Family Matters: How to Handle Personal Relationships in the Workplace

In the plumbing industry, it’s easy for home life to bleed into the workplace and vice versa. Here are a couple examples of how contractors handle working alongside family members.

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There are countless family-run operations in this industry. Take the Larson family.

Larry and Chrystalla Larson founded what is now known as C&L Water Solutions in 1979 in Littleton, Colorado. Eventually sons Chris and Jason became involved in the company, and not long ago, they formally took over operations completely from their parents. Over the years of working alongside each other, the family members would often openly debate and dispute ideas and strategies proposed during monthly managers meetings. And in the heat of battle, things sometimes got a little personal.

“The biggest problem that arises while working with family members is that there’s no line between business and family,” Chris Larson says. “For whatever reasons, it’s easier to forget there should be respect and mutual appreciation. I sometimes find myself disagreeing with my brother before the third word about an idea or proposal comes out of his mouth. It’s so much easier to disagree with family members faster than you would with, say, an employee.”

It can be a challenge to keep business impersonal when family is involved.

To avoid damaging public conflicts in front of employees, the Larsons developed a simple, but strategic workaround when they were all regularly working together: Meet once a month in a setting outside the company and hash things out ahead of time, before the monthly staff meetings. Instead of settling things out in the open, they tried to work through issues among themselves first, as systematically and dispassionately as possible.

“We do things like go through next month’s goals and work schedule and talk about purchasing decisions,” Chris Larson says. “That way, everyone is on the same page when the managers meeting comes around.”

Larry and Chrystalla Larson (middle), founders of C&L Water Solutions in Littleton, Colorado, alongside sons Jason and Chris, who now run the company.
Larry and Chrystalla Larson (middle), founders of C&L Water Solutions in Littleton, Colorado, alongside sons Jason and Chris, who now run the company.

These are Larson's top pieces of advice for family members working in a business together: Never take each other for granted. Always treat each other with respect. Don’t handle differences in front of other employees. And when things get heated, take a break and talk later when cooler heads can prevail.

“There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing,” Larson says. “We encourage debate. People are passionate about their opinions and we want that. But families are more prone to attack each other personally because we know how to press each others’ buttons. So it’s important to remain respectful.”

Family members running a business together and essentially being equals within the company’s structure is one thing. Hiring family members as employees is another. When you’re in need of a new hire, it can be tempting to go with what is familiar, and what’s more familiar than family? But it can make maintaining a healthy boss/employee relationship tricky, warns Dave Kaster, the principal at Fidelis LLC, a certified business advisory service in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“Hiring a family member and changing the nature of that relationship causes all kinds of different questions and stress. It makes it hard to run a business and make business decisions,” Kaster says.

Jacqui and Jeff Logan, owners of Scenic City Plumbing in Hixson, Tennessee
Jacqui and Jeff Logan, owners of Scenic City Plumbing in Hixson, Tennessee

Jeff Logan, owner of Scenic City Plumbing, has hired a number of family members to work at his Hixson, Tennessee, business. Overall, the results have been positive. 

Jacqui Logan, Jeff Logan’s wife and co-owner of Scenic City Plumbing, has been the company bookkeeper for the past 30 years. Initially she worked part time from home and later transitioned into full-time office work. She handles a wide range of clerical and accounting tasks.

When the company’s office manager retired several years ago, Scenic City Plumbing hired Jeff Logan’s sister, a former dental hygienist. Later, Jeff Logan hired a niece as a part-time receptionist. Nephews of the Logans also work for Scenic City Plumbing.

Jeff Logan has this advice when employing family members:

  • Be firm. Don’t let family members take advantage of you.
  • Treat all employees the same. Don’t show favoritism.
  • Separate your work life and home life. Don’t bring the day’s work problems home.     
  • Be flexible. Don’t take a harsh approach when reprimanding family members.

“There are pros and cons to running a family business,” Logan says. “It’s important to remember that everyone on the staff is trying to achieve the same goal: Get the work done and satisfy the customer.”


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