How do you deal with in-laws in the FOB?

Business Leader Post, January 3, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

In-laws in family owned businesses are the ultimate enigma.

For one thing, the prevailing wisdom amongst advisors to family owned businesses is to always have a pre-nuptial. This is a heck of a way to greet a prospective family member: “Before we welcome you to the family through marriage, we are going to protect ourselves from your taking advantage of us through a potential divorce.” Some potential spouses can understand this, and some professionals/parents are better than others at delivering the message, but the reality is that message is not the same as throwing one’s arms around a prospective in-law as an act of celebration for the upcoming marriage.

The dilemma continues in terms of inviting in-laws into the business either to work in it or to be privy to the information about the family business that other family members have.

I leave those issues for individual families to address themselves (although, despite the unfortunate timing of the message, I do support pre-nuptials when possible). How each family addresses those issues ought to be a part of the family values and culture. I do ask, however, that family business owners consider this tongue in cheek description of in-laws: They have all the responsibilities of a family member and none of the benefits. They frequently exist in an environment where there is a subtle and sometimes not so subtle message that they are the lucky beneficiaries of being a part of a family and the family business. They are expected, therefore, to support the family business and to understand and support how and why things are done either by the culture or by the unwritten rules of the family system. If in-laws don’t come from a background of family business owners, the experience of how decisions are made and their spouse’s expectations regarding the business and the parents/bosses can be mystifying, confusing and off-putting.

They live with the family business whether or not they ever cross the threshold of that business.

I describe this situation in order to create sensitivity to that dynamic. If one continues to operate without sensitivity to the potential positive roles of in-laws supporting their spouses in the family business, one can alienate them and create a power struggle between the in-law, the spouse and the business. That power struggle expresses itself as, “Where are your loyalties—to your spouse, your children, or the business?” That is a lose/lose equation. Think about it, have some appreciation for the fact that in-laws struggle with many of the same issues as any other family member.