my business partners won’t fire their problematic family members

A reader writes:

Our company has three partners: me, Lou (my husband), and Sarah (our best friend). Lou’s sister, Leah, and Sarah’s younger brother, Bobby, have worked here for over 10 years and basically feel untouchable and do as they please. Leah has made some effort to correct her actions and she primarily works with Lou so she’s less of an issue.

Bobby, on the other hand, has a history which has been documented and discussed with him numerous times. For example, it is now crunch time in our industry so while everyone else is working hard as a team, Bobby continues to make his own schedule, doesn’t follow the rules, and frustrates everyone around him. He knows that Sarah will always take care of him as she has been doing all her life. Sarah has always employed Bobby after he failed out of college. Bobby is now 49 and Sarah is 56 and the oldest sibling.

I’m the partner who other employees come to with numerous complaints about both Leah and Bobby, but especially Bobby.

We have documented issues, had numerous conversations with Bobby, given chances, but after a short time of improvement, he returns to the poor behavior.

There are grounds for firing both of them, although Leah is a couple years from retiring so I think we’re riding out that one. However, Bobby continues to take advantage of us and acts like he’s untouchable, because he has been. Even with numerous reprimands and changes (we’ve changed his job numerous times,) the end result is he’s lazy, unaccountable for his actions, and disappears while other employees notice.

Unfortunately there is a long family history with Sarah and Bobby, and she’s at her wit’s end on how to handle him.

We’ve hit a wall and I’m afraid we’re going to lose Bobby’s frustrated manager, Jackson. Jackson is doing a great job, but has no control over the situation. Jackson and as other team members have reached out in confidence to me about Bobby numerous times and we have weekly meetings with Jackson to discuss progress. But nothing happens in spite of me telling my partners that we need to do something firm and act responsibly.

We are a 10 million dollar company that the three of us have built from the ground up. 20 years into this, we’re all very close. Sarah and Lou are in a tough spot since it’s their siblings. I’ve put myself in their position and empathize greatly, but business is business.

I recognize this is a difficult situation, but think it’s greatly affecting our team right now and we all have to be on top of our game. I’ve been frank and honest with them both, but nothing I say sinks in.

Ultimately this comes down to whether the three of you, as partners, are willing to fire family members.

If Sarah absolutely will not budge on firing Bobby, no matter what he does, then you and Lou need to decide if you’re going to force the issue or not. Are you able to overrule her? Are you willing to overrule her? It sounds like that’s what it’s going to come down to.

Ideally, the three of you would sit down and hash out the reality of the situation. Is the business’s decision that siblings of partners are so protected that they’re not accountable and can’t be let go? Right now, that’s the way it’s working. Is the business — meaning you, Lou, and Sarah — willing to put real accountability measures in place for relatives, or are you going to keep them at all costs, no matter how they behave, no matter how much they demoralize the rest of your staff, and no matter who you lose as a result?

Those might be interesting questions to put to Sarah. (And you should put them this bluntly; don’t soften them.) But you and Lou need to answer those questions too, because right now you’re letting Sarah sacrifice your business needs to her desire to protect her brother. Are you willing to do what it will take to reverse that?

If Sarah’s top objective is to protect Bobby at all costs, does it make sense for you and Lou to remain in business with her?

If family members are untouchable, then you’re probably going to lose Jackson. You’ve asked him to manage someone without giving him any power to do that job — of course he’s frustrated! (If he wrote to me for advice, I’d tell him to get out because he can’t do the job he’s been hired to do.) You’ll probably lose other people over time too, because they’ll resent being held to standards that Bobby isn’t held to.

All this applies to Leah too. Even if she’s not as bad as Bobby, deciding to just let her go on being a problem for a few years until she retires will impact other people. And what if she doesn’t retire when you think she will? You could be signing on for five more years of this, or more, just to avoid dealing with the problem now.

Beyond the staffing issues, your business also is going to be less effective than it otherwise could be — because of the time and energy put into dealing with Bobby and Leah and the opportunity cost of not having someone better in their positions.

But ultimately you have a Sarah problem more than you have a Bobby problem. If Sarah is protecting Bobby and won’t let him be fired, none of you have any power to do anything about him … and Bobby sounds like he knows that.

When you say Sarah is at her wit’s end about how to handle Bobby, that’s because she’s not willing to use the most obvious option: removing him. When you ask someone to change over and over and they don’t do it, you need to accept they’re not going to do what you need, and proceed accordingly. In an employment relationship, that means you warn them that you will need to let them go if XYZ doesn’t happen, and then you follow through on that. You can’t just cajole and cajole forever.

The three of you have to decide — or maybe just you and Lou have to decide — which goal is more important: running an effective business or employing family members. Right now you’re functioning as if it’s the latter.

{ 246 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    A note to ward off confusion: I’ve just changed the names at the LW’s request. (Use fake names when you write into an advice column, y’all!) I’m going to go through and change them in comments too to preserve their anonymity.

      1. Nancy*

        Same here, but I always have the initial post up in a separate tab so I can go back and forth from the comments to refresh my memory, so I was really confused.

      2. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

        Me too! I was like “how did I get their names sooo wrong!” LOL I didn’t sleep last night (thanks insomnia!) so I chalked it up to that.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          As opposed to swapping between time lines.

          (This is why Orphan Black was so brilliant–people see a doppelganger for someone they know well with completely different hair and clothes and they think “I guess they spilled something and had to change” rather than “omg clones.”)

          1. Vio*

            I really loved that show, the lead actress did a truly amazing job portraying so many very different clones!

        2. Lady_Lessa*

          I’m another one who came back and was very confused.

          Thank you Alison for the explanation

    1. Regina Phalange*

      I accidentally, had it open in two different tabs, one opened after the names had been changed, and I thought I was losing my mind

  2. Chairman of the Bored*

    Can you just pay Leah and Bobby an allowance and remove the expectation that they’ll come to work and do a job?

    It seems like that would cost the same as the current approach and generate about the same amount of useful work from them (none) but would keep them from demoralizing good employees and driving their notional managers to quit.

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      Came here to say that. Or give them some task that amuses them but causes no one any trouble.

    2. Ginger Baker*

      ^Legit my response as well. Like. You’re losing money *already*. Could you just switch to ONLY losing money and STOP bringing the entire morale down + negatively impacting work processes? Because let’s be really real right now, you’re already providing just an allowance only you are ALSO letting the [kids in this situation] run around creating havoc in the office.

      1. Paulina*

        Yes, though in Leah’s case the money-losing would just be for a bit longer, if she retires as expected. A generous early-retirement bonus could take care of that — just pay her the money but she has to sign off on being done.

    3. Cat Lady turned Dog Mom*

      That was what I was thinking too. Give them a “remote” position where they do not interact with anyone else but the three owners.

      1. nona*

        I thought exactly the same thing. Or hire Bobby as “Vice President of Strategic Future Initiative Directions”, and then pay him a salary to stay out of everyone’s way.

        1. My Useless 2 Cents*

          I’d balk at the VP title… maybe something more like Strategic Morale Associate

          1. SHEILA, the co-host*

            Yeah, definitely don’t give him a VP title. But something like Associate Strategy Specialist (note the acronym) ought to work….

        2. On Fire*

          Late to the party, but I was thinking that he needs to be made Sarah’s problem — he reports directly to her and doesn’t interact with anyone else. If she wants to tolerate him, fine, but don’t inflict him on the rest of the staff.

      2. Spero*

        Specifically, Sarah needs to supervise Bobby herself. She can’t make one of her employees go through rigamorale of meetings, PIPs, etc knowing she will never fire him. If he’s untouchable by her request, managing him is her problem. Leave poor Jackson out of it.

        1. Pink Candyfloss*

          I like the idea that if Sarah’s letting him be a problem then he should be ONLY Sarah’s problem.

        2. Dark Macadamia*

          Yeah, I was surprised when Jackson showed up because I assumed the whole reason this situation happened was because Sarah was supervising her brother. Completely ridiculous to make someone else his manager and not let them manage him.

          1. Oregonbird*

            And his pay comes out if her salary, which given the reported profit should be very doable.

    4. NerdyKris*

      That was my first thought. They can have their cake and eat it too. If Sarah feels the need to take care of him this badly, it might be easier to just not give him duties but keep him on payroll. A lot of people get hung up on the misconception that it’s illegal, but a business owner can pay people to just not do work.

      1. Van Wilder*

        Isn’t it tax fraud though if they deduct it as a business expense? I guess they could deduct it for books & records but add it back for tax.

        1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          But it would be payroll. As long as they’re paying all the usual taxes on that payroll, there’s no fraud involved.

    5. NewJobNewGal*

      I worked for a family business that did this. The family would show up for company events and not know that they had titles and were employees. They got so accustomed to getting a check every 2 weeks, that they didn’t care where it came form or why they were getting it.
      But someone should have at least told them to pretend like they worked when they came to work events.

      1. BlueSwimmer*

        I also worked for a family-owned business that did this for the children of the founder. Here’s the thing…once the economy changed and the company started losing sales and profits, they started cutting actual employees who did the work but kept paying the big bucks to the family members for doing nothing. Eventually, after being told there would be no raises for years and then asked to swallow a pay cut to “keep the company afloat”, everyone good walked away to other jobs.

        Also, the salaries should come out of the profits that would go to the family member- so the LW isn’t contributing to the upkeep of Sarah’s brother. And… be ready for Leah and Bobby to never retire, because why would you retire from a job that pays you to do nothing?

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          I second that last bit. If the two partners with useless relations want to support their useless relations, that is their business. But why is it also the OP’s business? The only reasons I can think to keep them on the company payroll would be to save face, and perhaps some tax benefits. Neither is a reason for the OP to take an income hit. Keep them on payroll if that is what everyone wants, but adjust the profit split accordingly.

        2. Turquoisecow*

          Maybe set a timeline on it, like I will pay you to do nothing for the next X years and then you retire or go get another job, but I’m not giving you more money. Of course, they’d have to stick to that.

          1. fhqwhgads*

            If they’d consider that, might as well let Bobby and Leah go now and tell them they’re getting 2 years severance or something.

        3. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Oh, I worked there once! I was let go but the useless daughter was kept. Not surprised when the office folded about a year later.

        4. CountryLass*

          I worked in a pub where the landlords had hired two of their daughters to work. One we could deal with as she worked hard when she was there, but the other one turned up when she felt like it, only did the easy jobs, stole from the communal tip jar and finished when she wanted… Fortunately they DID fire family. Although they hired her back a month later. This repeated for the 2 years I worked there. But she still stole from the tips even when she didn’t work there. (in the UK, tipping is optional and in this place it was stored in a time in the flat the landlords had upstairs, and divided up every month. The eldest daughter would use it as petty cash but put an IOU in so that it would be deducted from her share, or she put in any shortfall. The youngest just took it…)

    6. Falling Diphthong*

      I’m intrigued by the several variations on this and think it’s a good question for OP when talking to her partners: How about they have the same costs but improve morale by making those jobs “stay home and play solitaire and we’ll still pay you”?

      1. Kacihall*

        At my small company, the owner’s kid comes in when he’s on break from college. we have to find projects for him to do. So far (three breaks into his college career) I’ve spent more hours fixing what he’s done than he’s spent working. I took an hour trying to find a project for him that wouldn’t adversely affect current clients or screw up the system. (It’s even something that we need done, just incredibly low priority.)

        I would much rather him get paid to stay home. out of sight, out of mind. especially if I don’t have to fix anything afterwards.

        1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

          Could be worse. I worked at a place where somebody’s kid was coming home for Christmas break. They hired him to run the mailroom for that month. And fired the existing mailroom clerk. Who also did a lot of other things. And then the kid went back to school. And the fired employee didn’t come back, nor was anyone else hired. And the work got shifted to other people who already had a full load. Who were already pissed because a good employee got fired so an exec’s kid could have a temp job.

          1. Anne*

            Wait, what!? I completely understand why you said that you “worked” for a company that did this. If I saw this happening at my job, I would immediately start job searching. Just… wow! So wrong.

      2. mondaysamiright*

        Yeah. Might be less demoralizing for those employees than having to put up with the family members, though. I don’t think it’s the best option, but it’s not the worst one either (the worst one being, everything stays the same as it is now, imo).

      3. Chairman of the Bored*

        The whole idea here is that the good employees will *never* see Leah or Bobby again, and certainly don’t need to know they’re drawing an allowance.

        1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

          Exactly. How would they know Leah and Bobby are getting paid?

          While I don’t love that idea, it may be the only tenable solution here. It’s not going to cost them any more than it does now, and they might actually make more money by improving morale.

            1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

              I highly doubt that’s simpler. There are major costs (emotional, legal, financial) associated with negotiating a buyout and restructuring a 10MM company.

                1. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

                  It might very well cost more than paying the Leah and Bobby their salaries indefinitely.

                  Also, Leah is LW’s husband’s sister. Are you suggesting LW try to get their own husband to buy out their share of the company? And then what, wash their hands of it and never mention it at home again? Should LW divorce their husband if he doesn’t agree?

              1. Princess Sparklepony*

                If OP and her husband started a new company they could make the smart decision not to hire Leah (or Bobby) for it. It’s drastic but it could solve the problem. And then start a no hiring family members policy. (yeah, the owners are family members but they are exempt.)

      4. Save Bandit*

        It could, but is there a reason these other employees have to be aware of the arrangement? It sounds like something the partners could determine, then just say, “We’ve restructured how we do things here, and Leah and Bobby will no longer be part of our day-to-day operations.” Then only the partners and their accountant would know.

        1. Nancy*

          “We’ve restructured how we do things here, and Leah and Bobby will no longer be part of our day-to-day operations.”
          I like that, it gives the impression they have been terminated.

        2. Richard Hershberger*

          And really, if two of the owners want to devote some of the profits to supporting useless relatives, so what? This would be no more demoralizing than if they buy nice houses.

          1. Double A*

            Right?? Like, what if Sarah just got a huge raise, and she uses her huge raise to support Bobby. People can do what they want with their salary, and profits are part of the reward the owners get for taking risks. Once whatever obligations are met (for instance, profit sharing), they can do what they want with their own chunk of money.

      5. Anonymous*

        Given that these people are family, I don’t think that will be as demoralizing as you think.
        Especially if the partners put their attention on rewarding and involving the actual staff.
        I think most people would say “thank god they’re out of the way,” and “I get why they pay them a salary, it’s the whole family thing, but at least they’re not getting in the way of me getting a promotion, and they’re not making my word harder every day.”

      6. Good Enough For Government Work*

        Nah. I don’t care what other people do so long as they aren’t causing me problems — and chances are the good employees will simply never see them again anyway.

      7. pally*

        I agree. What happens with Jackson’s (and any other employees, if any) salary come review time and there’s not much they can give him because they have to “pay” Bobby?
        If I were Jackson, that would frost me!

        Maybe Sarah would be willing to take a pay cut to continue to employ Bobby.

        1. Antilles*

          Why would Bobby or the other employees know you’re still paying Bobby? Just announce that Leah and Bobby are “pursuing other opportunities”, let everybody draw their own conclusions, and that’s that.
          Jackson presumably doesn’t know how much the firm pays in rent, liability insurance, licensing fees, and so forth. The salary to Leah and Bobby can just fall into that same vague bucket.

          1. pally*

            Where I work (a small company), finances are a very open book. And I get told who got raises and who didn’t – and why-and how much. And I’m told when the entire pot of money went to Employee X -leaving nothing in raises for me and others-because we have to retain Employee X at all costs.

            Companies all operate differently.

          2. Jellyfish Catcher*

            The other employees WILL find out.
            1. Secrets are only secrets if you tell nobody.
            2. Bobby’s the type who will blurt, if not actually brag about it.
            3. Leah doesn’t have professional abilities, so likely no discretion.
            4. Morale will drop; your other employees will want raises; some may throw in the towel and leave, such as Jackson.
            If you do decide to do this, Bobby’s payments should come out of his mom’s profits; Leah’s from you and your husband’s profits.

            You have to figure out if a buyout is better, or a slow drain on the company and it’s morale.
            BTW, Leah is not your best friend.

            1. Princess Sparklepony*

              Exactly. It won’t be a secret for long.

              I can see that the two employees aren’t exactly the same though. Leah has made some improvements and she is close to retirement, so there is an end date there. Possibly a payout to get her to retirement? Might have to structure it as wages to keep her SS on track though.

              Bobby should be an outright firing but they could shoot him some severance to keep family harmony.

              If the partners can absorb the family costs within their profits, there may not be as much fall out for other employee’s compensation. And without the trouble makers in situ that can go a long way towards harmony.

            2. AndieBegins*

              This sort of arrangement might cause resentment at smaller organizations where they don’t have the margin to float two salaries in exchange for no work product and impact the ceiling for raises/promotions/development, but a 10million dollar org could very well have the margins/cushion/operating budget to absorb it pretty easily. It’s not an inherently poisonous idea.

      8. Anonymous*

        You’re assuming they would know. Why would lower-level employees know about how the partners are managing the payroll budget?

        1. XF1013*

          In a small company like this, word gets around really fast. All it takes is one leak for everyone to know. Bobby has already been so cavalier about being fired that he might be similarly cavalier about needing to keep his arrangement a secret.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I picture him swanning in for lunch with Sis and casually dropping that tidbit. Maybe just to see everyone’s faces because Bobby sounds like exactly the kind of jerk who would do it.

      9. XF1013*

        Agreed. I wonder if there’s a way to frame it that would help somewhat, like calling Bobby “retired” with a “pension,” or “terminated” with a “continuation,” rather than still employed and collecting a salary to do nothing.

        1. Marna Nightingale*

          The traditional term is “remittance man[sic]”: a disappointing or problematic family member who receives a reasonably generous allowance on condition that they go somewhere else and stay there.

          The “somewhere else” part is crucial, to avoid all these problems and more.

      10. BubbleTea*

        But it sounds like that’s what’s ALREADY happening. This would just allow the work to be reallocated properly.

      11. Annony*

        It depends. I am in a similar situation right now where I have a coworker who is unreliable and submits subpar work that has to be redone by other people. My boss won’t fire her for reasons I won’t get into here. I and pretty much all of my coworkers are pushing for her job to be changed to busy work that doesn’t matter because it is so much extra work to have to work around her and redo her work. It isn’t an ideal solution, but it is better than the status quo.

      12. Smithy*

        Agreeing with other people that say it’s not so likely, but also because most people get that working for a family business is different.

        If I work at Starbucks, and our store manager has hired their child to clock-in a few hours before closing, take out the trash and then do their homework for the rest of their shift – that’s a very different level of wrong than if I work at a family-owned coffee shop and that’s the arrangement with the owner and their child.

        Lots of family businesses function to take care of families, up to the point of being sold when it no longer suits the family’s purposes. Or benefits the family more to sell the business than continue to own it.

        1. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

          Yeah, whether it’s shareholders or owners or owners’ family members, ultimately all businesses exist to support *someone* who isn’t doing the work! This is kind of a central issue in politics and economics.

          1. STAT!*

            But you can contribute to a business by more than just working there. Shareholders support a business by contributing their money to it, and risk losing that money if the business fails. They can also contribute to a business through getting on the Board of Directors & helping to manage it. So shareholders are at worst a small net positive to a business. Freeloading employees or family members, by contrast, actually take away from the business, in terms of both the money paid to them in wages/ salary, & the time & opportunity cost of fixing their mistakes.

      13. MPerera*

        For me, personally, it would be a question of whether this is the lesser of two evils.

        I have a coworker who, unless it’s incredibly busy, will sit at her desk texting and chatting on the phone, leaving the rest of us to pick up the slack. If she came in to work but then sat elsewhere, out of sight, and collected a paycheck for doing nothing, I’d prefer that because at least then I wouldn’t be frustrated by having to watch her relax and talk to her friends while the rest of us work. (Ideally, of course, management would deal with this, but so far management has done nothing effective about her)

      14. Roland*

        Idk, it’s a family business. If the boss wants to pay their sibling for doing nothing, that doesn’t really affect my life. Much better than paying their sibling to get in my way with bad work.

    7. CommanderBanana*

      Seriously. My suggestion was that Sarah can pay Bobby a “salary” that comes out of her compensation somehow – like she gives up a commensurate share of the profit – and you can literally pay him to stay away.

      1. Coverage Associate*

        Commenting to highlight this. I know several partnerships that deduct salary, etc related to employees that only benefit one partner from only that partner’s share of the profits. This would be like if 3 partners had similar duties, but only one wanted to employ a personal assistant. If that assistant only does work for that one partner, the business costs associated with that assistant aren’t general business costs, but specific to the one partner.

        Or I know some executives pay nannies or personal chefs through the business, but that’s a cost assigned just to those executives. Executives at the same level without those supports get higher compensation in some way.

        1. Artemesia*

          This is the only way I would do this. i.e. if it comes out of Sarah’s partnership share. The Op and her husband probably need to tell Sarah that it is time to end the partnership and work out a way to sever the business. She can then run her business and support her brother.

          She might be willing to fire him under those circumstances — but it is time to let her know that Leah and Bobby need to go — either they go WITH her and the partnership is dissolved or they need to be let go from the company and the partnership continues.

          1. Artemesia*

            And set up a meeting with the title ‘Is it time to consider ending the partnership’ — don’t soften the message at all. She doesn’t have ONE leach on the company, she apparently has several.

          2. Kevin Sours*

            Leah is OP’s husband’s sister. Which complicates OP and her Husband taking the hard line here.

            1. Saberise*

              I am willing to bet Leah is more like Bobby than OP is willing to admit. It’s just different because it’s their family so they don’t see it as much. I think that if they expect Sarah to do something about Bobby they need to do something about Leah as well. I think that when the other employees are complaining among themselves it’s not just about Bobby.

    8. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      This could work as a solution but Lord, it really rankles to think that Bobby will be rewarded so greatly for his behaviour!

      1. cabbagepants*

        If Bobby has even a shred of dignity, he will not like to have his uselessness laid bare.

        1. SHEILA, the co-host*

          I think it’s pretty clear at this point that he’s a man child and probably doesn’t know what dignity is, let alone has any.

      2. Zephy*

        It’s probably a safe bet to assume Bobby has been behaving exactly like this for all of his 46 years of life. The opportunity to learn any lessons about this are long, LONG past. He had just better hope Sarah outlives him.

        1. Marna Nightingale*

          It’s also possible — irrelevant to the workplace question, but possible — that the problem is to a great extent Sarah and that Bobby will flourish in some unexpected ways away from her.

          Being made the Designated Problem Child is a thing, and siblings can absolutely end up buying into it and perpetuating it.

          1. Boof*

            I doubt Sarah is the problem but it does sound like she is the Enabler; Bobby has no reason to change, his behavior suits him perfectly so far. He might well grow up if Sarah forces him; or maybe he’ll crash and burn. Can’t control other people.

        2. Polaris*

          Voice of hope here:

          The long term problem child in my extended family…had a reckoning and “grew up” at age 60.

    9. Anonymous*

      this is what I’m wondering. Just pay Bobby, and sideline him.
      So you have one extraneous, or two extraneous, employees.

      If you want to find something they can do that’s low stakes, have them do that.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I would go with sidelining Bobby and Leah by making them like a Special Assistant the reports directly to the partner whose sibling they are. This way it’s up to sibling what they actually DO – but they are removed from everyone else’s work roll. May also inspire a few changes on Leah’s part. Sadly it sounds like Bobby has skated through his whole life on his sister’s coat tails – I doubt he’d ever change.

        1. Felicity Lemon*

          Yes, this seems like the ideal solution – make Bobby report to Sarah, and Leah report to Lou. Have the siblings give Bobby & Leah sidelined positions & tasks that don’t interfere with the rest of the company, and that save OP and Jackson (and others) from having to deal with them.

    10. Mary*

      Yes, this is the obvious solution to me as well. Pay them from the company but give them no roles, tasks, or positions. Retire them on full salary. They are a dead cost to the company.

      At least this way you can run a successful business without derailment. And you will find morale and potentially profit increasing as a result. Why should the other employees suffer because you won’t take executive decisions on staff.

    11. Not A Manager*

      Absolutely. Just give them a title and no work and tell them not to pester the other employees.

    12. Another person again*

      Have them co-lead a new Special Projects Division where they are the only team members and also work remote full time?

    13. Good Enough For Government Work*

      This was my thought too. If their siblings are determined to let them be treated like spoilt children, might as well go the whole hog and at least avoid making additional work/stress for the actual adults in the company.

    14. FD*

      The thing I don’t like about that frankly is that what that will likely mean is that Bobby and Leah will end up absorbing money that should probably go to things like increasing the pay and benefits of the good employees who are there.

      If Sarah wants to subsidize him she can subsidize him personally. There’s no reason the business should be doing that. If I was an employee and I found out that my business that I worked for was doing that I would leave over that. To me, it’s a different ball game to know that a wealthy owner of the business I work for gives an allowance to somebody out of their dispersed profits and knowing that that allowance comes out of the company funds that also determine whether I get a raise or how much I pay for health insurance premiums.

      1. Coverage Associate*

        See above. There are ways to write a partnership agreement so the practicalities of giving an allowance to the useless siblings are handled by the business, but the working sibling takes a cut from her portion of the profits as a result.

        And there are tax, health insurance and Social Security reasons why the family might want to do this through the business rather than a private cash allowance.

        1. FD*

          They’re entitled to do it, I’m entitled as an employee to not like it because quite frankly I would not believe that it was truly not affecting my compensation or benefits in any way. It also communicates to me that my employer has another standard which would bother me. They can do whatever they like of course but I’m just as free as an employee to decide that it’s a deal breaker for me and then I wouldn’t want to work for a company that did that.

            1. Rose*

              I also learned that corporations will sometimes hire great people without a role just to keep them from working somewhere else and to have them for some future work. They just get paid to do nothing.

    15. Snow Globe*

      If they want to try this option, they should speak to a tax accountant first. I’m pretty sure you can’t (legally) just give money to a relative and call it a business expense. Not a problem if you don’t get audited, I suppose.

      1. Sasha*

        You’d call it a salary and they would pay tax etc on it, the duties would just be light to non-existent.

        1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

          A salary is a business expense and thus is being deducted from revenue and reducing the company’s taxes. Just calling it a salary does not necessarily mean the IRS will agree it’s deductible.

          1. Rose*

            You can actually pay your baby a salary and set up a 401k for them as a tax loophole. Rich people are wild.

            1. Silver Robin*

              I was going to say, this is 100% a thing. I know somebody setting up a small business and though they do not have kids right know, they half-joked about doing something like that when their family grows. Assuming the business is doing well enough etc.

            2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

              No, you actually can’t. The kid (of whatever age) has to perform actual work to earn the salary.

            3. JSPA*

              Well except that both sides have a somewhat problematic person…

              And I find it hard to take at face value that Bobby is so much worse, Just because the letter writer disproportionately hears about Bobby. It’s a good guess that Sarah fields more of the complaints about her (non-relative) Leah, and the LW & husband field more of the complaints about their non-relative, Bobby.

              (It’s great that Leah is trying; but is she succeeding?)

            4. Starbuck*

              I totally believe people do this; but can you legally pay a minor below working age a salary? But I guess there’s always been a work-around to child labor laws for all the kids who act in tv / movies…. hm.. anyway!

        2. Industry Behemoth*

          I knew someone who owned a Main Business and a Subsidiary Business. Legally they couldn’t be the president of both entities, so their spouse was president of Subsidiary.

          The president of Subsidiary was also legally required to be an employee of Main Business. So the spouse had a token job with Main, to meet the letter of the law.

      2. Indigo a la mode*

        Call it business development and say their job is to be “evangelists” for the company and you’re golden. They just have to tell people where tey work when they meet them.

    16. Kip*

      Yeah, my husband’s best friend Dan inherited the family business. He employs his younger brother, Tommy, in a full time capacity but all Tommy really does is 1) show up to the company summer BBQ, 2) hand out the turkeys at Thanksgiving, and 3) be polite to clients at football games.

      1. Addison DeWitt*

        At that he sounds like he’s contributing more than the siblings at this firm.

    17. Caliente Papillon*

      Came to say the same- if you can’t make it happen as far as changing things, pay them to stay away.

    18. Person from the Resume*

      Even better, fire Bobby and let his sister support him as a dependent with her earnings. That’s fair and if Sarah doesn’t want/isn’t able to to let him get what he’s earned (nothing), she should be footing the bill for him, not the company and not the company’s employees who have to unfairly put up with his lackluster lack of performance.

    19. Sasha*

      Was going to say this too. You’re a $10m dollar company, give the Terrible Twins $100k per year each not to come to work, or shunt them off to do something elsewhere in the world (“promote” them to doing something from home that doesn’t need to be done or affect anyone else).

      1. fhqwhgads*

        That’s a lot. I think you might be overestimating how big a $10M company is? In my experience that’s pretty small. A couple jobs ago I worked for a $20M company and it had 45 employees, most of whom made way less than $100k/yr. We don’t know what OP’s profit margins are, but this particular suggestion seems like the math has got to be wrong.

        I don’t like the pay-them-to-go-away route, but if OP managed to convince spouse+Sarah to do it, they should consider something more like paying the legal minimum wage for an exempt employee for both to make them go away.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          The point being is they are already getting paid and it does not seem like they actually contribute anything of substance. So “paying them to go away” doesn’t change the costs any, just the going away part (which appears to be a net positive).

    20. Bagpuss*

      YEs, it would go against the grain for me to be paying someone to do nothing, but if ‘Sarah’ won’t condone Bobby being fired then maybe create a role for him where he has no supervisory powers and is not pat of a term, and treat it as a business overhead (or even agree that his wages come out of Sarah’s profit share)

      Maybe also look at drawing / redrawing your org chart so it is crystal clear the Bobby does not have any authority over any other staff members – and speak to the managers of any other department to expressly confirm he doesn’t have any authority over them or their teams, and that he will be reporting directly to you, Lou or Sarah moving forward so they are not expected to manage him.

      I’d also let his pay stagnate – it sounds as though he is not bringing any value to the company so stop giving him pay raises or other perks (unless he falls below min wage) – it doesn’t seem very likely that he will change jobs but it limits to costs and the rewards he gets for his behaviour. #

      But ideally, talk to Sarah and agree that he will be fired, and that if she then wants to pay him an allowance she is free to do so.

    21. ferrina*

      And make sure they report to OP/Lou/Sarah. Don’t make someone else ‘manage’ them

      1. SHEILA, the co-host*

        This. If Bobby is going to stay employed, at this point his boss should be Sarah and no one else. Let her deal with his issues if she’s so determined to let him stay on.

    22. Sopranohannah*

      I would say let Bobby (And Leah) do their job, but let them only report to their sibling. It might be easier for the partners to let the siblings go if they if they don’t have a buffer.

    23. JSPA*

      Came here to say that if you can afford to pay Sarah a bit extra, she could employ Bobby for random jobs on the side.

      I’m guessing that there might be some issues where if he doesn’t have to show up at work, ever, there’s some other problematic behavior, such that she’s using “You’ve got to come in or they’ll fire you” as a prod, to keep him semi- functional. But you can’t really run a work place that way.

      If she had him run fliers to coffee shops and building supply stores (or whatever), or find some other thing that she can ride him about, but that has absolutely no effect on the business, Then he’s free to either pick up some cash doing those jobs, or to look for a job that pays better and doesn’t have him answering to his sister. (He might be less of a flake without the family dynamics: who knows?)

      Heck, have him work (from home, if he can do that without going off the rails) while playing the video games that let you promote stuff in the chat. Or send him to be the buy-nothing equivalent of a secret shopper.

      If keeping him semi employed is required to keep her functional, pay a modest paycheck for him to do exactly nothing essential. And make sure that he reports to nobody but his sister… and that nobody reports to him…and that he’s completely absent from the day to day running up the company.

    24. Be Gneiss*

      I came from a dumpster fire of a family-owned company where family members were ranked annually by usefulness (and if you knew the right person, they would tell you how everyone ranked!), and it absolutely would have upset zero people who did actual work to find out that the least useful among the family were paid to stay home.
      When they were there, they either did nothing, or came up with ridiculously useless projects that consumed time and resources and accomplished nothing, or they wandered around making things more difficult and getting in the way.
      The year-over-year champion of being least useful was given very important projects like “redesign the logo” (nobody cared) and “redecorate the office” (nobody cared except maybe the week they had to relocate for paint or carpet), or “choose a new color scheme for our trucks” (seriously, nobody cared).

    25. GreyjoyGardens*

      This is a super great idea. If the family business is going to be a de facto safety net for unemployable relatives, you actually will save money in the long run by just paying them an allowance and giving them some kind of “make work” position where they can’t harm anyone or the company.

      You don’t want to lose qualified non-family employees like Jackson because Bobby is a huge millstone.

    26. The Starsong Princess*

      Yes, I thought this as well. Bobby should be moved to “Special Projects” and his pay comes out of Sarah’s share of the business. Basically, she pays his wages and any work you get out of him is a bonus. Depending, Leah might have a similar arrangement and it comes out of your husband’s share of the business.

    27. zuzu*

      Just make sure that the make-work salary comes out of Sarah’s and Lou’s partnership shares, not the company’s profits.

      If you want to carry your useless family member, that’s on you. It’s not on the business.

    28. Boof*

      Right, why bother to employ them at all? Just have a family member of choice pay an allowance from their own pockets; give them a raise if they otherwise deserve it, but why keep farce employing a sib and making life hard on everyone when they don’t act like of an employee instead of just paying them as a straight up gift?

  3. fine tipped pen aficionado*

    If you’re going to keep these people on as staff, the very least you can do is have them directly report to the person without the will to fire them. It won’t help much, but you can at least not make it Jackson’s responsibility to do something he has no authority to do.

    1. MsM*

      If I were Jackson, I don’t know that it would be enough to give me confidence that the business is prepared to function like a business when it has to, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Quite possibly it will be a case of “I thought the problem tap dancing on my desk was the only problem, but then they reassigned that problem to its sibling and it turned out there were other problems I didn’t notice through the tap dancing.”

      2. fine tipped pen aficionado*

        For sure would still advise Jackson to start applying and if I worked there and was getting like… a 3% COL increase knowing that Bobby and Leah were pulling benefits and paychecks to do jack, I would be extremely demoralized. But it would be a minor relief to at least know that if people had complaints about them they needed to take those to Sarah and Lou and leave me the hell out of it.

    2. My Useless 2 Cents*

      My mind was going in a similar direction as yours. If Sarah won’t fire Bobby than Sarah needs to be the one who manages him. Not Jackson as he doesn’t have the authority to properly manage him and Bobby knows this. Of course Jackson is frustrated!

  4. Clorinda*

    Bobby can be Sarah’s personal assistant, as long as he is NOT given authority over anyone else. Yes, it’s a sinecure; yes, he’ll still be draining the business of his salary while doing nothing; yes, other employees will notice and not like it. But at least he won’t be actively getting in everyone else’s way and making work harder for them.

      1. pally*

        Maybe have Bobby’s salary come from Sarah’s share of the profits? Or from her salary directly? That would ease the burden of paying Bobby and not shorting the business or other employees or partners.

    1. Sopranohannah*

      And perhaps Sarah will realize what a problem he is when there’s no buffer between her and her brother. Firing him may not seem like such an obstacle if she has to deal with all of his screw ups.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Part of why I thought up above that problematic employees should report to the ones making them unfirable – if they can’t be fired then you need to be the one dealing with their issues, and taking the salary out of your pocket.

    2. Goddess47*


      *AND* Bobby never gets a raise (bonus, profit sharing, whatever) or any income increase from the company. If Sarah wants to give Bobby more money, it comes from her personal share of the profits (or however she gets paid).

      The same for Leah. If her brother wants her to have more money yearly, it comes from his money, not the company’s.

      Both of these problem-siblings have likely been around long enough to earn reasonable salaries already. Give them a do-nothing job but don’t ‘reward’ them any further.

      If they ‘need’ more money, they can take another job elsewhere.

      Good luck, OP.

      1. ferrina*

        I like the “never get a raise” part. This is a really good point. If he’s doing minimum for an allowance, fine- but if he wants to increase that, he needs to do better. I would even withhold COLAs until he is meeting the benchmarks expected of his current role/salary

  5. ChelseaNH*

    If Bobby is really untouchable, then it would be better for the business for him to have a no-show job. Which might be the way to frame it to get Sarah to wake up to the damage he’s doing.

    1. Excel Jedi*

      Or transfer Bobby to Sarah’s supervision. If she’s not going to handle him, she should be the one dealing with the headache. No reason to poison otherwise-healthy teams and managers with him.

  6. pally*

    Time for Sarah to let lil bro Bobby grow up.
    Sarah is at wit’s end because she fears Bobby will fall through the cracks. So she coddles him.
    Please note: he does improve for short periods. So he can, if need dictates, produce. He just needs to do this away from family. She needs to step back and let him have the opportunity to be on his own.

    1. Meep*

      +1 I recently went to a wedding where my husband and his manchild brother were groomsmen. The way that 27-year-old “kid” was coddled by his brother and groom made it equivalent to us having a six-foot toddler with us the entire time. There were points where I would wander off to get food at a vendor and he would wonder where his food was.

      Those four days were bad enough to the point I explicitly told my husband I refuse to travel anywhere with him again. I cannot imagine letting this go on for 10 years.

      Time to let this manchild sink or swim.

      1. pally*

        Coddling does no favors to everyone involved.

        I’m betting Bobby will figure out how to swim.
        There will be a whole lotta whining as he does so.
        In the end, it will be better for him to stand on his own two feet.

        What if Sarah unexpectedly died one day? Is the business expected to continue to employ Bobby? If nothing else, Sarah needs to realize this can happen. Bobby does too; but he won’t.

        1. Meep*


          So much this. Sarah is doing Bobby no favors by not holding him accountable. I know it is hard. It is often easier to give into my bratty BiL, but when I insisted that he find a way to the airport himself (we live 30 minutes North of it, him 30 minutes South and he wanted us to spend an 1+ hour driving to pick him up because he didn’t want to pay for a rideshare), he somehow managed to find his way there!

          Of course, the other groomsmen and even the groom coddled him so there was a bunch of whining and mooching rides when we got to there. It was actually quite embarrassing hearing from complete strangers how he had begged for rides to and from the rehearsal dinner*, but he proved he could swim.

          Sarah just needs to give herself some grace and realize he is a grown man and his failures are on him.

          *he can afford it, btw. He makes six figures. He just is really bad with money and spends it on keeping up with the Jones over important things like travel expenses.

      2. Catwhisperer*

        It sounds like it’s been a LOT longer than 10 years – Bobby is 49 and Sarah is 56, I think it might be a lost cause at this point.

        1. Meep*

          I mean, yes. In my cause, he was coddled for 27 years, but every day for 10 years at your job is what I was getting at.

    2. EPLawyer*

      Sarah has taken on the burden of caring for Bobby, so Bobby has never had to worry about growing up. Now Sarah is all Why doesn’t he grow up and act like an adult? I dunno, I have literally tried everything to get him to act like one — except make him responsible for his actions. I have no idea why it hasn’t worked.

      Sarah is the issue here, not Bobby. If Bobby were any other employee he would have been gone long ago. Getting Sarah to see that is the issue. Unless and until she is willing to treat her brother as just another employee nothing will change. You and Lou need to decide if you can live with that.

  7. Critical Rolls*

    If you decide anything other than “I guess we’ll just let the siblings be a detriment to our business,” you need to be really, fully prepared to stand your ground. Part of the reason things are so bad is because Leah and Bobby have no reason to believe there will be meaningful consequences, and Sarah doesn’t want them to happen either. Also — expect Sarah to find it hypocritical if you want to fire Bobby but not Leah. It’s going to be like an episode of Super Nanny, except with a bunch of livelihoods on the line. But no matter what you do, you MUST stick to your plan, or you have no hope of moving past this. I hope for the sake of Jackson and your other employees you can resolve this.

    1. Bagpuss*

      Given the dynamics, I’d put them both on PIPs, with OP managing Bobby’s PIP and Sarah managing Leah’s. Both Leah and Bobby can be told that Lou and Sarah have recused themselves from dealing with the process for their respective family members to ensure that the process is fair, and that the terms of the PIP have been approved by all of the partners.

      (You might also be able to outsource this – we use a firm for general employment support – they can provide various sots of training, templates and documentation, but can also actually run any disciplinary / redundancy meetings – we haven’t actually used that service but did at one point plan to where we had aa fairly senior person involved, and reasons why one of our partners felt they should not be involved in the meetings, which didn’t leave us with enough people to be able to have a different panel for any appeal as for any initial decision. Something like that might be a way of letting Sarah and Lou step back from the decision, as well as allowing them to have plausible deniability when speaking to their family member

      Then ensure that the PIP has very clear terms and follow through.

    2. NothingIsLittle*

      Honestly? I think if they decide they’re willing to fire them that just has to be it. Leah and Bobby have had innumerable chances to change and aren’t going to believe they’ll be fired until someone is.

      Maybe that’s unfair and I’m misunderstanding the situation or I don’t have enough experience to judge it though.

      1. Zarniwoop*

        “Leah has made some effort to correct her actions”
        She might be salvageable with a PIP plan seeing Bobby get fired.

  8. Bacu1a*

    I had a similar situation where I was supervising a partner’s daughter. We gave her fewer and fewer responsibilities until she did something more malicious (hiding the files she was supposed to be filing in her bag instead of filing them). We eventually got the two other partners to realize she was a bad fit and convince the mom-partner that her child was no longer our responsibility.

  9. Falling Diphthong*

    OP, is Bobby fireable? That’s the question to ask yourselves.

    If not, then there is nothing you can do. He acts unfireable because he is. Non-family employees will observe this truth and leave, because they are rational actors.

    A relative formed a successful business consultancy that briefly employed one of his long-time friends. The friend spent his days playing golf, the business partners decided he needed to go, and my relative didn’t argue. Can’t have been easy, but they remain close friends to this day–it’s a recoverable event for basically decent people capable of seeing that someone might find them in the wrong in this.

    If horrible employees who are related to management can never be fired, then your company is just embodying “ain’t no crazy like small, family-run business crazy.”

  10. CharChar*

    There has been so many posts on here of people working in these kind of environments and the advise/updates are usually they leave that job.
    Are you willing to lose all your employees and eventually your business? If not, put your foot down. Any good family member should understand and support you in your success, not be a hindrance like these are. They have every opportunity to benefit from your success too by having these jobs, all they have to do is do their job well but they don’t.
    If they become resentful towards the family for you expecting them to do their job well, they need some therapy and a good look in the mirror.
    Also, this is why I never want to work for a family company.

    1. oranges*

      I was going to say this. I hope LW reads all the “family member is untouchable” posts here and understands that they WILL lose great employees.

    2. El l*

      This letter is a great example of:

      1. Why nepotism is so toxic – all the wasted time on this.
      2. Why nepotism happens and persists, even when owners are in a position to do something about it. And it’s ultimately because of the rationalizations and hypocrisies:

      “I want to fire Bobby, but not Leah, ’cause we’re riding this one out.” You can use ‘riding it out’ as logic when we’re talking weeks, but not years.

      “I’ve tried everything to get my brother to shape up.” But not firing him. No wonder he’s not scared, he’s gotten away with it so long.

      “We’re a $10 million company we built from the ground up and have been successful for 20 years.” Congratulations. Really. But even elephants pick up parasites.

      “I’ve been frank and honest, it’s the others who nothing sinks in.” Because you’re not willing to fire your own (in-law) family to show it’s principle.

      See how it all reduces even accountability-driven owners to puddles?

  11. Giant Peach*

    “But nothing happens in spite of me telling my partners that we need to do something firm and act responsibly.”

    Have you ever said, “We need to fire Bobby”?

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      I was wondering that, too. If not, it needs to happen. Like no hinting, no beating around the bush, no euphemisms: straight up SAY “we need to fire Bobby.”

  12. NewJobNewGal*

    OP, if Sarah wants to keep Bobby on no matter what, it is possible for her to buy out your ownership? If no one can override Sarah, then you don’t really have a partnership. Maybe it’s time for her to buy you out of the company and handle everything on her own?
    I know it’s not that simple, but something to think about.

  13. Fikly*

    Really, the issue here is the double standard. You want to fire Bobby, but are unwilling to fire Leah, but both should be fired. I strongly suspect Leah is causing either just as many problems, or plenty enough to be fired – if they are generating that many complaints, it doesn’t matter that there are fewer than those generated by Bobby, you shouldn’t have an employee who is causing that many problems to begin with. It’s hard to see that about a family member.

    It’s a double standard to want your business partner to fire a sibling when you are unwilling to do so yourself.

    Have a hard look in the mirror, then decide what to do.

    1. Annony*

      Yep. Leah is OP’s sister-in-law. She is hardly going to be seen as unbiased by other employees and they are less likely to bring concerns forward. If both Leah and Bobby have done enough to be fired, both should be fired. OP is trying to justify ignoring their relative’s bad behavior while firing the other partner’s relative.

      1. Toots La'Rue*

        Had the same thought as you guys! OP is kind of glossing over her own relationship with Leah here… sounds like she’s only minimally better than Bobby, and OP’s desire to let her stay on until retirement feels an awful lot like she’s favoring her own family to me.

    2. El l*

      Yeah, OP, think of how it would look/sound to Jackson or some other employee:

      “Why did you fire Bobby but keep Leah?”
      “Oh, we’re riding that one out.”

      No. You wonder why Sarah is protecting Bobby? Probably by pretty similar rationalizations.

      Push has come to shove.

  14. Seahorse*

    Jackson is the one I feel most sorry for. Working for a family business when you’re not part of the family often goes terribly.

    1. FD*

      Amen. Frankly I hope he heads for greener pastures quickly if the LW doesn’t deal with the problem.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      This is one of the reasons I will never work for a small company or a family business ever again.

      Been there, done that; won’t be fooled again.

    3. Nancy*

      I have always said that. No matter how good you are, no matter how well they treat you or how highly they think of you when push comes to shove who do you think will lose out? You or the owners child, or the son-in-law who he pays well so that his daughter who wanted to could be a SAHM to his grandchildren?

    4. Daisy Daisy*

      I’ve been there and it’s terrible. I was young enough that it took me years to realize it’s a fool’s bargain. Never going to be worth it.

    5. GreyjoyGardens*

      I agree. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, etc. I would not work in a family business again unless they had a dedicated HR department and got enough good reviews or word of mouth that they functioned like a business and not like a family.

      1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        Even having an HR department isn’t a guarantee. Been there, seen that. The place was still a mess.

    6. It Actually Takes a Village*

      Absolutely. And Jackson is the canary in the coal mine. I guarantee he is protecting other employees from Bobby and the second he leaves, the countdown is on to a mass exodus.

      Speaking from experience, when our “Jackson” left the company (about 20ish staff), 6 of our top talent, including me, left within the next year.

      OP, you do NOT want to find out how much Bobby is actually costing your company.

  15. Julius*

    Rhetorical question, probably: Why were these two hired in the first place? Did they have any actual qualifications to do the job? If they’re just nepotism hires, then that’s your problem right there. Give them a fake title and pay them to stay home so they’re not interfering with others people’s work.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Nepotism hires. Or rather “let’s give these people a job so they don’t move in with us” hires.

    2. grubgrub*

      This is my thought. I have a sibling who my father “employs” in this way. I hate it (and I don’t even work for him). His employees are aware and have their thoughts on it BUT it is better than having her actually show up, report to a manager with no power over her, and wreck everything for everyone else.

      This whole post is exhibit A of why I will never work for a family-run business (even my own family’s)

    3. GreyjoyGardens*

      Probably because poor, poor Leah and Bobby were utterly unemployable anywhere else. I have seen far too many family businesses *and* small, niche nonprofits act as de facto sheltered workshops for people who were so dysfunctional, they wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of holding down a job, except for soft-hearted family or friends willing to employ, or “employ,” them.

      The ones who really suffer are the non-family or non-close friend circle who work at these jobs and have to put up with Dysfunctional Danny gumming up the works because he’s faaaamily and “we can’t have him living on the streets!”

  16. FD*

    I am presuming that since you have employees and other size the business it is not possible for you to do everything with just yourself and your business partners, so let’s be clear here.

    You do not have a business without your employees.

    Employees have options, and generally speaking, the best employees have the best options. The longer this goes on, the worse of an employer you become. As people talk, this restricts your talent pool more and more and makes it difficult to hire new people or replace people who leave. It forces you to take on employees who aren’t very good because the best employees hear about your reputation and don’t apply. In turn, good employees want to work with good employees so they tend to leave places with mostly mediocre to bad employees.

    $10 million is a respectable size of business and you can be proud of that, but if you don’t fix this problem you are likely to end up eventually finding you just can’t get the talent you need to actually run that business.

  17. learnedthehardway*

    If Bobby is really untouchable in the sense of firing him, can he simply be removed as an entity but be kept on payroll? Sure, this is totally unfair to you, the other partners, and other employees, but it is better than losing valued team members who are essential to the business functioning.

    Put Bobby on “special projects” and get him out of the workflow where he is a bottleneck. Hire a replacement who will do the job you’re removing him from. Make his projects “nice to have” things that don’t really affect how the business operates. Make the reporting structure clear so that everyone knows that Bobby can’t get in their way. If you care to risk it, tell Sarah that his salary has to come out of her company dividends.

    Best case scenario, Bobby takes an interest in the projects and does something. Worst case, he does nothing and draws a salary – but he’s already doing WORSE than that, so that might just be a net gain overall.

    1. kiki*

      Yeah, I don’t think this is my top choice– it means Bobby would likely stay on the payroll longer as there wouldn’t be much incentive to retire– but it may be a better option than having Bobby where he’s at now.

  18. This post is giving me PTSD*

    As someone who worked for a family owned business for over a decade and WAS NOT a member of the family, it is absolutely mind-boggling the amount of garbage that family members on the payroll are allowed to get away with without repercussions. It is demoralizing.
    LW, when loyal hardworking employees watch people like Bobby and Leah get away with anything and everything for long enough, sooner or later they are going to get disgusted enough to leave. What will you end up with when all the good employees leave and you are left with Bobby, Leah, and the ones who don’t care what Bobby and Sarah do? A company that is circling the bowl.

    1. Polaris*


      I’m not even sure it wasn’t a bookkeeping trick, but when the owner’s wife and children are receiving paychecks, and you couldn’t pick them out of a lineup because they’re never in the office (this was waaaaaaaaaaaaaay old-days where there was no remote work), but there’s no money for raises? Ooof.

  19. SereneScientist*

    Honestly at this point, given how long Bobby has been a problem, I find it unlikely LW will retain Jackson in the long term. Even if they do address the issue, the pattern of enablement leading up to this point is…not encouraging at all. When a small org has a lack of inertia in dealing with problems, the effort needed to pick up and change course is high.

  20. Berin*

    I agree with the vast majority of commenters here re: just giving the family members a salary to stay out of sight. Additionally, I think you’ll have better luck with getting Sarah on board if you and Lou are very blunt about the fact that Leah is a problem too. This isn’t a Sarah problem, it’s an owner problem, and frankly you’re part of that. If you try to force the issues with Bobby without acknowledging the special treatment that Leah is also receiving, Sarah is gonna be (understandably) pissed. If you approach the problem as something all three of you need to work on, I think it will be much smoother.

  21. Beveled Edge*

    Jeez this is beyond depressing to read. Decent human beings are out there busting their asses to do a good job to keep their income. Decent human beings are busting their asses trying to _get_ jobs. And then there are people like Bobby and Leah who make a living bringing their employer down.

    LW, there are people out there who would do great things for you company if you gave them Bobby and Leah’s jobs. And you will see a great improvement in the productivity and happiness of your other employees if you don’t have these leeches destroying morale anymore. I bet the LW can’t even see how those two are demoralizing the whole workforce, because after 10 years of this, they have become accustomed to the toxicity of the situation and don’t realize how much better the company could function without it.

    1. Beveled Edge*

      And giving them a salary for a remote position that doesn’t interact with other employees isn’t going to solve the morale problem.

      1. Beveled Edge*

        Sarah needs to start treating Bobby as the dependent he is and just give him an allowance out of her own earnings.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Thiiiiiis. If she doesn’t want him to starve she can just outright adopt him so at least he’s not everyone else’s problem.

      2. madge*

        Right? Sign me up; I’ve got a loooong list of hobbies and languages I want to learn.

        Just grotesque behavior.

      3. Coder von Frankenstein*

        It won’t eliminate the problem, but it will significantly reduce it. It’s one thing to know the owners are taking money out of the business to subsidize their relatives. It’s quite another to have to deal with those relatives and clean up their messes.

        Furthermore, subsidizing Bobby and Leah directly spreads the burden across the whole company, instead of one team having to compensate for the dead weight.

        Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for firing Bobby and pushing Leah into early retirement. But if OP can’t get Sarah and Lou to go along with that, putting the two deadbeats out to pasture is an option OP’s co-owners might accept.

  22. Trek*

    This should have been addressed in year one and has snowballed to a ridiculous level that you are now waiting for problem employees to retire to solve the problem. That is not leadership that is the opposite of leadership.
    Sit down with Sarah as a united front and explain that Leah and Bobby must go and her input on how that occurs is appreciated but they are leaving the company by Friday. It’s not optional any more because it’s not fair to other employees and you are not going to let it continue. Someone has to be firm that this cannot continue. I think if she is confronted by a clear plan then she may go along with it. I don’t think anyone is stating to fire them so Sarah doesn’t want to bring that up and be the bad guy.
    If she says no they cannot be fired tell her she must buy you out at top dollar and you can start a new business with any employees who wish to leave, my guess is all of them, or you can buy her out and all three of her family can go.

    1. STAT!*

      Except the other problem employee (Leah) is the OP’s relative (sister-in-law). Will the OP give the same hard ultimatum to her husband about his sister?

  23. Safely Retired*

    Propose that problematic Bobby:
    (1) Must work directly for his protecting angel, sister Sarah, and nobody else. Let Sarah experience his performance directly.
    (2) Must not have anyone under him.

    1. Meep*

      I mentioned it above, but as someone with a manchild brother-in-law who never grew up and is coddled by his family for being the youngest, I have a feeling Sarah will not see the issue, because it is “just the way things are.”

      I had to explain that a 27 yo expecting his 31 yo brother to carry his book, headphones, etc on and off a plane for him was not normal behavior to my husband yesterday.

  24. Harried HR*

    We are a mid-sized family owned company who has family members who started out as productive employees and then they weren’t once they became a burden we worked out a transition period of 3 months and the end of they transitioned to a lower salary (Example – $100k to $50k) and no job duties. They remain on insurance, have taxes deducted etc. any expense over and above the salary is paid directly by the family member NOT the company.

    1. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

      Hot damn, that sounds like a dream set up. I would love to make 50k just because I’m related to someone.

  25. BellyButton*

    If they won’t agree to firing them, I would make their sibling their direct manager and let them decide what they do/don’t do. Take the problem people away from a team and a manager who isn’t allowed to manage.

  26. JustA___*

    What about a “remote special projects team” with a twist? For example, could Bobby and Leah gradually be eased off of payroll while being given full-time freedom to seek other employment?

    If Leah has 2 years until retirement, maybe you could all agree to pay them the same for 2 years, and then begin dropping the payments by a certain percentage annually. This could keep the problem siblings out of the day-to-day and away from demoralized employees, and codify an exit strategy that would allow everyone to give their relatives a financial cushion for a bit while encouraging Bobby and Leah to paddle their own canoes.

  27. madge*

    OP, think hard about whether it’s time to start tossing around terms like, “fiduciary duty”. Because it’s raining breaches, and you will lose the employees who are actually valuable.

    We had to remove people from an LLC we had started with them and it was painful and exhausting and 100% WORTH IT in the end. You’ll also have to toughen up in preparation for being painted The Bad Guy as they morph into your helpless victims. We no longer have relationships with the relatives we removed and it was also 100% worth it. Sending you support!

    1. Coder von Frankenstein*

      Unless I’m misreading, this is a privately held company and OP, Lou, and Sarah are the owners, which means there’s no way they can commit a breach of fiduciary duty. It’s their company and they can do as they like with it.

      But yes, Bobby and Leah have got to go. If Sarah and Lou can’t stomach the idea of just cutting them off, then give them an allowance, or keep them on payroll while eliminating their duties. Just don’t make the people doing real work deal with them.

  28. Good Luck*

    I would put Bobby under Sarah (as many others have suggested) and perhaps give him a new role that isn’t detrimental to the company’s success.

    I would offer to let Leah retire early.

  29. WellRed*

    So Theoretically two thirds of the partners would like to ditch Leah and two thirds would like to ditch the brother. Surely the partnership agreement (you have one, right?) addresses situations like this? And no, you can’t bitch about the brother and give the sister a pass.

  30. Lyngend Canada*

    If you absolutely cannot fire him? Create a new wfh job. Only responsibility? Don’t go into the office. No raises or col increases.

    I’d rather you fire him. But, would you rather keep the broken step or get him out of the way.

    Also? Institute a rule that no one can supervise their family members. Even partners. To prevent this from happening again.

  31. Coder von Frankenstein*

    If Sarah really wants to keep supporting Bobby, and the rest of you are okay with it, you could fire him and then pay him $X every month, where X is some fraction of his previous salary. He can make up the difference by getting a job elsewhere, or he can just live on his allowance.

  32. KellifromCanada*

    I would make Bobby, and probably Leah, “redundant”. A nice way of terminating their employment, hopefully without generating too many bad feelings. As a part of this, I’d pay them a very generous redundancy pay, say two or three weeks per year of service. Expensive, but so worth it. And their siblings could still say they were looked after since their severance was so generous.

  33. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

    This isn’t technically advice about the issue brought up in the letter, but it’s related–how is the ownership of the business structured/accounted for if something happens to Sarah? Could Bobby inherit some or all of Sarah’s share? Because if so, this could get so much worse later down the line.

    1. Pierrot*

      Exactly. I am also curious about the individual ownership interest amounts and their contract as owners. LW and her husband outnumber Sarah, though it might be that LW and her husband together are equal to Sarah by herself.

      1. Jinni*

        Or they’re stymied by trying to protect their own family member, and it’s a stalemate.

  34. Milfred*

    Bobby stays on the payroll, but no longer has a function at the company. In fact, he’s not even allowed to come to the office.

    Bobby’s pay and benefits–all of it–comes out of Sarah’s share of the company proceeds.

    If Sarah can live with that, then problem solved.

    If she can’t live with that, then ask her why she expects the other two partners in the business to subsidize her brother.

  35. Pete*

    Will significant salary cuts for Bobby and Leah be more palatable than firing?

    Hire a Management Consulting firm to make recommendations that include firing the two. Give the firm authority to terminate. (AKA the Bobs from Office Space)

  36. Trout 'Waver*

    “>There are grounds for firing both of them, although Leah is a couple years from retiring so I think we’re riding out that one.”

    The Leahs of the world never retire. Why would you? Free money for doing nothing. You must address this situation. Its not going to magically fix itself.

  37. GreyjoyGardens*

    For whatever reason, your family business has been roped into being a safety net and cozy nest for the failchildren. If you want your business to stay IN business, you have to put a stop to this, otherwise, your business will be a failbusiness and the failchildren will be SOL anyway.

    You don’t want to lose good employees like Jackson because you need to coddle Bobby. That way does lie business failure. You want to keep your Jacksons and sideline your Bobbys. If you can make Bobby report to Sarah, his CEO or Chief Enabling Officer, that will get him out of Jackson’s hair. At least this way you can persuade Jackson to stay, or at least not leave a scathing review on Glassdoor. Bobby reports to Sarah, she can either give him busywork or at least be the one dealing with his attitude, and you can have your good performers do their work unbothered by Bobby.

    With Leah – can you get her to retire early? Or is she counting on having more Social Security available? If she can be given some sort of golden parachute, or even a gold-plated one, to get her out of there, that would be another weight off your company’s back. If Leah says “no, no NOOO, I need the money!” Then have her report to her OWN Chief Enabling Officer (Lou) and get Lou to be the one to coddle her and protect the high performers.

    Trust me. You don’t want to be a failed family business because you cushioned the fail-siblings in a nice cozy nest, while giving your non-family high performers short shrift. Even if your business doesn’t fail, it will get some bad Glassdoor reviews or word of mouth, and you will have trouble finding competent non-family employees. Please don’t be one of the legions of family businesses complained about on AAM because they coddle family and treat non-family badly.

  38. VP of Monitoring Employees' LinkedIn Profiles*

    [If Sarah’s top objective is to protect Bobby at all costs, does it make sense for you and Lou to remain in business with her?]

    Protecting one person At All Costs is ALWAYS a bad business plan. Would it be possible to get rid of Bobby by buying out Sarah’s share of the business?

  39. Red Flag Parade*

    This post reads like a huge warning away from family businesses. The answers and solutions are obvious, but no one wants to implement them. They don’t need an advice columnist, they need backbone.

  40. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    Lord have mercy, family-owned companies! Unfortunately, I’ve worked for a few and had to deal numerous times with the otherwise-unemployable relative on staff who thinks they can come and go as they please and essentially does nothing, creates extra work for the real employees by screwing up, thinks they’re also a boss because their relative owns the place, knows nothing about what the company does but acts like a total know-all because they’re related to the owner, etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately, some owners also view it that the business is there for the benefit of the family first and foremost, including the ne’er-do-well relatives. I could go on forever, but I have to go sort my laundry. Red Flag Parade is right. Stay away!

  41. Industry Behemoth*

    I can’t speak to their employee situation, but I knew of a wealthy family-owned company whose board of directors consisted of the family members and their spouses.

    It was very discouraging to see that all the women were of the type, “Oh, my husband handles everything and I just do what he tells me to do.“

  42. Michelle Smith*

    You absolutely know what you need to do, and that’s fire Bobby. Like yesterday. If Sarah is unwilling to get on board with that, it’s time to start thinking about whether to buy her out of the business.

  43. Specks*

    If your husband and best friend want to financially support their siblings, that’s fine. But why does it have to be done through your business? Sarah can just cut her brother a check, but you should take a stand for it not coming out of business expenses and not bringing down morale and turning off staff. Same goes for your husband’s sister.

  44. Kella*

    The thing that sticks out to me in this situation is the reality that, short of police intervention (which would not be appropriate here) you cannot force another person to do what you want them to do.

    It sort of sounds like you are all waiting and hoping for Bobby to get his act together. But if Bobby does not want to improve his performance and low performance has zero impact on his job security, he’s not going to improve, no matter what you do. So, proceed with the assumption that Bobby will always be a poor performer and that this will harm your business in measurable ways.

    But this idea is necessary for working with Sarah, too. If you haven’t outright told Sarah she needs to fire Bobby, then definitely do that. But if this has been attempted multiple times before and Sarah won’t budge, then you also need to assume that Sarah is never going to enforce consequences on Bobby, or sign off on him being paid to do nothing, or any number of solutions that actually lead to Bobby no longer working there. Prepare for the possibility that Sarah will not be willing to work with you on this. If that happens, what actions are in your control? Can you stay in business with someone who has decided to actively sabotage the functionality and moral of your team?

  45. Tiger Snake*

    OP, I’m sorry to be blunt: you’re part of the problem. Its not just Sarah, or Leah. Its all three of you.

    Because you see, right now, you’re telling Sarah something needs to be done. But then you don’t do anything. You’re not having the uncomfortable conversation; you’re threatening to have the uncomfortable situation and then… not.

    I’m being blunt because for this to get solved, you can’t pin it on Sarah and wait for her to solve it. You can’t sit on the sidelines and say it’s her problem, or she’s the problem. You need to be proactive at forcing an actual decision too, and if the others haven’t done anything for 10 years, then not you’re accountable for making sure that happens.

    You need to go forward with the idea that all three of you are the problem. You’re an equal partner of the business, and both Bobby and Jackson are your employees too. Until that happens, you’re supporting the status quo just as much as Sarah is.

  46. SB*

    If OP is incapable of having uncomfortable conversations with Lou & Sarah about the deadweight the company is carrying then OP deserves to have these terrible employees.

    If OP is serious about getting rid of the problem it’s time to put on some grown up pants & have a serious discussion with Lou & Sarah about Bobby AND Leah & your intention to cut them both loose.

  47. Raida*

    brutal way to do it:

    Have a meeting of the three partners.
    Vote 2-1 to fire him.

    Tell the third partner they can use their own money to give him an allowance, that’s fine, but it’s unacceptable to be using business funds and e is an unacceptable business risk.

  48. Jessica_Jay*

    My family was in pretty much the same situation. The details don’t matter so much, but the problem element was my uncle, who owned half the business, and had been Behaving Badly (and criminally!) for years with all the morale problems and heartache that came with it. His two kids were also employed in the company and not faring much better. Removing them was a nightmare as you can imagine, and cost an absolutely literal million dollars to buy him out, but it was done.

    I’m not saying this to illustrate the nightmare it is to remove entrenched family members, I’m saying this to let you know that after the hard part was over, things got infinitely better. Morale soared, everyone had renewed faith in management, and it generally felt like a huge burden had been lifted. It tore the family apart, but what was there really left to preserve at that point? If I understand correctly, the problematic family members don’t even need to be bought out in this case. As impossible as it feels, it really is just a thing that you can just… do. You can just do that. I know *you* don’t need to hear that, LW, you know that, but it really is worth emphasizing with everyone involved that sometimes things need to get worse before they get better. It’s so easy to only focus on the terrible part, the part where you rock the boat to the point that families might fracture, that it becomes almost impossible to imagine a life without this problem. Things really came to a head in our case, there really was nothing left to do but take action, so I don’t think anyone was prepared for how freeing the result would be, and how cathartic it was to finally lance that boil. Everyone’s stress levels went way down, on every level of the company, and the certainty among the staff that management would (eventually) do the right thing is something no amount of money can buy.

    I really wish that for you and your partners. It’s ugly, it’s impossibly hard, but it can be done and there is absolutely light at the end of that tunnel.

    1. Inkognyto*

      my uncle started his own construction business almost 2 decades ago, and in his bylaws, it says “No family will be hired” or something similar.

      He’s seen too much of a problem. Some of my cousins got irked and he said “I love you guys, but if you don’t meet the company needs, we would both feel bad when I have to let you go”

      He also saw my father hire my cousin as an apprentice electrician and it didn’t work out. He had to let him go.

  49. Daisy-dog*

    Late to the commenting game. I worked at an organization where the original owners of the business were given a large payout when the company was bought by a PE firm. Most of them moved on, except for one (who wasn’t visibly a primary owner – people who had been around at the time of the sale didn’t even know he had equity). This employee had a contract that stated after he chose to retire, he would continue to be paid his salary on the normal payroll schedule for 6 months plus the value of the cost of COBRA. Technically, he was supposed to give 30 days notice before his retirement date, but he lost his temper on his whole team and we decided together that should be his last day.

    Could that be arranged for Leah? It can be for longer than 6 months if necessary. Not the most ideal for morale, but better than giving her a meaningless title with no work.

  50. Avid Reader*

    So many families treat their business as a protected cash cow for the family members as a source of income and employment. Can the LW do an analysis of what the costs are of maintaining these “underperforming” family members against the loss of the high performing employees with the cost of losing institutional experience and the acquisition and training of replacements? It is costing all of them money to keep this charade going, perhaps that will help make the point.

  51. Snow Day*

    I would maybe come at this from a different side. Family dynamics are entrenched. For decades. I can just hear the home conversations: “we can’t fire Bobby because he always hosts Thanksgiving and it would ruin our holidays”. “We can’t fire Leah because she’s our child’s godmother”. And “he’s always been like that, nothing will change”. All of which might be true, but that is why Sarah cannot be Bobby’s manager. She’s been enabling him forever.
    Most of the 243 (!!) comments that are here seem to have a theme of “get tough, give them both the hammer”.
    I am assuming this business does not have an HR department?
    I completely agree that the issue needs to be addressed and the best outcome might be to get rid of Leah and Bobby. But find a method that preserves some shred of dignity for them and family harmony. Like start with questions to each of them. “How is it going”, “what direction do you think the business is taking and where do you fit in”, and even the dreaded “where do you see yourself in 5 years”. That opens a conversation about expectations and performance. Maybe (in some twisted fashion) they think they are staying out of a sense of loyalty. I don’t think you can go from being an accommodating and spineless family business partner to suddenly a hard fisted autocrat. Asking questions and sharing observations leads to further conversation and resolution. Even if the conversation ends up being “we don’t think you can stay”.

  52. Former_Employee*

    Reading between the lines, I get the feeling that Leah may just be a likeable ditz while Bobby gets on everyone’s nerves.

    I agree with the idea that if Bobby is to be kept on that his salary come out of Sarah’s share and that they find a way to have him report to Sarah. Since he’s only 49, if nothing changes he could cause real problems with the business in the next 10+ years.

    Leah doesn’t seem like the same level of problem based on the OP’s description and she is apparently retiring fairly soon. Still, to be fair, they could agree that Leah’s salary would come out of Lou’s share and if Leah causes any problems that she will report to Lou.

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