Don’t be fooled by the ‘workplace family’

“WE’RE like family here.”
That is a line that seems enshrined in the collective unconsciousness of American workers. They spend more than 2 000 hours per year with their co-workers, so it seems only natural that they should think of them as family.

They celebrate birthdays together, honour anniversaries, hang out at happy hours … these people are like a second family. Right?
Not necessarily, says Alison Green, who runs the career advice blog Ask a Manager and whose latest book, which has the same title, was published earlier this year.
“There’s nothing wrong with loving your work, enjoying your company and having good will towards your co-workers,” she advises. “We all should strive to work in jobs like that. But it’s still okay, and even good, to put yourself first in the long run.”

Tim Herrera of The New York Times spoke to Green.

Tim Herrera: “What’s so bad about calling our workplace our family?”

Alison Green: “Work can definitely be a place where you have warm, supportive relationships with your co-workers and genuinely care about each other, but they’re not families. That might sound like semantics, but ‘We’re like a family here’ tends to be used in ways that disadvantage workers.

“It often means that boundaries get violated and people are expected to show inappropriate amounts of commitment and loyalty, even when it’s not in their self-interest. I suppose, in theory, it would be possible to use ‘We’re like family here’ to mean ‘We all know each other well, communicate well and serve you delicious food on a regular basis,’ but in practice, the companies and managers who say this are usually dysfunctional.”

TH: “So it can sometimes be code for, ‘We expect to be the top priority in your life.’”?

AG: “A lot of times, yes. Or it means ‘We expect you to be loyal to us even though we won’t necessarily return that loyalty when the chips are down.’ Or ‘We’re going to lean on you to work long hours, accept lower pay and not complain about bad management because, hey, we’re family and asking for a raise or flex time will mean you’re not a team player.”

TH: “That is really depressing!”

AG: “I should say, it’s not generally a deliberate strategy. Employers aren’t out there rubbing their hands together and cackling evilly about how they’ll pull one over on people. Rather, it’s that the ‘family’ mindset tends to stem from dysfunction and tends to breed more of it.”

TH: “So if talking about work as family can be a sign of bad management or organisational dysfunction, should we run for the hills if we hear someone say it in a job interview?”

AG: “Not necessarily, but it’s a flag to pay close attention to the culture and to take other red flags you see seriously. And really do your due diligence – don’t just take your interviewer’s word for how things run there. Talk to people who have worked there or who have contacts who have and do all you can to learn about what it’s really like there.”

TH: “How can we sort of navigate around that culture if we’re already in it? No one wants to be the person who says, ‘Nope, you’re not my family, cool it,’ but realistically, how can we express that sentiment in a tactful, professional way?”

AG: “The most important thing is not to let that framework get into your own head. You don’t need to correct your manager every time they say it, but you’ve got to be vigilant about ensuring that you stay really clear in your own mind that this is business, not family, no matter what your employer is telling you.
“That means that you stay really clear about the fact that it’s okay to look out for yourself and advocate for yourself. It’s okay to say, ‘No, I’m not going to work 60 hours this week.’ And know that it’s not a personal betrayal if you decide to move on.
“In fact, not only is approaching work that way good for you, but by modelling that in a calm, matter-of-fact way, you can sometimes influence the culture of your workplace a little, if your colleagues see that it’s okay to do.”

TH: “Reed Hastings of Netflix has a famously shrewd outlook on this whole concept: A workplace is a team, and if a teammate isn’t performing well enough, they must be cut for the good of the team. ‘Adequate performance gets a generous severance package.’ Harsh, but is that a healthier way to think about work?”

AG: “I think that’s a much healthier view! Work works best when each side has healthy boundaries in place – and when each side recognises that if they’re not getting what they need from the other, it’s okay to seek it out somewhere else. That doesn’t mean that it’s not important for employers to treat employees with empathy, respect and kindness; it absolutely is. But we can also be honest about the nature of the relationship at the same time.”

TH: “Any parting words?”

AG: “I want people to know it’s all right to treat work like work. We’re being paid to be there, and most of us wouldn’t show up otherwise. We don’t need to pretend that’s not the case.”

This article was first published in The New York Times

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