Should you hire your relatives?

There are always sensitive areas that need to be addressed when you hire your loved ones to help in your small business. A crucial issue is about forging a harmonious working relationship with your family-employees.
Written by Joanne Eglash, Contributor
Life as a home-based entrepreneur often seems like a juggling act, particularly if you're running your business by yourself. Suppose you have a client to visit in the morning, a mass mailing to complete in the afternoon and an emergency press release to create by 4 p.m.?

You need help. And if you still hesitate to ask a friend or family member for assistance, it's time to enroll in Business Success 101: The Basics of Bribery and Bouquets.

There are always sensitive areas that need to be addressed when you hire your loved ones, whether as full-time employees or just for a big project. Maybe your mom doesn't like you bossing her around. Maybe you're not quite as understanding as you should be when a family member makes an honest mistake. Maybe your kids feel used because they don't think you compensated them adequately.

How can you avoid these hot spots, get some help and, in return, help your family and friends understand what your business really means to you? Read on for a quick lesson.

All in the family

Lynn Proctor Windle's immediate family - including her husband, John, 46, and their teenage kids, Angela, 16, and Robert, 14 - often help out in her home-based marketing communications consulting firm. The help has made all the difference in this busy entrepreneur's life.

From 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Windle wears her marketing communications consultant hat, designing and developing media news releases and marketing materials for clients.

In addition to her marketing business, she also dons a second hat working as an assistant for her husband's real estate team, Team Windle of RE/MAX Properties.

"In addition to pushing paperwork for them, I do all the team's marketing and maintain the Web site," says Windle, who works from her home in Heath, Texas.

Although persuasive skills are key for marketing experts, Windle rarely has to use her cajoling talents with her family.

"They're almost always eager to pitch in when I get snowed under. My daughter can type faster than I can, so she does a lot of my correspondence. My husband has a phone surgically attached to his ear, so if I have a lot of calling to do, he pitches in there. My son can file, fax and do other small administrative chores," she says proudly. In addition, Windle's mother, who is retired, handles her billing.

"I've definitely got a family business going. In fact, they'll often ask if there's anything they can do to help."

Windle doesn't take her children's assistance for granted, though. During the school year, she ends her work day when her kids get home from school, though she's available for client emergencies. If she needs to meet a deadline, she'll work after Angela and Robert are in bed or she'll get up early to get the work finished.

She also invites her teens to "do their homework in my office, whether I'm in there or not. That way, they don't feel like the room's off limits." When they do work for her, Windle pays her kids for the tasks they complete.

In addition to minor office duties such as filing, Robert is assigned household responsibilities such as cleaning. His help in that regard means Windle doesn't lose work time during the day because of household chores. Those tasks are tied to special privileges and rewards like sleepovers and trips to the movies, the mall or ball games.

Windle's daughter, Angela, receives a healthy wage for her office duties, primarily completing secretarial tasks for her mom. "I type notes and correspondence, answer the phone, and run errands," says Angela, who works 10 to 12 hours each week. "Basically, I do whatever needs to be done to help meet deadlines."

How does her mother persuade her to help? "By paying me $12 an hour," says Angela. "What also works well is when she gives me privileges - like using the car - when I help."

By paying them with both monetary and non-monetary rewards, Windle feels that she's teaching her teenagers "that by working hard as a team, they earn more freedom and responsibilities - the same as if they walked into a corporate environment."

And the benefits work both ways. Because her family is actively involved in her business, Windle says, "what I do for a living is no longer a mystery to them. They know my business intimately. They know who my clients are and have talked to most of them on the phone." The family is thus united, working toward the same goals.

However, Windle admits there are some disadvantages as well. "The initial learning curve is sometimes frustrating, not necessarily for me, but for my family. For example, my mother, who retired several years before I opened my business, let her computer skills lapse. She essentially had to learn new computer billing methods [when she began working for me.]"

In addition, Windle confesses that she can occasionally become a "control freak" and get frustrated if a family member doesn't complete a task "my way."

In general, however, the roles her family members play in her business are important and beneficial to all of them, Windle feels. And she offers these tips for showing your appreciation when your family helps you with your business:

  • Reimburse them in some way. "If they won't take money," Windle says, "buy them a small gift or write them a note."

  • Make time for your relationship with them. Take coffee breaks or eat lunch together, and do other activities to bring you closer together, just as you would with a valued assistant or colleague.

  • Treat family members with the same respect you would give your colleagues and other professionals, even if they're just learning. If they do make a mistake, Windle says, "don't yell or blame them if something goes wrong."

A professional opinion

While having family members pitch in works well for Windle, Julie Barnes, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in New York City, cautions that there are some serious issues to consider.

Barnes speaks from experience on the topic of families working together in business, having been involved in her family's petroleum business for 20 years. Barnes agrees that people in a crunch should ask for help.

"My mother grew up on a farm, and everybody worked and did chores to keep the family going," Barnes says. "They worked together for their mutual benefit and survival. This is somewhat different, however, than trying to get cheap or free labor from your friends and loved ones."

If you're trying to meet a tough deadline, Barnes says, "I don't think there's anything wrong with having a [combination work session]/pizza party, as long as it's not a frequent occurrence and as long as you're appreciative and willing to [return the favor.]"

What concerns Barnes, however, as a psychologist who works with both children and adults, is the issue of children who work as part of a home-based business. "I think children should work only for the following reasons: It's necessary for the financial survival of the family or because they really want to work."

In addition, she emphasizes, parents should be sure the child's involvement in the home-based business doesn't conflict with the primary duties of childhood - school, play and extracurricular activities.

Says Barnes, "Unless the whole family must work for survival, I think children should be rewarded in pay for the hours or job they do. It teaches them important lessons about money, responsibility and the consequences of their actions. It is, after all, work, not a household chore or a school task. It should also be up to the child what to do with his or her money - within reason. Older teens and children should be paid at least minimum wage because that's what they would get in the real world. Younger children can be paid less because they can only do small tasks for short periods of time."

If you're not offering payment (for example, a close friend or relative may decline monetary reimbursement for his or her time), Barnes feels that you should "ask them, and [then] ask them again if it's all right." She also suggests you ask the person if there's another way you can pay them, perhaps by doing a reciprocal favor.

In general, Barnes sees both benefits and drawbacks to having your family help with your home-based business. The benefits include the opportunity to work with the people you love and trust the most. "You can be reasonably certain that they will do their best for you," Barnes says. But the drawbacks are also significant. Family members may feel resentful, says Barnes, or even become envious of your success.

In addition, she cautions that you may give people responsibilities they can't really manage, just because they are close to you.

"Because you're less formal," Barnes says, "you may not treat them with the respect and boundaries you would give to a professional colleague. Most important, if you have a disagreement or a problem, your personal relationship is threatened along with your business."

To avoid potential problems, Barnes suggests that you keep business and personal issues separate and be scrupulously honest when issues do come up.

Joanne Eglash is the author of How To Write A .Com Business Plan.

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