Posted by fxckfeelings on July 27, 2009Share This Post
When you work at a family business, you often feel obliged to go above and beyond what would normally be expected of you. But if “above and beyond” means your job has forced you into a moral quandary and a double life as a cop or therapist, then it’s time to forget family and get rational. And if you still can’t figure out a solution, it’s time to get a new job.
My family has had a business going back three generations; now my dad’s in charge, my sister and I work there, plus a bunch of cousins, aunts, and uncles. I was looking through one of my client’s files when I saw some numbers that looked off. Going through the records, it became clear that this was a persistent inaccuracy, so I went to my sister, who actually does the accounting. She was really upset I’d come to her—she admitted she’d cooked the books a bit, and hoped I wouldn’t notice—but begged me not to say anything to anyone or be mad, because our father had told her to do it, and said he had a good reason. I don’t want to ask my father what that reason is—even though I can’t imagine what reason he has in mind—but I do want him to stop, because he’s putting the entire business in danger. At the same time, he’s my father, and if I do challenge him, it would really upset him and everyone else in the family. They respect him and would consider it disloyal to question his judgment or put the family in trouble. But wouldn’t going under or getting sued also upset the family? I’ve always believed in doing the right thing, but is it right to confront him and get everyone mad at me and possibly lose my job, or to say nothing and be part of something dishonest? It’s killing me not to have an answer, and that’s my goal.
If you assume that there’s always a good way to do right—that there’s a black and white right and wrong—you’ll often make things worse for you and your loved ones. Simple-minded idealists probably do more harm in this world than all the thieves combined.
The problem with these idealists is that they elevate the peaceful feeling of a good conscience above considering what happens next or whom it harms. If this actually were a simpler world where the only temptations came from destructive or selfish impulses, and all of us really had the same ability to choose between good and evil…well then, that sounds like a very simple, logical place to be. But it also sounds like one nation under Skynet.
In reality, of course, this is a messy world, full of assholes who can’t help being assholes, stupid loyalties that get people to do stupid things, and moral choices that are really more limited than they seem because our control is limited. In your case, honesty may destroy your family business, get you fired, and stop your relatives from talking to you forever.
A better goal is to try to do good after adding up what you really think will happen. Instead of telling your father what he should do or threatening to turn him in (and getting your family fucked), see if you can make things better and figure out what you should do with yourself if you can’t. See if you, or anyone, can persuade your father that the lower risks of honest book-keeping outweigh the disadvantages of lower income, without making him feel threatened or humiliated.
If not, then confronting him won’t do good and may do considerable harm, so look for work elsewhere without implying that your departure is condemnation. Remember, when you can’t solve a problem, you can remove yourself from it, family or no.
Prepare a statement that offers your father good advice with minimum provocation. “I love the family business and respect all the hard work you’ve done to keep it going. It’s supported us all. But I’m concerned about the accounting system because I think it puts us at risk of appearing dishonest and I would much prefer a more straightforward accounting, even if it reduces our profits. With great respect, that’s my recommendation.” And your explanation for leaving the business, if you need to, goes no further than that.
I work for my older brother, and I’m the first to admit that he’s kind of an asshole. I tried going out on my own and running a restaurant, but that went under, so I had to come back to ask him for a job with my tail between my legs and he gave me a mediocre position at a lower-than-normal wage. I took it, because I’ve got child support to pay, and since then I’ve gotten better at dealing with his shit and learning to do business on his terms (I’ve even nudged his greedy ass into a raise or two). Still, I know he’s a shark, and he’s always going to treat me like a fuck-up, but we’re brothers, we have a system, I do OK. Problem is, like most companies right now, we’re hurting, and with his interpersonal style, conditions for employees here are especially harsh. I just took a pay-cut, and everyone else is getting just as if not more screwed. But since I’m the boss’ brother—the not-asshole—all the other employees are coming to me, hoping that if I hear them out, I’ll go to my brother on their behalf. I want to, because I know what a dick he is, but I also know it won’t do any good because he’s an asshole and I don’t have any more sway with him than they do. So what do I do? I want to help these people, but I don’t think I can, and I’m sick of being the middleman.
One valuable lesson you’ve learned, and that your colleagues might learn from observing you, is that you’re more interested in making a living than in airing your anger about your brother’s shit. As for hearing other people air their anger…well, that’s my gig. And unless you can charge my rates, stick to your day job.
You seem to assume that work often requires you to eat shit and that, if it’s in a good cause and you’re eating no more than necessary, that’s what makes life life and you a mature guy.
I also assume that you’ve learned, from experience, that telling your brother he’s treated you badly or unfairly will get you an extra heaping portion of the brown porridge, so that you’ve stopped doing that. You know Mom and Dad aren’t around to set him straight and that sharing your feelings about his being an asshole will not lead to a brotherly hug.
If you’ve gotten raises, it’s probably because you’ve learned how your brother likes to see himself as a powerful man who inspires awe and gratitude among his family and employees and that, without choking on an absolute lie, you’ve met his ego’s needs.
So your goal isn’t to make your brother a better or fairer man, or make things better or fairer for you or his other employees; that’s a good way to get yourself fired and/or humiliated. And your goal isn’t to protect your fellow employees from your brother’s nastiness, because you can’t, and their belief that you can will distract them from achieving their own professionalism, much as you were once distracted.
As for your fellow-employees, you’re doing them no favor by encouraging them to see you as their protector. You can’t do it, and they’ll do better by developing their own ego-stoking and shit-eating capacities.
You’ll do better for them, and yourself, by removing yourself from the amateur shrink game, picking up golf, and celebrating quitting time. And if you’re still too guilty to stop registering everyone’s complaints, at least charge by the hour.
Compose a statement to remind you of the difference between outward humiliation and inward respect. “I don’t like this job or the way my brother treats people, but I try to follow my own standards regardless. I also try to look for a better job. Meanwhile, I respect myself for eating shit as necessary. I have no power to intervene with my brother on their behalf, but I can show them how to make the best of working for him, and they can make use of the lesson if they’re willing to accept the unavoidable pain it requires.
More advice from Dr. Lastname