Two Things to Consider Before Hiring Your Family or Friends

|June 16, 2020
Two Men Shaking Hands

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Given the passionate responses to Mark Ford’s essay on the pitfalls of hiring friends and Andy Snyder’s follow-up, I wanted to add my two cents on the subject.

So far it’s 2 against hiring friends and family and 0 for.

I certainly appreciate the catastrophes offered in the essays, but as the owner of a small family business I think you can create protocols to minimize the problems.

I operate a farm with about 25 team members and also own an abattoir with about 20 employees.

And I’ve learned successful friends and family hiring is built on two foundations.

Start ‘Em Young

The first is about childhood. Yes, childhood.

Too often family members see a relative’s business as an easier row to hoe than working for a disconnected boss. That is why a track record of achievement is critical for the hiring process.

Spoiled childhoods can sometimes be redeemed in adulthood, but it’s rare. Usually a self-centered and soft childhood translates to entitlement and victimhood. This is bad enough with nonrelatives and nonfriends; it’s amplified with family.

In our house, we never had a TV. We worked the business – the farm. We did not do Little League. But we made time for picnics and talked constantly of the sacredness and nobility of producing authentic food and healing land. I was cultish about our mission.

We encouraged entrepreneurship and generally believed every child should have a business started sometime before they’re 10 years old. All of our grandchildren today have their own businesses that they started prior to that age (they’re now 12, 14 and 16).

I’m confident that most of the complications in hiring friends and family are a result of hiring someone who didn’t learn the value of work, the difficulty of profit and how to serve customers. If any of that is lacking, don’t hire.

But if it’s all in place, you can’t find a more compatible, loyal, dedicated partner than a family member. You can’t ride into the future on someone else’s coattails; you have to prove your own mettle and create your own value.

Set Expectations

The second foundation has to do with expectations.

My son, Daniel, who now runs day-to-day operations, points out time and again that the quickest way to destroy a relationship is to have unspoken expectations.

The best thing we ever did as a family business was sit down and create spheres of responsibility. We wrote down what needed to be done, and then people picked what they wanted to do. This created job descriptions. Rather than being confining, it was incredibly liberating because we could make independent decisions.

In line with this, in our family farm business, we try to not hire anyone by the hour; everything is by commission, performance or salary with built-in autonomous additional income.

Our apprentice manager operates a sideline maple syrup business. Our public relations lady can create and develop events, receiving a percentage of gate receipts.

Perhaps the best example of this is our daughter-in-law, Sheri. When she married Daniel, she moved to the farm and began poking around for something to do.

She took an interest in the urban neighborhood drop program we’d just launched a couple of years earlier. It was brand-new and barely stable. She took it on with no promise of income, but strictly commission-based compensation.

The rest of the family had no idea if she could sell. If we’d paid her a salary or hourly and she didn’t perform, we’d have to fire our new daughter-in-law – probably not a good thing.

Fortunately, she had enough confidence to take on the project with zero pay guarantee. She got paid only if she sold.

Boy howdy, could she sell. Some 15 years later, she has built that marketing leg into a third of our business and earns a magnificent commission. If she had not been willing to take the risk of a no-income guarantee, we would not have let her take that on.

Know the Difference

The point of all this is to hire based on pedigree. If the pedigree is good, family or friends simply enhance the relationship and output. If the pedigree is questionable, family and friends will exacerbate the inadequacies.

So the relatives part is fairly straightforward. I admit I’m hung up on the friends part.

I want my team to be friends not just with me but with each other. I want them to hang out together, to go to each other’s homes for meals, and to simply enjoy being in each other’s company. On our farm, we do a lot of meal socializing and invest heavily in a service-oriented habitat.

Everyone has intersecting circles of friendships. People join and leave those circles based on compatibility and shared vision.

Transparency and dedication to mission are foundational to trust. That means as a business you must have a clear mission statement. Everyone must know exactly why the business exists.

Most breakdowns occur when team members don’t buy in or don’t know what the mission is. Sometimes a facilitator can help navigate a thorny issue.

Timely and routine planning sessions help keep everyone in the loop. We do brainstorming sessions in order to capture ideas.

One of the biggest wastes in any business is failure to capture ideas from everyone. Creating a climate that assures every team member that their ideas are important is not easy, but it pays big dividends.

Structuring job assignments so people fail or succeed on their own without subjective performance critiques can cure a multitude of problems. An ounce of structure can cure a pound of emotion.

I love working with family. Some relatives are worth their weight in gold; others are an anchor that would sink the boat. The trick is to discern which is which.

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Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin calls himself a Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer. Others who like him call him the most famous farmer in the world, the high priest of the pasture, and the most eclectic thinker from Virginia since Thomas Jefferson. Those who don’t like him call him a bioterrorist, Typhoid Mary, a charlatan, and a starvation advocate. With a room full of debate trophies from high school and college days, 12 published books, and a thriving multigenerational family farm, he draws on a lifetime of food, farming and fantasy to entertain and inspire audiences around the world.