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Norman Rockwell doesn't live here anymore

The classic image of a happy family gathered together in a Norman Rockwell painting is well known. Unfortunately, this kind of happy scene isn’t always replicated among family members who work together in a family owned enterprise.

A number of years ago I authored a column that appeared in this publication that decried rude behavior in family businesses among family members. Recently, while working with a family in business, I came across an upsetting and quite ugly situation that generated this current column.

Thus, I am revisiting this topic again from a different angle: bullying in the family business.

According to psychologist Evelyn F. Field, author of "Strategies for Surviving Bullying at Work":

“Workplace bullying involves the repetitive, prolonged abuse of power involving unwelcome, unreasonable, escalating behaviors that are aggressively directed at one or more workers and cause humiliation, offense, intimidation and distress.”

Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, well known social psychologist and foremost authority on work place bullying, Dr. Gary Namie, says bullying is expensive for a business as it affects the overall health of the organization. It can result in higher levels of absenteeism, stress and risk for accidents as well as low morale, decreased productivity and a decline in customer service.

In 2012, Dr. Namie did a study of 1,600 workers and found that 77.7 percent of bullying targets were no longer employed at places where they had been bullied because they had quit, been forced out or had been fired. As leaving a job can be traumatic under those circumstances, imagine what it must be like in a family business, if a family member must leave as a result of bullying!

The majority of the time, bullying is done by people of a higher rank. Therefore, the multi-generational hierarchy in a family business can complicate or heighten the impact of bullying behavior. In some families, along with other legacies passed on to future generations, it appears that the tendency to bully to achieve one’s goals is also perpetuated. It is this abuse of power that can negatively impact the family business and contaminate even the boardroom.

Henry Ford’s treatment of his son, Edsel, is a well-known case of family business bullying. Henry Ford used to chastise his only son even when Edsel was Ford president and his father would at times humiliate him in public. Sadly, Edsel died from stomach cancer at age 49, giving credence to the theory that bullying victims often suffer physically from being bullied.

Other subtle, but serious, examples of bullying in family businesses is the family board chair who may humiliate another family director to get the vote he needs for his cause, or withholding important information that could lead to poor decision making on the part of another family director, or pushing an agenda on a weaker family shareholder to get “his way.”

Just like on the playground, constant bullying in a family business can lead to retaliating by bullying the family bully, thus creating a vicious never ending circle.

For family members who witness bullying in their business, family owners must remember that they are the ones responsible for creating and cultivating a healthy business culture which normally mirrors their family’s values.

Unless bullying is a family virtue, it is imperative that family members don’t allow themselves to become silent bystanders.

The benefit of having a family code of conduct to which all members subscribe is one way to inoculate the family business from the bullying epidemic.

In addition to a family code of conduct, at a family council meeting a discussion can take place on what constitutes bullying and how it should be addressed. In a family council setting, communication techniques can be taught as well as appropriate assertiveness training for the next generation.

And lastly, women family business members should be coached to never, ever put up with bullying from anyone.

With knowledge comes power and power generates confidence. As bullying is an infection that is damaging to families in business, confidence gained at the family council level can be the cure.

Take a look, listen, observe -- is there bullying going on among family members who work in your family business?

Eddy, CFP, is president of San Diego-based Creative Capital Management Inc. and co-founder of the Family Business Forum at USD. She can be reached at peggy.eddy@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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