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All in the family business

Is working with family a good idea? Experts share their advice on how to mix family and business.

Jen Weigel

June 16, 2011

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We've heard of mixing business with pleasure—but what about mixing business with family? Is blood really thicker than water, or is this a recipe for disaster?

"When things are going well, working with family can really enhance a relationship," says Tamryn Hennessy, the national director of career development at Rasmussen College. "You know they have your back and you have theirs. But bad things are going to happen because that's just what happens in business. The question is whether you can handle those circumstances and still protect your relationship."

Hennessy says it's best to stay in a business mindset from the very beginning of your negotiations with relatives.

"It doesn't matter that you're blood," she explains. "You need to sign contracts and list goals. That way, there's no question as to what is expected of them."

If this doesn't happen, damage to the family unit will undoubtedly follow.

"There's nothing worse than having a business discrepancy with a family member because then you bring it to Thanksgiving dinner," says Alan Haft, bestselling author of "You Can Never Be Too Rich" (Wiley, $24.95)."If a co-worker is also a family member, you tend to treat it differently. But if things don't work out, this can cause turmoil and regret."

For Dr. Jordan Leasure, she knew working with her sister might make things complicated. So before hiring her younger sibling to be a chiropractor at North Shore Pro-Active Health in Libertyville, she laid down the law.

"We had a very serious conversation," Leasure explains. "She'd interned with me and I told her to be sure she investigated other places so she knew her options. And then I said, 'You need to recognize that if it comes down to it and this doesn't work out, I will fire you.' We drew up a year contract. We're coming up on her one year anniversary and we'll be renewing it should she choose to."

But not everyone has the same work ethic if they're clocking in for family.

"When people think they have a connection at the top they think they don't have to do their job," says Michael Zakin, who hired his two nephews when he was the general manager for a large mortgage company in Chicago. "I think at first they thought, 'Hey, I'm working for my uncle and he's the boss and he's the only one who can tell me what to do,' so it became a problem. They didn't listen to other managers, and that put them in a bad position. So I sat them down and explained to them that I needed 110 percent. They had to be on time, stay late, offer more and do better, and if they couldn't do that, they couldn't be here."

Here are our expert's do's and don'ts for working with family.

Don't ignore the warning signs. "If I was a stranger and not your family, I may seem like a nice guy, but you need to know my track record," says Haft. "Say I'm at dinner getting trashed and then I come asking for a job or for money, it might not be a very good idea to invest in me."

Do utilize standard operating procedures. "This means setting a framework to fall back on," says Hennessy. "Set weekly or quarterly update meetings. Tell them, 'This is how we do things here,' so if things aren't going well and you have to let someone go, you can look at the goals and guidelines and say, 'see — you aren't meeting your goals.' "

Do put it in writing. "While people don't like to think of getting a prenuptial agreement before they get married, there's a benefit in a business relationship that you put all the terms in writing, especially with family," says Haft. "In my experience, when people don't do this and things go wrong, there's usually regret and loss."

Don't manage them yourself. "You can give a relative that foot in the door, but have someone else who is not family supervise them," says Hennessy. "It's often easier to take direction from a third party."

Do set a timeline. "Say, 'I would love to help you out for the next three months,' and at the end of the three months you might have some connections — some cash — but it's very finite," says Hennessy. "You can extend that but you set that expectation early that it might not be long term."

Don't take it personally. "If things don't work out, you have to be able to say, 'Hey, it's just business,'" says Haft. "My father and my uncle were business partners from the day they started and it lasted for decades. They had a good dynamic and could separate what was work and what was family."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel