By Deborah Gantos

The following situations are composites of real case studies. All names and identifiers have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Situation 1

Mom and Dad own the business and have five children: Samuel, oldest son; Russ, second oldest son; Sheila, oldest daughter; Ernie next oldest son and Waldo, youngest son. Favoritism is rampant in this family business. The oldest son, Samuel, is a slacker who plays Angry Birds all day long. Sam is a “mamma’s boy.” He is “helping” manage the business. Second oldest, Russ, is hard-working but not recognized for his contributions. Russ is very mechanical and can fix anything. He also is very intuitive in re-designing the company’s day-to-day mechanical maintenance. Russ does not get much attention from Mom or Dad and is considered the “lost child” in the family. Sheila is “daddy’s little girl’, has a “princess” attitude and irritates everyone, especially her Mom, co-owner of the business. Sheila’s role is the female baby of the family, which is heightened by the fact she is the only girl. Sheila has a drug addiction; however, when she is lucid, is very smart and has an MBA with very good suggestions in improving the business. Ernie is the family clown who gets attention by telling jokes and entertaining everyone to ease tensions. Waldo, Sales Manager, lives up to his name, as in “Where’s Waldo?” Waldo is the male baby of the family.

Situation 2

Bob and Mary are co-owners of the business. They have 4 children. Mindy, the oldest, is the family hero, who tries to continually gain her parents’ approval. She spends hours working and has dedicated her life to the business, much to the dismay of her spouse. They have no children. The parents take all Sheila’s hard work and dedication for granted. Second oldest is Donald, who is in charge of the plant. Don is a dictator who is not liked by the employees. His word is law and he plays favorites. Several women in the business have complained the he makes crude remarks and inappropriate gestures to them. James is Bob’s (the co-owner’s) younger brother. James feels like he should be in charge of the business and tries to discredit Bob. Irene is the middle child, who acts as the negotiator between Don and Mindy. Ann-Marie, the youngest, shows up once in a while to collect her paycheck. Her official title is “Quality Control Manager.” Obviously, there is no quality and no control! Mary, Bob’s wife and co-owner, feels she does not get the recognition for all she does from Bob, her children or the store’s non-family employees. Mary is not paid for efforts and feels resentful.


There are many dynamics in a family business: husband/wife; father/sibling; mother/sibling, and other family relationships like brothers, sisters, cousins; mother/male and female offspring, father/male and female offspring. Then we can compound it all with blended families and stepchildren!

So what is the solution? Many times, a consultant who is also a specialist in family counseling, can help. The counselor can identify the main issues and then conduct “family meetings” to mediate and contain the emotions and hidden agendas of each of the family members. The non-family members also need to be taken into consideration. The counselor models good communication, proper conduction of business and family meetings and remains objective.

These are complex situations which really need a professional. When family and business are so enmeshed, an expert with a strong counseling/business background is worth every dollar you may pay. First of all, as consultant/counselor, I meet individually with family members to gather their “side” of the situation. Absolute confidentiality is A MUST. A skilled consultant knows how to achieve this. Also important is charting family relationships via a genogram or another similar instrument. This reveals the interplay between all the individuals. Getting some information on in-laws who are influencers is also essential. This phase allows the professional to see the areas of conflict and other behaviors that go on between individual family members i.e., jealousy, sibling rivalry, unresolved past situations, etc. Individual challenges like addiction, physical or mental illness. In addition to those components, possible legal issues, like sexual harassment, must be addressed and referred to the appropriate resources.

Next, I administer a personality inventory, to be used as a basis for understanding some reasons why people behave as they do. Once everyone has done this, I do a presentation on the different personality types, along with other activities, engaging everyone in the discussion. When people learn the whys of the learned behaviors that happen in families, the blame, guilt and anger can be lessened. Of course, this is the optimal outcome. Sometimes, individual family members may need additional help. I also suggest a follow-up in a month or so to check progress and reinforce healthy behaviors. Periodic follow-ups maintain positive outcomes.

Can these business be saved? The answer is Yes!

Final Words and Questions

I would like to hear from our readers how they have handled similar problems in their business. All responses are confidential and the best suggestions will be printed anonymously in the next issue.