How to fire a family member
Business consultant: "Sir, the problem with your business is your son he's incompetent and destructive. You gotta fire him right away."
Business owner: "I know it. Just one problem. I have to sleep with his mother."
That well-worn joke points out an all-too-common problem with many businesses: a family member hired who eventually proves a bad fit. He has to go.
Canning anyone is like firing a torpedo at a military target. Firing a family member is akin to shooting at a ship teeming with widows and orphans. That means it's critical to bear a few strategies in mind to make the split as amicable as possible.
Know what you're getting into
The first rule of thumb is to recognize that it's likely not going to be a barrel of laughs. Letting any employee go can be difficult; handing your kin a pink slip can be downright devastating on any number of levels.
"It's almost impossible to 'effectively' fire a family member, because of family issues," says Quentin Fleming, author of the book "Keep the Family Baggage out of the Family Business." "It's a family incident. The person who's fired will turn to other family members. The owner who fires another family member will be contacted by family members who are going to condemn him for disloyalty."
Fun, fun, fun. But that sort of stress makes it essential to approach the decision purely within a business framework. Emphasize performance and suitability to a position. If someone simply isn't up to the job, it's important that change occur, no matter if the employee is a relative or not.
"Owners need to give themselves permission to operate the business like a business," Fleming says. "When faced with a decision, they should ask themselves what good business practice dictates. Then they should do it. The business can't allow the fact that someone happens to be a family member to interfere with what the situation demands."
You don't have to say you're sorry
That means approaching the situation as empirically as possible. Track how a family member has performed and outline every reason why things simply aren't panning out. Be as detailed as possible in your thinking that led to the decision to turn someone loose.
A business owner faced with firing a relative should not be gun-shy about telling other family members to back off. If you're getting it from all sides, consider who's doing the talking. Put bluntly, some people have more right to whine than others.
"Not everything that occurs in the business is open to family discussion. People need to adhere to their business roles," Fleming says. "If they don't have a role in the business, they need to mind their own business and stay out."
Finally, to swipe a line from "Love Story" screenwriter Erich Segal, canning a relative means never having to say you're sorry. If you've compiled an adequate array of reasons for the change, any backpedaling on your part only lets the subjective dynamics of family life dictate what has to be a practical business decision.
"Family members will try to make the situation personal [by saying] 'How can you do this to me? I'm family!'" Fleming says. "But if the business owner is applying good business practices to the situation, he has absolutely nothing to apologize for."
Set family members' expectations upfront
Know, too, that the issue of poor family/employee performance isn't purely retroactive. If you've yet to drive off the bridge of having to fire a relative, consider these steps to solve a problem before it even crops up:
If in doubt, keep the family out. Hiring a family member isn't one of the Ten Commandments. Granted, we all like to help our loved ones, but don't assume that a relative by virtue of blood alone is the best choice for a particular job. "When looking for employees, go outside the family," Fleming says. "Owners need to identify the roles needed by the business, define them clearly and define qualifications. If and only if a family member meets them should he or she be hired. This forces a family business to operate more like a business and less like a public works program."
Define a philosophy and stick to it. Hiring anyone should mandate a set of performance parameters. If they don't measure up, show them the door. Make sure that you establish clearly what you expect of any employee, family members and otherwise. That works on several levels. For one thing, a relative who's an ideal fit for a job knows full well what her job entails, and that can bolster performance. By the same token, relatives brought on for less appealing reasons either Cousin Zeke gets the vice president job or he's living out of a refrigerator box won't be caught off-guard if and when the hammer comes down. "Articulate your company's philosophy and practices," Fleming says. "That can head off inappropriate or unrealistic expectations."