeral of a coworker, there were people from work, and his mother. It was sad. But a great many people from work did make the effort to attend, and that made his mom feel a little better.

        2. Richard Evans

          I’m 73, my wife was 65 and we both lived in one of the largest cities in the country. This past Oct., my wife fell twice. In Nov. she had a major stroke. Jan. saw another stroke and she was gone. We were married 35 years. The small group of people I work with were by my side supporting me. I had been the caregiver for over 20 years so it was no surprise to me. People may think I haven’t grieved yet but I am starting to look around and the people I work with are supporting me in that and helping there. I think Alison is probably right but it can’t be a steadfast rule.

        1. Namast'ay in Bed

          Right?? Just because the venue gets shut down doesn’t mean that all of your guests just disappear and go home!

      2. Mine Own Telemachus

        This was lampshaded really well on the TV show Happy Endings, where Penny starts dating a new guy and he asks her to hang out with his friends because “don’t you have any friends outside of these five people?” And she’s like, “wait, you have friends? I thought we’d just always hang out with my people…”, and they’re all boring, normal people with no drama.

        1. zora

          This is my favorite show ever and completely underappreciated. Thank you so much for this reference.

      3. Jiji the Cat

        oh my gosh, when the Jim/Pam wedding episode of The Office aired I thought it was SO CUTE that every Dunder-Mifflin employee was there. Now that I’m an adult in the working world my immediate reaction is WHY WOULD YOU INVITE THESE CRAZY PEOPLE?
        ToxicJob had a lot of Glassdoor reviews comparing the CEO to Michael Scott, though I pinned him as more of a David Brent.

        1. katrinka

          As we’ve learned from AAM, because of their wacko open office and lack of boundaries they probably had to invite everyone from D-M, but the fact that all the coworkers came (to a destination wedding!!) and were the majority of the guests is some TV nonsense. :)

      4. Marion Ravenwood

        I think the only time I’ve seen the non-work friends in attendance was April and Andy’s wedding on Parks and Rec, and I suspect that’s because no-one else knew it was a wedding.

    3. Turquoisecow

      Yeah, but then I feel bad for those people because, as katrinka says above, they don’t have much of an outside life. I just finished rewatching The West Wing, and most of the main players put off having significant relationships outside of work until they’re done working. They come in regularly on weekends. They get woken up in the middle of the night.

      And, of course, that’s the White House, but is that really necessary at Llama Teapots, Inc? I like my boss, but I also would like to go home at night and on weekends and spend time with my spouse and myself!

      1. Jaydee

        And at least on The West Wing they *acknowledge* the imbalance. I mean, barely into the first season Leo’s and Jenny separate because he puts too much into work and not enough into their marriage. There are plot lines and dialogue throughout the series that draw attention to the trade-offs the characters make and the negative impact of the job on their lives outside of work. That isn’t the case on many of the most “we’re a work family” shows.

        1. Marion Ravenwood

          Criminal Minds does this as well (or did, I’m about five seasons behind on it), particularly in relation to characters’ conflict over leaving family members due to the amount of travel involved. I’m thinking particularly of Hotch being pressured to quit/take a desk job to be around more for his son, as well as JJ and Reid’s guilt about not spending more time with their loved ones.

      2. Magenta Sky

        I’ve worked at places that clearly felt their company was as important to the world as the White House.
        They were wrong.

      3. Ktemgee

        I’m watching the west wing for the first time and it is SO good! From what little I’ve read about it, people who have worked in the White House thinks the show did a nice job showcasing what life was like as an employee.

    4. The Original K.

      I just watched a couple of older CSI episodes and in one, one of the original cast members leaves and she does so by calling a “family meeting” and announcing that she’s taken a job elsewhere, and the rest of the team cries. In another, the team is arguing and somebody yells “This isn’t the way family treats each other!” (And I was thinking “Sometimes it is, though.”)

    5. Tardigrade

      Yeah, I feel like Gibbs would have been terminated pretty quickly after the first time he slapped a subordinate (or anyone) across the head.

      1. Magenta Sky

        The treatment of his subordinates pales in comparison to the police corruption that every character engages in every episode (just like every other cops show on TV), from torturing and threatening suspects to illegal searches to criminally hacking other government agencies’ computers (and committing very serious national security violations on the way).

        But showing police work in a realistic and accurate way would make for a *very* boring show. The same is true of showing healthy, productive work relationships.

        1. Evan Þ.

          “But showing police work in a realistic and accurate way would make for a *very* boring show.”

          It’d make an fun single episode, though. Maybe some character gets seconded to another department that actually does do things by the book? Or maybe we get a glimpse into a parallel universe?

          1. Mine Own Telemachus

            The movie Hot Fuzz has some great meta-commentary on this idea. “Ooh, that’s gonna be a whole lot of paperwork” and cut to them doing the paperwork.

          2. Magenta Sky

            There are several documentary shows on various cable channels. They’re appeal to a real niche audience, and they’re fascinating if you’re interested in the subject matter.

            But they’re really not fun, not even for a single episode, and they’re on specialty cable networks because there’s not enough of an audience to put them on the big networks.

    6. UtOh!

      What is interesting about the shows you named are that they all involve life/death/dangerous situations so I can see where there might be deeper bonds in that line of work in reality. I was thinking more along the example of “The Office” in comparing a familial workplace that is entertaining on TV but would be horrifying in reality. :)

    1. NotAnotherManager!

      +1 and I wish more people got this reference!

      (Also, my family of origin is incredibly dysfunctional, and one of them is all I can stand.)

      1. voyager1

        Crap I don’t remember that quote from Mad Men, and I have seen that show way too many times. Does sound like something he would say… or Roger Sterling.

  2. ragazza

    “We’re being paid to be there, and most of us wouldn’t show up otherwise.” Word. Wish more employers understood this and didn’t expect us to act like work is the best part of our lives. Most of us do it because we have to.

    1. Amber Rose

      My boss gets so bitter when 4:30 rolls around and everyone leaves on time. He’d never expect anyone to stay late or approve overtime, but he makes these snide little comments about how we rush for the door at the end of the day.

      I mean, yeah we do. Rush hour traffic sucks and most of us would much rather be at home or doing something else. That’s normal.

      1. Snark

        Man, screw that guy. Yeah, dude, we head for the door when we’re done working. What do you want, a little group hanging out and talking because they just can’t drag themselves out? Nah.

        1. Lissa

          Honestly, this is a frequent occurrence at my job. I work at a restaurant with a lot of people aged 18-30, and a lot of us stick around to get a meal, drink some coffee, and socialize with our coworkers before going home. I recognize that this is a restaurant culture thing and not universal to all workplaces, but I would be pretty suffocated in a place where everyone wanted to get home immediately and there’s a level where I identify with this guy. Granted, he’s still an arse for being bitter about it.

      2. Maddie

        He’s an jerk for that. Your work day has finished, and it’s ok to want to leave. Does he expect you to stay and socialize?

        1. Doug Judy

          I hate when people who leave on time (especially hourly employees) get chastised for it. I got my work done, limited my distractions and am done for the day. I’m not going to stretch out my work to look busier just to appear more dedicated. And the people who were regularly staying late had to because the had poor time management and spent the day chatting or on other non work related tasks. Not because they were a much harder worker than I was.

          1. AnitaJ

            I feel the same way. While there are often extenuating circumstances, I truly believe that in an average job, you should be able to get through your work in the alloted timeframe (40 hours a week, 50 hours a week, whatever is realistic for your position). If you can’t, you should take a look at your time management skills AND the demands of the position, because something needs to change. Unless you want to be there for that long, then hey, knock yourself out.

            I was always annoyed by my fellow hourly employees clocking 5+ hours of OT when I was clocking none and I actually had more work than them. Reach out for help if you need it! Don’t be a martyr! (I’m grumpy today)

            1. Doug Judy

              I had a coworker who always said that! Even though I came into work at 7:30 and she didn’t come until later. I always said we had a flexible schedule, if she came into work when I did she could “leave early” too.

            2. General Ginger

              That’s just the worst. Yes, Co-irker, I got in an hour early so I get to leave an hour early; it is, in fact, nice, and nobody is stopping you from doing the same.

          2. Bears Beets Battlestar

            Yes, this! Teachers especially are seen as more dedicated the later they stay. I work hard during the day so I can have family time after school rather than sitting around chatting with other teachers about how much work we have to do and staying even later.

            1. Annie Moose

              Ha, my brother (a teacher) has a coworker like this. Wastes enormous amounts of time and then stays at the school until 8 or 9 PM, then lords it over everyone else how busy she is and how much time she puts in.

              No, Helen, you’re just bad at time management and have no life.

      3. Detective Amy Santiago

        When I was in Toxic OldJob, we worked a ton of overtime just to stay afloat with our workloads. The official hours for the position were 9am to 6pm, but we were usually there by 8 and stayed until 7 or 8 and routinely took 15-30 minute lunch breaks instead of the full hour we were supposed to take.

        One day, all four of us had stuff going on after work and when 6pm rolled around, we all stood up and gathered our belongings. Our manager actually had the gall to say something about us leaving on time.

      4. loslothluin

        My boss said I’d run him over to get out on time. I said that, had he not gotten me out of my car in the parking lot, this wouldn’t be an issue (especially considering I get here we’ll before 8 am.)

    2. Temporarily anon

      So try. I’m lucky to actually like my job, and there are probably aspects of it I’d do on my own if I didn’t get paid. But I would not fill out a timesheet, complete an annual performance review, sit on committees, etc. You can like your job, but it is always going to be work.

    3. Dr. Doll

      I have to admit I was a bit annoyed by two previous (thankfully gone) team members who would leave at 10 minutes to the hour so they could be driving out of the parking lot on the hour. They already had special flex schedules to ease the traffic issue, they were hard to get work out of, they didn’t come in 10 minutes early, ever, and they would never ever stay late or volunteer for anything. The other person with a similar schedule and standing in the department worked like an ox. Their daily leaving early was a speck of sand in my oyster and I was relieved when they quit if only for that reason.

      So I get feeling a tad bummed when there’s a sudden rush for the door. But I don’t scold people for it.

  3. bunniferous

    I think it really really depends on the workplace. Mine is like family in a good way-but then we have healthy boundaries to go with it. That is probably the key. I have experienced the other kind and know how dysfunctional that can be.

    1. Bea

      I come from a healthy family unit. My parents aren’t meddlesome and respect me as a capable adult.

      My old job was the same 8 guys the entire decade we worked together. We were like family in that we could fight but still just go “sigh. Whatever, over it ” or when a bird got murdered by my car front grill, one of them cleaned up the mess because dead things, ick.

      1. Bea

        I cut off my first thought here. Due to my healthy family unit, I’ve developed a low tolerance for those who piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. I disown/fire people in my own family, I don’t give AF. so thinking I’ll deal with dysfunction when it’s under the cloak of “we’re like family!!” is laughable to me.

        1. Magenta Sky

          Yeah. “We’re like family” is a possible red flag because everybody knows how violently dysfunctional families can be.

          And yeah, it’s just as bad to put up with that sort of abusive behavior from *actual* family as it is from an employer.

        2. Treecat

          This resonates. My immediate family is pretty functional–my parents respect me as an adult, we have good boundaries, and we all treat each other with kindness (none of this, “we’re blood relatives so you have to love me even if I’m horrible!” attitude which seems distressingly common). I’ve found that, as a result, my tolerance for dysfunctional dynamics in any context is WAY WAY lower than all of my friends who come from messed up families. My impression is that it’s a combination of the assumption that dysfunction is normal (if you grow up in it, it is!) and the fact that abusive and/or narcissistic parents tend to instill in their children that things like boundaries and opinions just aren’t things they get to have. Getting out of those habits and mindsets as an adult is a lot of work.

          1. Bea

            My mom disowned her brother for being racist. So I’ve never subscribed to the nonsense that people throw out there and end with “but it’s family so whadda you gonna do?”.

            I’ll go the distance for my loved ones and would do a helluva lot of stuff people here frown upon for a co-worker. You need a ride to the airport or an after surgery ride? I’m there. Unless you’re a jerkwad, then you can get an uber straight to hell!

            1. Magenta Sky

              The only sensible response to “You have to put up with Auntie Psycho being a jerk because she’s family” is “Then you have to put up with me being a jerk because I’m family, unless you’re willing to admit this has nothing to do with family, and you’re just taking sides.”

              Double standards just piss me off.

      2. Mr. Cajun2core

        Sounds like a wonderful place to work. Very great of your co-worker to clean off your car for you.

        1. Bea

          I was so grateful. He wouldn’t let me pay him, so I got him lunch. Just like if it were my brother or cousin.

    2. Yeah, no

      I’ve only had one workplace where we all felt like family and it truly worked well. I worked there 6 years ago and to this day those people are still my nearest and dearest. I realize that’s not the norm though, so I must have been exceptionally lucky.

    1. starsaphire

      Agreed; it’s a special kind of shorthand. Rather like the “you understood” subject of a sentence that reads “Go get a chair.”

      One simply assumes the phrase “dysfunctional, problematic, and potentially toxic” that falls between “We’re just like a” and “family here.”

    2. Liza

      My thoughts exactly. My first (and highly toxic) job used the family dynamic to compensate for the fact that the owners of the company were stingy and unethical (and in some cases illegal). The manager(s) had to find some way of getting us all to band together in the face of adversity in order to prevent staff turnover. It worked, and we all pushed ourselves to ridiculous ends, not for the business or the money but because we didn’t want to let our work family down! But the consequences were that people were reluctant to take time off, stayed in jobs that made them miserable, and nobody ever just moved on in a healthy and sensible way – either they vanished without notice following an explosive row or gross misconduct, or they suffered horrendous medical issues as a result of the job and got signed off sick never to be seen again. I was one of the latter. I’m doing better now, but I could fill a whole thread with stories from that place.

  4. Ulf

    I have to smile whenever I hear someone say this about a workplace.

    Here’s why. I taught for a spell at a small independent elementary school. I had a very enthusiastic young woman as a fellow teacher for a while. She was a terrific person and an excellent teacher, but it’s fair to say that boundaries were not what she did best… When she got pregnant with her first child, she announced it breathlessly at a faculty meeting, and then gave us blow by blow accounts each week of how she was doing, always verging on TMI territory. Well, whatever…none of it really bothered me and it was possible to tune it out if necessary, and who wants to quash her enthusiasm over a new baby anyway?

    Then the baby arrived. And she went out on maternity leave. But she came back six weeks later to a faculty meeting to show off the baby and to tell us all about her birth-giving experiences. “Here are some pictures of the delivery!” she said with characteristic excitement, showing us the beginnings of a slide show. “They’re a little bit PG-rated. But that’s okay, right? Anyway–we’re all family here!”

    Let’s just say that the pictures in that slide show were NOT PG rated or anything resembling PG rated. I did not need to see pictures of those particular body parts of hers, under any circumstances whatsoever. Yes, miracle of birth and all that, yes, we’re all “family” here. But I don’t even need to see pictures like that of my OWN family, thanks.

    And to paraphrase what Martha said to George, “being [family] is nice. Still, there is such a thing as privacy.”

    “We’re all family here” became a little bit of a catchphrase for the rest of the year among the faculty, especially among the few of us who were male.

      1. Specialk9

        My friend’s mom made albums for each kid that started with pictures of her bloody vagina and their birthing heads. I was not expecting that when I agreed to look at my friend’s baby pictures.

    1. Meena

      OH MY GOD. I would definitely have said something, and I would have gotten up and walked out. Politely, but definitely. I have gotten much more strong-willed as I get older. I never want to see that from anyone.

    2. Genny

      This story is horrifying, but at least in my mind I could picture a room full of women, and that made it one teensy, tiny bit better (not that we want to see that kind of thing either, but at least it avoids some of the mixed-gender awkwardness). Then I got to your last line. Excuse as I go find a corner to weep in and ask the universe WHHHHHYYYYYYYY????????.

    3. Les G

      NOPE. She should meet my wife’s coworker who trained as a doula and volunteered to assist the births of any and all pregnant coworkers. My wife doesn’t even want *me* (y’know, her literal family) in the room with her, so that coworker is going to be politely but firmly begged off with the quickness.

    4. Lily Rowan

      AHAHAHA! One of my first bosses showed me alllll of her birth photos, including one of her baby half born. I am still traumatized, and that kid is a grown-up now.

      I think I might have been her first direct report, so neither one of us was that good at boundaries.

    5. Hills to Die on

      I seruously do not understand the compulsion to do this. My SIL played the birth video at her daughter’s first birthday party. For all 60-ish family and friends. Nobody would watch it and they all left the room. Nobody wants to see that. I didn’t even look when my own kids were being born.

      1. Blue

        How did she react when everyone cleared the room? (I would’ve been right there with you, btw. Why???)

    6. Emma the Strange

      Hell, I wouldn’t want to see those kind of photos from my own family members, much less a co-worker. And I’m female.

        1. CMFDF

          Our doula took pictures, but nothing at all until baby was born, and nothing where you could see anything, uh, not at its best, and I still feel weird showing people those pictures because the baby is still a little bloody, and who wants to see that?!

    7. Bacon Pancakes

      This is my mom (but at least she is ACTUALLY FAMILY) with my sister’s first born.
      “But I put a sticker over the graphic…bits!”
      My mom was called an hour AFTER my first born came and there was a strict NO CAMERAS policy.

    8. General Ginger

      Oh my gods. I would not have been able to sit through that. I don’t know if I would have been able to say something gracefully in the moment; probably not. But I would have walked out.

    9. Liane

      When pregnant I was happy to show off sonograms to those who swore they wanted to see.
      BUT I didn’t want any childbirth pictures–because ick–& was very careful to make it extremely clear ahead of time there were to be none. I am pretty sure I overshared this desire, and there was some TMI in my descriptions of what I would do anyone who even thought about photographing me giving birth.

    10. SheLooksFamiliar

      I was at my sister’s house for a cookout or something. After the friends and neighbors left, my BIL casually slipped a cassette into the VCR, saying ‘this is just for the family.’ It was a recording of my then 1-year-old nephew’s birth. Via C-section. From beginning to the very end. With close-ups of organs and body parts I own, but never intended to see in that condition.

      Yeah, they really overestimated my curiosity about the miracle of birth. It’s been 24 years, and I still can’t get some of that footage out of my head. No one’s going to rope me into that again, family or not.

    11. mark132

      I was there with my wife for the birth’s of all my children (c-section) and I assure you, I took ZERO pictures of the process. (actually watching the c-section was interesting, more so for the kids after the first when I was less terrified by the whole process).

    1. London Calling

      ‘So, on a siding scale of Walton to Manson, where would you say this company falls?’

      1. Emmaborina

        Yep, my first reaction to the statement “we’re like family here” is “Yes, the Manson family”.

  5. DCGirl

    There once was a cartoon in The Chronicle of Philanthropy with a caption that read something like, “I consider the board members as family. Dysfunctional, manipulative, and co-dependent, but family nonetheless.” I had it tacked up to various bulletin boards until it finally disintegrated from age. I think of that when ever I hear a workplace referred to as family.

    1. Rusty Shackelford

      And I’m reminded of one of Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, where the main character teams up with someone “who I trusted as a brother… which is to say, not at all.”

    2. Smith

      I used to have a boss and when I’d get questions about her personality, I’d say that she reminded me of my grandmother. It really was not a compliment…

    3. Damn it, Hardison!

      There’s an episode of Parks and Rec where the amazing Donna Meagle takes part in an intervention for her boss, Ron Swanson: “I love you like a brother. But right now I hate you. Like my actual brother, Lavondrious. Who I hate!”

  6. Bea

    We don’t use that phrase but many people we’ve interviewed have used it when we ask the question “So what about our company makes you want to work here?” respond with “you seem like a family, I like that!”. It makes me bristle a bit inside given the negativity others apply to it but it’s the cross you carry as a small operation.

  7. Ms. Mad Scientist

    Ugh. My employer (2000ish employees, 200 year old nonprofit) was recently acquired by a larger company, and they’ve ramped up the family talk. It’s making my stomach turn.

    1. Specialk9

      When you get acquired, you just have to disengage a bit and do that sociologist taking notes thing. A lot of crap goes flying.

  8. Hey Karma, Over here.

    Work should be like a team, not a family. Which is what I like about (most of) my coworkers; an attitude of mutual respect. Yes, you share a location, interests and goals, but you are a team not a family. You show your better self at work, not always best, but always trying.
    With family, you don’t always have to try. You can say, nope, not today. I’ll call you in a couple days and we can try that.
    I think that’s why family and friend references are issues with resumes, because you really aren’t accountable.

  9. KHB

    I think in the most dysfunctional cases, it goes beyond “we expect you to be loyal to us even though we won’t necessarily be loyal to you in return” to something like “we expect you to be loyal to us without even having to be told what ‘loyalty’ looks like.”

    I’ll never forget a job interview I once had where I was asked a question about what I’d do if a work task conflicted with a personal commitment. The question wasn’t “Would you prioritize work over your personal life?” – it was just assumed that I would – but rather how I would go about doing that.

    There was nothing in the job description or in the interview so far to suggest that being on call 24/7 was a formal requirement of the position. The hiring manager didn’t appeal to the “we’re a family” idea (although maybe he would have once I’d started working there), but he really did seem to think that he could command absolute loyalty from his employees through, I don’t know, his magnetic personality or something. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to challenge him to be more explicit about what he was actually asking of me, and under what circumstances, if any, I’d be allowed to carve out time for myself.

      1. KHB

        It took a while for the question to really register with me, so I kept trying to come up with solutions that would allow me to get the work task done and still meet the personal commitment. By the time I understood what he was really asking, I think I’d already lost the job. In retrospect, I dodged a bullet.

    1. Indie

      It’s like an ego thing? I’m such an awesome boss you quake at my power and throw all loved ones under the bus.

      Or something.

  10. Valegro

    Oh yes, this has been my experience at the last two small businesses I worked at. One went as far as requiring we chip in for birthday and Christmas gifts for the owner. It was seen as a HUGE betrayal when I left for better jobs.

  11. Meena

    This quote “work is like family” has always made me cringe. I come from a dysfunctional, abusive family. I don’t think that’s what you want me to think of!

    1. What? Like it's hard?

      Exactly! Whenever my work brings up the fact that we’re a giant “family”, I want to say “I don’t like mine. What makes you think I want to like this one?”

      ExJob was a great team. Yes, we had our little spats and personality conflicts because it’s a high stress environment but we all accepted each other’s idiosyncrasies, moved on from disputes, and were supportive of each other. Funny enough, I never heard the word “family” uttered in ExJob.

      CurrentJob? Zero support, everyone’s willing to back stab and gossip about each other, and the decades-long grudges. Wait. I guess it is like a family after all, but not the good fuzzy feeling kind.

    2. anon for today

      I’m the reverse and so is my long term coworker, we have a tightknit family with 6 and 5 siblings respectively.
      We got a new person who was “so excited to meet everyone because work is like your other family.” and we both blurted out out, no thanks! we have enough!
      Our boss said, “you don’t want to be treated like family. haha.”
      New coworker took the hint and has since dropped it, but is also the one to be so unprofessional that her cube mate went to HR to get herself moved and has numerous complaints to our boss stating that she is evil.
      And has weekly, “I’m not talking to this relative” phone calls with other relatives. So yeah, people who want to be family at work are weird.

  12. BBBizAnalyst

    I consider myself lucky to work with a team I genuinely like but don’t have to hang out with. We all have friends and hobbies outside of work and respect each other’s boundaries. I’ve worked at other places where it felt like people’s only social circles were the ones they created in the office and it was really uncomfortable.

    I would be immediately put off by a “family” environment. I suppose it’s different if you’re new to the workforce (our intern loves to invite us to happy hour) but I’ve been in this game for nearly a decade. It’s a good thing to have a clear line between work and personal.

    1. What? Like it's hard?

      Yes! You can always tell which workplaces have people who don’t have friends and hobbies outside of work because I find the people to be the most miserable and they show up to work to create drama just to have some excitement in their lives.

      1. Not A Morning Person

        Not necessarily about drama.. New job, new town, no contacts. Where do you get you hair done? Who has a pediatrician you like? What’s the most reliable dry cleaner in town?

  13. Berry

    Earlier this year I got an offer from a company, the day after the only interview I had with them. I realized that I had not had a chance to ask about work/life balance in the interview at all and asked the hiring manager about it on a call going over the offer. She immediately went from “you’re our top candidate” to repeatedly telling me that the office (small, around 10 people) was “like a family” and acting very withdrawn. She ended up pulling the offer telling me that it seemed like I “needed more structure.”

    It sucked at the time to get an offer pulled, but man do I feel like I dodged a bullet.

    1. The New Wanderer

      “If you’re going to question how we do things (by asking an actual reasonable question), then you aren’t part of the family!”

      Definitely dodged a bullet!

    2. Bea

      Omg this sounds like the place that took back an offer after my partner made the “mistake” of not “sounding excited enough” over the job. Bullet dodged indeed. All they had to say was “we work long hours” or “we work long hours during rush but not during off season” or “we have standard bsbs hours and we’re all home for dinner and peewee baseball!”. Jeez.

    3. General Ginger

      Real family wouldn’t have asked these kinds of questions, Berry! Absolutely bullet dodged.

  14. The Doctor

    I must disagree with Alison’s statement that “it’s not generally a deliberate strategy.” The very fact that it’s being done at all means that it IS deliberate.

    1. Anonym

      People aren’t usually that self-aware. Barely at all, when it comes to things like the way they characterize and attach value to something as abstract as a work culture.

      1. Squeeble

        Yeah, I think most people have good intentions with the phrase but haven’t thought through the implications.

  15. sharon g

    I don’t mind companies saying “we’re like family” as long as they realize I don’t like half of my family. I should be able to like some of them, and tell some to take a long walk off of a short pier.

  16. jazzytupes

    I used to work for a small business, and the owner would always use the “we’re family” line. Then her husband the bookkeeper gave me and another colleague the silent treatment for weeks after we disagreed about something. After I left, I heard through the grapevine that they had disowned one of their sons because he dropped out of school to pursue a different career path. So, yeah. Family. Yikes.

  17. Luke

    Just my perspective, but “like a family” is a phrase which should be struck from business vocabulary . Not everyone’s family is a positive point of comparison.

  18. UtOh!

    My manager just said last week that “we are a family”, and I threw up in my mouth a little. We are NOT a family, we are employees who were hired to do a job. I want to come to work and do my job without feeling like I have to have a personal relationship with everyone, even though I spend more time with my coworkers than my actual family, *that* is sad. I treat everyone with respect but don’t feel am treated the same by some of my coworkers who subscribe to the “family” culture.

  19. RES ADMIN

    Personally, I generally avoid my family (for reasons) so telling me that work is like family probably isn’t a good idea! If anything, I am far more likely to make work a priority than family–except for my spouse. ;p

  20. MassMatt

    Never worked for “we’re like a family” employer, had an interview at such a place many years ago, there were many warning signs that rang some alarm bells, I’m glad I paid attention and didn’t pursue it. Surprised that several commenters have had positive “family” experiences, given the number of times it comes up from letter writers—including actual family businesses!

    I did work at a small business where the two owners had previously been lovers and had broken up. It was not as amicable as they seemed to think. I could deal with the awkwardness of their sniping at each other in meetings, etc, but they each gave contradictory instructions and had different expectations, and would not listen or communicate with each other. It was a no win situation, I increased revenue by over 50% year on year and yet wound up getting fired.

    1. J.B.

      My husband once said about our mutual employer – we know dysfunction, and this is dysfunction!

    2. Bea

      I’ve only worked with family owned businesses. But the children were never involved much except for summers. Wives had their own job’s and only peeked in when they were checking on something specific.

      I had one brutal experience with a place I left after three days of training because of an unhinged woman who was co-owner.

      I also enjoy working with friends and family though, that’s the rub. But I surround myself by folks with strong work ethic and no interest in drama or authority issues. I supervised my partner for awhile, he wasn’t bothered. He was going to be told what to do by someone, may as well be me.

  21. Peacemaker

    My only problem is with the statement made by Reed Hastings that Alison seemed to approve: “Adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” Another way of saying that is that they aren’t clear about expectations. If adequate performance is inadequate, then they need to make that clear and re-establish expectations so that employees have a better understanding of what is really acceptable performance. It’s a cute line, but doesn’t really work if you give it more than cursory attention.

    1. SarahKay

      Yes, I thought that myself.
      Not to mention, what’s wrong with adequate? Not everyone can be a superstar and in any medium-sized or larger company I’d say there’s a definite place for people that show up on time, do an adequate job, and go home; no muss, no fuss, no drama.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      My read of that is that he’s saying is you do the bare minimum and don’t look for ways to improve and grow and get better and better at what you do, you’re not the person they want on their team. I don’t think that’s unreasonable as long as they make that clear up-front.

    3. The New Wanderer

      It’s fine if what you think you need is a team of only superstars. That generally doesn’t work out long term for several reasons:

      First, if everyone is always looking to get ahead, make improvements, etc, they are more than likely going to be competing with each other for resources, promotions, and attention. That tends to lead people to hoard their knowledge and resources so that they have something unique. Competition, not cooperation.

      Second, if there have to be cuts, who gets cut? The manager might be stuck doing a forced ranking of some kind if it’s based on skills and cutting someone based on them making that one mistake or not being as much of a genius as the others.

      Third, if everyone is so awesome, at least a few aren’t going to put up with being on a highly competitive team where even good performance is seen as not good enough and only repeated brilliance is good. And, being awesome, they probably won’t have any difficulty finding something else.

      Ask me how I know…

      1. Gazebo Slayer

        Yup. And if the bar for “brilliance” just keeps getting raised higher and higher, people are going to burn out – especially if the primary “reward” for brilliance is more work and higher expectations.

    4. mark132

      If you read about it, what they are looking for is rockstars at Netflix. They are also looking to bring talent in burn it up and move on to someone new. They have their culture slide show that explains it. It is intriguing, but definitely highlights the work isn’t a family thing, which Netflix very specifically says as well.

    5. AcademiaNut

      This is a viable strategy if you’re a top employer with name recognition and high salaries. You hire a bunch of people, keep the superstars, let the merely competent go, and hire more people from the long list of very qualified people who are panting to work for you. The people you fired can then move on to decent, less stressful jobs, because everyone in the field knows what your previous employer was like, and that being fired by them is not a warning sign.

      The reality for most employers is that you’ll get a few superstars, a whole bunch of people who are decent employees but not spectacular, and a handful of people who aren’t very good at their job (or have difficult personalities). The last category should be dealt with but if you fire decent employees hoping to stock up on superstars, you’ll end up with a jittery workforce frantically trying to move on before they hit the chopping block, and bad glassdoor reviews. Then your superstars will leave for places with a better atmosphere and more pay.

  22. Zaphod Beeblebrox

    “Employers aren’t out there rubbing their hands together and cackling evilly about how they’ll pull one over on people.”

    Oldboss (Mr I SAY NO) would do just this. He’d delight in arriving at your desk just as you’d switched the computer off to ask you a question, and insist that you logged back on to get him the answer. Or wait until one of the drivers finished their run and came back to the depot to finish off, only to tell them they had more work to do – all with a smile on his face.

    1. Dr Wizard, PhD

      This reminds me of the person who came to the store I worked in to trade in 100 DVDs thirty minutes before closing. On Christmas Eve.

      Who started joking (after we’d already blown past our closing time and the doors were closed) how he’d end up keeping us here all night handling his trade-in.

      I think the manager was this close to cancelling it all and throwing him out. Wish he had done.

      (We figured he really needed the money for booze, but that may just have been uncharitable speculation.)

  23. INeedANap

    I worked at a small, family-owned medical office where they used this phrase. They gave too-extravagant gifts for basically every holiday (not expensive, but more than a simple gift card), and it seemed to work on this uncomfortable dynamic of “We gave you nice presents you didn’t ask for and now you owe us family-level dedication”. It came to a head when I put in two weeks notice due to the death of an ACTUAL family member making a need for family elder care more important which I was helping to fill. The owner was furious that I didn’t give more notice and thought they “deserved” better. Note, the amount of notice needed was never previously discussed, and two weeks is industry standard. The owner’s obvious anger and entitlement in the face of pressing actual family issues has forever cemented this phrase as manipulative in my mind.

    1. Meißner Porcelain Teapot

      @INeedANap: What you describe above is actually trademark method of emotional manipulation and abuse called “loan sharking” – someone offers unsolicited advice/gifts, won’t take no for an answer, and then later expects you to pay them back because now you “owe” them. It preys on our inherent tendencies and wishes to fullfill the social contract, “they gave me something, so now it would be rude to not give something back”, except a contract is not valid until both sides have signed. The trick is to remind yourself that you didn’t sign readily and happily in the first place. You accepted despite realizing even back then that something was wrong because of pressure to be nice/not rock the boat.

    2. Bea

      This is why I’m a savage who gives gifts back when a relationship explodes. I boxed up everything a former friend gave me and handed it to them. “This isn’t working out, I hope you have a good life. Bye.”

      So here I would give them their OTT gifts back when they went so sideways. It’s an abuse technique as stated above.

  24. bluephone

    “We’re like a family!” pops up a lot in the Babysitters Club books which isn’t all that surprising because the club was run like a dysfunctional company. I was reading a Livejournal recap of a BSC book where, after the narrator trots out the “we’re just like a family!” line, the recapper ran with it:
    “we laugh like a family! we fight like a family! Someone’s getting reported to DHS… like a family!!”
    Years later, and I still think “and someone’s getting reported to DHS… like a family!” whenever I hear a workplace compare themselves to FAAAAAAAAMILY.

    1. EmilyAnn

      I love it! The fact that it was called a “club” when it was actually a business should have been a clue!

      1. General Ginger

        Come to think of it, I don’t recall any of the Club members filing their taxes. Or maybe I just never read far enough.

  25. T

    Yes this advice is so spot on. The last two jobs I had that threw this catch phrase around were pretty dysfunctional. At the worst job they really were family. My boss was engaged to the CEO who had multiple members of his family working there as executives. There were no boundaries and my boss went on a huge power trip screaming at people and just generally behaving like a horrible person. There was no recourse because it was job suicide to complain about the CEOs fiance.

  26. Foreign Octopus

    I actually saw this on The Guardian instead of here first! I don’t think that’s ever happened before (just fyi if you didn’t know Alison but there’s an article based off your one there).

    I’m always a little suspicious when people say their colleagues are like their family. It makes me wonder about their work-life balance.

    As for me, I’ve always kept the boundary very strict. I don’t know if it’s because of my age (28) but work is work and fun is fun. Mixing the two has always seemed like a horrible, horrible idea to me.

  27. Payroll Lady

    I currently work for a mid-sized family owned business, so the “we’re like a family” is actually pretty true here. “Regular” employees are treated no differently than actual family employees. We are a 24/7/365 business, however they do not expect ANYONE in the office to work late. I actually end up working late 1 day a week since we have almost tripled in 5 years, and they offer every week to by me dinner (they already pay for our breakfast and lunch). However, we don’t do happy hours, there are no after hours “mandatory” picnics or parties. (But they do throw one heck of a Holiday Party, picture NJ Wedding) Any employee trying to get into our company, has stated, I’ve heard it’s such a great company to work for! It actually is, and I think the one time, that the family comment works!

    1. LCL

      My partner was fortunate to work for such a company, when he was just starting his career. He realized how unusual this was.

  28. The Hobbit

    My current job in the Shire has gone through a lot of changes lately, and one of them was that the old HR lady retired. She used to tell us all to view her as a mother figure. Lady, I already have a mother, and I DO NOT want a second one at work (old Mrs Hobbit is… er, difficult).

    As soon as she retired and we built a new structure from scratch, with her duties being split here and there, the whole ‘we’re family’ thing was gone and it’s so much better to work here. It’s only after it changes that one sees how weird a dynamic the family idea creates.

      1. The Hobbit

        I’m afraid she would try. She’s not a horrible person, don’t get me wrong, but she has major boundary issues. x.x

  29. Bacon Pancakes

    The person in our office with the least amount of boundaries and the highest amount of conflict is the loudest person to shout “but we’re faaaaaaaaaamily“.
    Thank goodness she is only a seasonal employee! Unfortunately, that season starts up again soon.
    *rushes to re-read all of Allison’s advice on personal boundaries and politely saying no to hugs*

    1. Argh!

      I supervise a boundary-buster who supervises people who like having boundaries. Does that make me Grandma of this snakepit?

  30. Granny K

    Saying a company is ‘like family’ assumes people like their family. I’ve been in therapy for years because of my nuclear family. If someone said that to me now, I’d probably run out of the interview.

    Personally, I’m looking for a place of work where people are professional, friendly and know how to communicate. And they can acknowledge this job isn’t my entire life.

  31. AnotherSarah

    My old academic department used “we’re like a family business” as a reason the students shouldn’t unionize. Coming from a family that has a dysfunctional family business, this was not a comforting statement.

  32. Parcae

    From the TV show Sports Night:

    Isaac: I think the show’s going to hell in a handbasket and I’m ready to fire the whole bunch of you.
    Dana: Yes, but you won’t, ’cause we’re all like family here and I’m very much like a daughter to you.
    Isaac: No. This is a television show here and you’re very much like an employee to me.

  33. EmilyAnn

    I come from a good family, which I think has a lot to do with how I think of this. I don’t believe in anything being “like family”.

    There is my family I was born into and the people connected to my family by adoption or marriage who are family. That’s it. My friends are important, special, and important parts of my life. They are not “like family”. I am very good friends with co-workers and I kick in for life events and care about them deeply. We’re not “like a family”. Lines exist to keep boundaries where they need to be.

    1. Bacon Pancakes

      +1 to this. I have friends who have their “like sisters” friends and I just…. can’t.

      1. Foreign Octopus

        + 1 – this.

        I’ve had a couple of friends who’ve referred to me as “like a sister” and I’ve just sort of pulled back on those friendships to redraw the boundaries. I need to have a clear line and if I’m getting itchy at it in my personal life then when the lines are crossed in my work life, it’s 1000 times worse.

        I might actually start looking for another job if someone at work called me “like a sister” or “like a daughter” because it would suggest a slight dysfunction I’d overlooked.

        On another note, I did have a student recently tell me that she loved me :) She meant to say that she loved our lessons but got herself tangled up in English and accidentally professed her love. It made me smile simply because it was a mistake. If she’d meant it…different kettle of fish entirely.

    2. Foreign Octopus

      Oo, I’m glad you mentioned the friends not being like family.

      That’s a line I have drawn very clearly in the sand that people keep trying to step over.

      My mother is the worst at it. I was discussing a problem I was having with my older brother where we’d had quite a heated disagreement over his treatment of me and mum suggested that I take my friend Hermione with me as a mediator and I instantly balked at it because it was a family matter. She said that Hermione was like family and I was very much – “no, no she isn’t; she’s a friend, one I love very much, but family matters are family matters and need to be dealt with internally.”

      For me, family is a place I can retreat to where I can be myself. They’ve seen me grow up, seen all my stupidities and mistakes, and seen my triumphs as well. I know that I can contact any member of my family and ask for help and I’ll get it unquestioningly.

      I imagine if I tried to do that at work, the results would be quite damaging.

  34. mcr-red

    I have coworkers that I consider friends. I have coworkers that I like, but don’t think about much more than that – “There’s Bob, he’s a good guy.” I have coworkers that I don’t like, but don’t think about much more than that – “There’s Bob, he’s an annoying blowhard.” I have coworkers that I LOATHE. I have coworkers that I don’t think I could identify in a line-up.

    If we’re a family, we’re like an extended family that you see at family reunions and maybe at Christmas.

  35. Michael Scott

    … why are you the way that you are? Honestly, every time I try to do something fun or exciting you make it… not that way. I hate so much about the things you choose to be.

    1. Dame Judi Brunch

      Toby is in HR, which means he technically works for corporate, so he’s really not part of our family. Also, he’s divorced, so he’s not really a part of his family.

  36. Chaordic One

    I wish I could find the letter, but some time ago there was one from a man who worked at a big well-known corporation (maybe IBM) and he said that while the culture was conservative, a bit formal and required formal dress, he liked it because if you could fit within their culture and norms, they were really quite fair in how they evaluated and treated their employees. Some times a bit of formality is a good thing and it prevents some of those TMI and too personal kinds of things from happening. It is work after all.

  37. Mrs. Fenris

    My old job has a listing right now. It has a long, wordy description of the company and the area plus “X isn’t just a place to work. It is a family.”

    Oh yeah, you got that right. Along with all the grudges, sibling rivalry, entrenched dynamics, and drama. (But it was the most fun place I’ve ever worked, and just like family I truly miss them.)

  38. Empty Sky

    I was guilty of adopting this mindset a bit when I started out as a manager, more as an aspirational idea of how I hoped to treat my employees than expecting extra things out of them (or so I like to think).

    It didn’t take me too long to realize that (a) it wasn’t true and (b) if I let my employees think that it was, I would be doing them a disservice. To give just one example, families don’t tend to cast out the members they can most afford to do without when times get tough. Since then I have changed my expectations and tried to create an environment that has some of the characteristics of family, but within an appropriate context. So for example I try not to ask more than is reasonable of people, or make promises (either explicit or implicit) if I’m not sure that senior management will back me up on them.

    1. The Hobbit

      Now I’m imagining the family sitting around the dinner table. Father sighs.
      “Billy, I’m sorry, but… we’re gonna have to let you go”.
      “What?”
      “It’s not personal, it’s an executive decision your mother and I felt compelled to make. See, Jane has a job and helps with expenses. Maggie is not working, but she’s still in school and pulls her weight by taking up chores around the house. You… haven’t really been contributing, so we’ll have to let you go, since we can’t afford the three of you anymore. You have two weeks notice starting now”.
      “Mom?”
      “I’m sorry, Billy. We’ll give you a good reference for your future family”

      Tough in a more serious note the not making promises if you’re not sure you’ll be able to keep them in general is a healthy mindset for every segment in life, including family. It just prevents so much drama.

  39. Penelope

    I’ve worked in enough family businesses from scooter shops to Michelin-star restaurants to know that I will never, ever, ever work in another family business. They are bastions of unhealthy relationships, passive-aggressive crap, revenge firing, vindictive decisions, and lack of communication. Thank you, no thank you. If a job posting says, “our team isn’t just a coworkers, we’re family!” I run far and fast.

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