How To Work With Family and Maintain Your Sanity

I worked with two family members for over three years. One relationship was Beautiful, the other was dysfunctional.  Here's what you should consider before working with family.


Honestly, the first thing I want to say is: don't do it! 😄

If there’s things about the family member that annoys, frustrates or angers you outside of a workplace environment chances are those grievanaces will only be amplified by the pressures of building and maintaining a business.  Decline and remove the drama that would inevitably come with this life-crumbling decision. I know how the story ends. 😄

I worked for my Dad knowing full well how controlling and egocentric he is.  I worked 60+ hours a week.  My boyfriend was complaining about how much I was in my phone and computer.  My Dad would call while I was on my way to a movie, post-coital, out having drinks. I was never off the clock.  I went to D.C. last fall with my friends and took my computer to breakfast.  Ya'll!  I was a workaholic.  And that's because that is the precedent that my father set.  I respect it, it's necessary when it's a small business...but I also didn't have vacation all of 2017.

But during this time I was also working with my cousin Krishna. We worked so well together.  I can honestly say I've never had one argument with her.  Our personalities match.  We both care about the quality of the work we produce and we both have great work ethic (a.k.a. I never felt like the kid on the team doing the entire group project).

Krishna also didn't mind being managed by her younger cousin.  Managing an elder can be a serious strain on the work relationship.  Ensure that whoever is being managed understands that criticism is necessary and never personal.  And whoever is the manager/supervisor, ensure that they understand tact and accountability.

If you want to work with family consider your individual personalities, strengths and weaknesses,  work styles and work values.  Ask them how they work under pressure, so you can brace yourself. Discover how they are with criticism about their creative work, so you can give productive critiques. Determine if they enjoy the small details over the big picture, so you all can make sure you're both in roles that fit.

My cousin Krishna is a graphic designer and we've been working together closely for over six years. We work so well together that we're starting our own social media service business.  So while I wanna be all cynical about family-work relationships...they can work!  But they can also be dysfunctional and toxic.


I'll tell ya this, if I ever work for my Dad again I'll be sure to use the following  five steps to make sure my emotional wellness (and social life) remain intact.


5 actions to take in order to keep your sanity while working with family


1. Set Boundaries

Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Do not sign the contract. Do not, under any circumstances, go into business with family without outlining your boundaries.

If I could do it all over I would put my boundaries in my contract because that’s probably the only way my Dad would have abided.

Are you someone who wavers when it comes to boundary setting? Chances are you have few moments of peace. You better become a master at boundary setting because this world is built, for and by, folks who are masters at manipulation and soul-draining.

Here’s some examples of boundaries you may want to set in order to deal with family members at work. Go over your boundary agreement in a formal business meeting:


“We agree…”:

To limit the amount of interactions we have at the office.

To leave all work matters at the office.

That we will not play favorities. 

To create ‘Family Only’ time.

To set clear and measurable roles and goals from the beginning. (No surprises. If needed, we will meet about new goals and duties.)

That, when necessary, reprimanding will be professional not personal.

To sit on opposite ends of the office. 

To keep everything in the office professional, no talk about the family or personal business.

To stay in business together passed on skill and knowledge, not guilt or force.

That we will not assume the other can anticipate the other’s needs.

Respect the boundaries laid out in this document.


Determine the boundaries that work best for you and that particular family member.

My cousin and I could talk personal and business in the same conversation without any disharmony to our work relationship.

However, I purposefully stopped telling my Dad my personal business because any scent of new interests or people - he would use it to criticize the work I produced.  Different boundaries for different folks. Each agreement looks different. But with everyone:


Have grace when you set these boundaries. 

Ask them after reading through each item together, “Do you understand?” or “Do you understand why this boundary is important for me and our relationship?” This will ensure that this conversation is a conversation and not just an authoritator laying out ground rules. (But I mean, that is kinda what’s happening. You better follow the rules or else! Nonetheless, we want to be gentle. This is family after all.)

Be firm. People respect people who respect themselves ( I don’t think this is an absolute, but it works right now). Your parent, sibling or cousin may not be able to accept these boundarie right away. Perhaps you’ve never laid out boundaries in such clear terms before. Or ever! You’re telling them they can’t cross a line that they never knew was there.

Well it’s there now. And tell them you’re playing border patrol!  All the while - be graceful, be patient, be firm.

Protect yourself from harm. Set. Those. Boundaries. 


2.  Expect Anger


People be pressed. And emotions will inevitably be involved when you deal with a loved one.  There's already baggage.  There's going to be times when things get personal instead of staying professional.  Even if one family member tries to have tact when criticizing, emotions will get involved.  And the receiver will wonder the "real" reason behind their remarks.  

Brace for anger. Brace for impact. Brace for the fuckery that is people’s fragile egos.  

Most of all, do not compromise professionalism (I know, that's harder said than done). 


3.  Rally Your Support Team

Vent-squad. Your sanity protectors. The calming crew.

Gather them.  Set Happy-Hour dates.  Add them to your ‘Favorites’ on your phone. 'Cause when your family pisses you off. You’ll need to vent.

But your squad probably has their boudnaries too. So be mindful. 

Be aware of how often, and how much you vent. They may need an ear as well. (Or they may just be tired of hearing about your crazy-ass daddy - Damn!)

Your support team, whether friends or other family members (careful here), isn’t your therapist. They are also there to ease the pressure of work-life, so enjoy life with them when you can.


4.  Don’t Assume They Will Understand How You Work, Just Because They Know You

Expectations are a nasty thing.  My Dad would expect different results from me just because I was his daughter.  His ‘heir.’  I was probably held to a higher standard than his entire staff, even though I was the youngest and “most inexperienced.”  

More than that though, my Dad would continually get frustrated because I did not organize the Dropbox folders like he does, or because of the way I managed staff.  He expected that I would work the same way he did because he had an understanding of the person I am.  We both work hard but we work very differently.  

So, to spare all of this back-n-forth. It is of the utmost importance that before you sign shit - KNOW WHAT YOUR FAMILY MEMBER IS EXPECTING FROM YOU.

Before your first day.  Know:

- What skills are needed for the position?

- What metrics do I need to hit.

- Who do I report to? Who reports to me?

- What are my list of duties?

- Who is on my team? And does that include my family member?

- Who do I report to if I cannot resolve an issue with my supervisor? Will it have to be my family member or a different department head?

-  Your limit.  There will be tension, there will be growing pains.  You may be a younger family member having to manage or instruct an elder.  That is crazy new territory!  They're used to schooling you and now they're reporting to you.  Friction and arguments may come up.  There's only so much arguing, reconciling and "sweeping it under the rug" you can put up with.  Sometimes working with family sucks your energy dry, or even turns you into a different person. When I couldn't recognize myself (and got tired of being taken for granted) I left. 


5. Reinforce Said Boundaries...

Cause no one loves crossing the line more than people who feel most entitled to your space, your time or your energy more than your family.

Once you know what lines can and cannot be crossed you will need to draw over those lines again and again to be sure it is understood.  Because someone can understand your rules, and still be careless enough to disobey them.

Be the enforcer. Because no one can, or will, protect your well-being more than you. You are the sole-proprietor of your peace of mind. Ya hear me?

If one of your boundaries are “Do not ask me for work on Saturday and Sunday” do not accept work on Saturday and Sunday.  Believe me, if you slip up one time and say “Yeah, that should be quick, I’ll handle that for you” you will be handed another weekend assignment.

Do not give away your power - not even to family, not even to a parent. 

Do not become a participant in your own violation. 

Enforce and defend the boundaries you laid out in Step #1. 


That's all folks! Well at least that's all I got for you.  I learned so much working for my hard-working father.  And while there were many tears shed and yells exchanged I gained so much as a professional - and my resignation letter to my father turned out to be the first draft of my first book!  


Collect those blessings in disguise!