Welcome to our company—we are a family and we’re glad you’re part of it!
You are not just a student here, you’re a member of the family.
We’re not just a business. We’re a family.
Businesses, schools, banks, massive corporations, even small nonprofits often speak of their organization as a family. But is this really helpful? On the positive side, it’s an attempt to show employees, students, and members that they’re valued and not simply cogs in a machine. I think it also reflects the need we all have for a sense of meaning in our work, and as family and social bonds weaken, we often seek more purpose and community in what we do for a living.
But a business is not a family—and we should stop saying so. I realize this makes me sound like a curmudgeon, but it’s a bad idea on many levels. Rather than harmless sentiment, it’s a category error that can, in fact, weaken company culture, lead to institutional disorder, and encourage failure in leadership and management. It’s true that families and businesses are groups of people, but so is a pick-up basketball game on a Saturday afternoon, not to mention a democratically elected Senate.
There are at least three reasons it is a mistake to refer to a business, nonprofit, school, or any other organization or institution as a family.
- First, it is not true and everyone knows it.
- Second, it undermines the meaning and function of both business and the family.
- Third, instead of creating a high standard for leadership and treating people well, it does the opposite.
Sorry to Let You Go
Let me begin with the obvious. Businesses and schools are not families, and everyone knows this. One might object that, if everyone already knows it’s sentimental corporate-speak, what’s the harm?
Where do I begin? First of all, it constantly repeating something a falsehood cannot make it true. Second, creates cynicism. In every corporate event where this is uttered, truth, sincerity, and the moral seriousness of leadership is put into question. It’s a small seed, but it grows. If leaders are willing to let sentiment rule over truth on something insignificant, will they have the courage to speak truth when it actually matters?
It also creates resentment and anger. The fact that business is not a family becomes immediately obvious when someone gets fired or when 200 people get laid off.
“But I thought we were a family?”
You didn’t really believe that did you?
No, but why did you say it?
Businesses fire you. Families don’t fire you (as much as they may want to). In fact, except in very toxic situations, most families put up with behavior that no business or school would. That’s what families are for, whereas businesses don’t stand next to you during your hardest times. Nor would one expect them to. Families do, as do our closest friends. We may be fortunate to have a very good friend with whom we work, but that is an exception, and it extends beyond the business.
As if this difference between family and work is not obvious enough already: We change jobs. While this can cause a bit of disruption, most companies are structured to go on without you. If a mother leaves her family, we don’t just get a new one next week. As Vaclav Benda states beautifully, in “all other social roles we are replaceable … whether rightly or wrongly. However, such a cold calculation of justice does not reign between husband and wife, between children and parents, but rather the law of love.”
Finally, families give you a chance to be yourself and grow. Some businesses and managers also want you grow, but they also want you to deliver specific, measured value. That is what they’re paying you for. It is a relationship of commutative justice. Families, on the other hand, practice distributive justice. (See my essay “Getting Justice Right Is Harder than We Think.”)
This is so obvious I feel strange writing it. But then again, so is the fact that a business is not a family, and try to count the number of times you hear that.
False Sentiment Undermines Real Commitment
The second reason why calling a business or school a family is a problem is that it distorts the understanding of both what businesses and schools are, and what a family is. Families, schools, businesses, charities, libraries, and churches are all essential parts of society, each with its own telos—purpose and rationale. Conflating families and those other institutions does damage to them all.
The family is a pre-political unit. It’s the foundation and building block of society, formed and bound by blood and covenant. Families are essential for well-being, happiness, maturity, and mental health. Family breakdown, specifically fatherlessness, is one of the great causes of poverty, crime, suicide, and drug abuse. No other organization can substitute for the fundamental human needs that family provides. There are times when through tragedy or sin or human failure, a family breaks down, and orphanages, schools, churches, and charities have to step in. This is commendable and necessary, but it is not optimal, and none of these institutions or organizations can replace the family. When you think about what a family literally is, it makes no sense to call a business a family.
This is not to say that families can survive and thrive on their own. They need to be embedded, engaged, and supported by larger social networks, including businesses. Businesses have a very important purpose in society. They provide the means for people to make a living and support their families by providing goods and services that other people value and are willing to pay for.
John Paul II gives one of the best definitions of business in Centesimus Annus, where he writes:
The purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavoring to satisfy their basic needs and who form a particular group at the service of the whole society. Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered, which in the long term are at least equally important for the life of a business. (para. 35, emphasis mine)
Note how business is clearly personal, and personalist. It is not simply a technical association. It is a “community of persons” who join to meet their own needs by meeting the needs of others. This implies ethics and social and moral responsibility. Yet it is distinct from a family which is a deeper and profound relationship. No business can deliver the emotional, mental, spiritual, or physical support that a family can. And that’s OK, because that is not its role.
It Lowers the Leadership Bar
Calling everyone “family” does more than dilute the importance of your literal family. It dilutes the moral and social responsibility of businesspeople. Rather than creating a high standard for leadership and an incentive to treat people well, it does the opposite: Because it is impossible to treat your employees like an actual family, using this as a standard creates no standard at all. Because there are no attainable benchmarks, calling staff a family can easily become a substitute for building a supportive, moral, human-centered company culture, which is both necessary and distinct from a family.
Instead of calling a business a family, it would better to articulate exactly what you want your company culture to be—and say that as clearly as you can. This gives everyone something concrete to strive for and a standard by which success or failure can be measured. For example, state that you want to create a culture of learning and feedback so people can grow in their jobs. Then set up clear review and feedback processes focused on both personal and corporate growth. Or state clearly that you value truth and honesty in all actions, and create a corporate culture where everyone is encouraged and rewarded for telling the truth—to each other and to customers. I know a businessman who has implemented this in his company. No matter what: don’t tell a lie. If the order is late because you forgot, don’t say it got held up by the supplier. Or if you want your company to be a place where people flourish and want to stay, make clear policies that give them a chance to grow in the organization while creating conditions where your company can be a launching pad for employees to succeed elsewhere if the right opportunity comes along. Done well this doesn’t create a zero-sum game but makes your company human-centered and not nakedly profit-centered. You could even measure as success both internal company promotions and company alumni who have gone on to become superstars somewhere else.
In short, there are many ways to respect and honor the dignity of employees without calling them “family.” This is actually better because it gives actual, real, measurable targets and goals where managers and owners can not only evaluate employees but evaluate themselves. The opposite is the case when we call the organization a family, since there is no possible way that a corporation, nonprofit, or school could ever live up to treating its people like family members. It substitutes the hard work of building a company culture with sentimental aphorisms. It also has the unintended consequence of dumbing down the very real needs that only a family can meet.
When you try to make two distinct social institutions the same thing, you end up hurting both of them. Respect family andbusiness for what they each do to promote human flourishing and dignity. But when it comes time to clock out, say goodnight to your colleagues … and go home to your family.