“We’re all family here” is a big red flag

Over on LinkedIn, Dave Gerhardt wrote:

Your company is not your friends.

Your company is not your family.

Ask anyone at Twilio. Or Shopify. Or Netflix. Or Twitter. Or Patreon. Or Hopin. Or any company that’s laid people off over the last year.

Was it hard to lay those people off? Was it an emotional decision? Sure. But it was a business decision. And they would have made it 10/10 times again if they had to.

We have romanticized tech and startups and the culture at those companies.

He goes on to explain that companies run businesses like businesses, and that you have to run your own life like a business of one. Always keep your eye open for new opportunities, new jobs, etc.

I totally agree.

But I want to highlight something else about the phrase “we’re all family here” that you don’t learn until it happens to you one too many times:

The person who wields power and tells you “We’re all family here” is trying to manipulate you.

“We’re all family here” is a red flag in a work setting the same way that “we all float down here” is a red flag coming from the clown in the sewer.

Tim Curry as the clown in Stephen King's It, holding a yellow ballon in a storm drain, looking overly friendly
Stephen King’s clown from It is a master of the rhetorical pattern “persuasive argument” in all the wrong ways.

Let me back up a moment and provide a perspective from someone whose family has not always been well-adjusted.  There are five kinds of people in your life: family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and blood relatives.

My family is made up of the people I trust even if I’m in the absolute worst circumstances of my life. Most of those people are also the legal definition of “family” — people I’m genetically related to and their spouses, adopted kids, etc. — but not all of them. Some of my family are people I went to college with, some are people i met at conferences, some are even people I met at work. They passed being “just friends” years ago and became people I would drop everything to help in any circumstance because they’d do the same for me.

Hopefully I don’t need to explain what “friends” are and it’s worth noting that the line between “family” and “friends” is not only fuzzy, it also changes over time as our lives and circumstances change. And that’s OK.

Acquaintances are people you don’t know well enough to call friends. You may choose not to know them well enough to call them friends. (I thought about including a category for “enemies” but hopefully you don’t have any and if you do you’re sticking them here in the acquaintances bucket.)

Strangers are people you don’t know at all.

And blood relatives? These are the people who you are genetically / legally related to who in healthy circumstances would be family. In this case, though, they have violated your trust so many times or so badly that you wouldn’t under any circumstances go to them for help. Maybe you’re now estranged or maybe they’re sitting in your living room.

Blood relatives are well-known for trying to manipulate you and your family through phrases like “we’re all family” and “but I’m your mom!” and “you’re not really going to abandon me, your brother, like this are you?”

[side note in case they’re reading: my mom and my brother are definitely family, this is an illustration, etc. etc.]

“We’re all family here” means two things:

  • You have an obligation to act against your best interests because of your (unchosen) relationship to this person.
  • You have an obligation to trust this person because of your (unchosen) relationship to this person.

If someone at work tells you to do something because “we’re all family here” it means they don’t think you trust them. It means they can’t trust you to act in their best interests without thinking about the consequences. In many cases it means they’re asking you to act against both your best interests and your perception of the company’s best interests, and follow them down whatever path they’re going.

They want you to treat them like they’re family — but they’re treating you like they’re a blood relative.

Consider this comparison:

A good leader I had came to our team and said “we need to rebuild this entire application and we have two years to do it.” A number of us on the team immediately said the professional equivalent of “aww hell no, that’s not even possible.” The leader’s response was “I know this looks impossible but it’s critical that we do it because [business reasons]. I also know this team can do it, but only if you buy in. I need you to get on the bus.”

The good leader provided business reasons to do a business thing and asked for our business skills to get us there. He even used a non-family metaphor to indicate that we were willing or unwilling to align with the goal. Yes, there was an implication that if we didn’t “get on the bus” something bad would happen, but we also knew that whatever that “bad” thing was, it would be based on business decisions.

A not-good leader I had came to our team and said “We need to build this application and we a year to do it. This is really cool and it’s really important because [badly described business reasons].” Once again, a number of us on the team said “aww hell no.” This time, the response we got was “We’re all family here! If I bring you a thing and ask you to do it, you should trust me!”

The bad leader provided business reasons, but didn’t have the skills the good leader did to persuade us that they were good business reasons. Instead of sticking to business, he tried to persuade us using emotion — things were cool and interesting and really important. Critically, when he saw that his attempts to persuade through emotion were failing, he tried to persuade us through guilt — family guilt, family trust — to convince us to do the thing. He implied that the consequences would be equally non-professional. Maybe he’d belittle us. Maybe he’d spread rumors that we were bad workers. Maybe he’d try to turn people with power against us.

His choice of words told us very clearly that he intended to use emotion and trust-based language to manipulate us into doing things, and if we didn’t do them, he’d double down on the manipulation.

The first leader made doing the hard thing we didn’t want to do a choice. The choice had consequences, but it was a choice.

The second leader saw doing the hard thing we didn’t want to do as something we had no choice to make, and he would force us to do it no matter what, then make us feel bad about it the whole time.

“We’re all family here” is a red flag. If someone uses this on you, call them on it. (“My family doesn’t have to pay me to show up.” is my personal favorite response.) Also keep an eye out for other red flags, and, if necessary, start logging the conversation for HR purposes.

If you manage employees who immediately get their back up about someone who uses phrases like “we’re all family here”, remember that for many people “family” equals “abuse”.  You might be sure that the person who said it doesn’t mean it that way, but whatever way they do mean it is going to get lost on the way to your employee. (And for that matter, are you sure they don’t mean it that way? The way a leader treats you may not be the same as the way a leader treats someone else.)

And if you are the person who says “we’re all family here”, well, either you are blissfully ignorant of the harm you’re causing to people who’ve already been abused by their family, or you’re intentionally using a power imbalance to manipulate people. Either way, knock it off.  A business is not a family, full stop.

Finally, if you’re not reading them, I recommend both Ask a Manager, an advice column which regularly covers dysfunctional company behavior and how to respond to it, and Captain Awkward, an advice column which regularly covers dysfunctional family/relationship behavior and how to respond to it. Also, regardless of how functional or dysfunctional your work/family/friend/blood relative relationships are, if your company/country offers mental health coverage, get yourself a counselor. Having someone you can talk to about these things who has no stake in the game except to help you is critical to recovering from or avoiding burnout and stress.

Author: Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)