(Undergraduate student of Psychology at FLAME University, Pune.)
Dr. Moitrayee Das
(Assistant Professor of Psychology at FLAME University, Pune. She can be reached at email@example.com)
The word family brings to mind a sense of a tight-knit bond indicating togetherness, warmth, and care. It instantly brings to mind pictures of the smiling faces of people standing next to one another, almost in a picturesque photo frame hung in one’s living room. I mean, isn’t the image of a “family” usually served to us in a collectivistic culture like India? It is very interesting to see the concept of family being used in the workplace. I think most of us at some point in our lives would have either experienced it for ourselves or heard someone say, “We are a family at work,” or “My work is my family,” and the most obvious one, “Welcome to the family” (workplace), primarily implying that the team and the larger organization work as one close-knit unit and are there for one another just like family members are expected to be. The question we are trying to pose through this article is: Does calling your employees your family have larger negative implications for the employees?
In India, approximately 85% of the businesses are family businesses (Mafatlal, 2023). These account for up to 79% of the national GDP. India ranks third in the list of countries with the most family-run businesses (Sood, 2022). It has also been found that, in difficult situations, family-run businesses are more empathetic towards their employees and retain them. Honestly, this is great not just because it builds stronger bonds and better interpersonal relationships between the two parties, but also because the employees need the support of the employers during the hard times, and if they are let go during those times, who do the employees turn to? This humanistic approach to family-run businesses, as shown by various reports, is truly something for employers across organizations to learn from.
There is a narrative in many workplaces, or rather, discussions around the workplace, that states that workplaces are like family and the employees are seen as family members of the organization. If we make an analogy between a family and a workplace, we also need to understand the expectations each has for the stakeholder on either side, i.e., the employees. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that in every organization employers expect their employees to be loyal, qualified, and motivated (Biruta et al., 2015). On the contrary, parents expect their children to find jobs that satisfy them but also allow them to prioritize relationships and mutual understanding, along with having time to do things outside work such as going out on a trip (Kacane, 2020). It’s quite obvious that the expectations of an employer who calls their employees their family and a parent’s expectations of their children are not quite the same. Understandably, a narrative like this has probably worked for a long time in a workplace setting, but not anymore. Employees are genuinely concerned and want to know what being “family” at work truly means.
There are many reasons why our workplace may or may not be like our family. Of course, we all come from different family backgrounds, and our life experiences are vastly different, especially when it comes to our relationships with our family members. However, the overall expectation from family members is that, at least in most cases, they want the best for us. However, the different realities at workplaces, from favouritism, unfair or unethical treatment, a lack of work-life balance, and poor pay to layoffs, really beg the question of whether our work is our family. In a caring family, everyone is treated fairly and with due respect, and many times we withhold expressing our opinions or disagreements just to keep the ‘peace’ at home or out of fear of hurting or disrespecting family members. This implies that while at work, we may also refuse to speak up about important opinions that we have due to the fear of them being used against us, and we may also not open up about inappropriate behaviour, discrimination, or workplace harassment (Stafferty, 2023). When we keep equating our work with our family, many a time consciously or subconsciously, we would let unfair treatment or behaviour slide owing to the commonsensical knowledge that “Yeh sab toh chalta hai” (this keeps happening in normal families). Employees may not feel confident enough to ask for their due raise or raise complaints, all because such conversations could be very awkward and do not feel like “family talk.” One of the primary concerns of this work-family analogy is the undue advantage and unfair treatment that could be meted out to the employees. A lot of behaviours that are normal for family members may not be right or appropriate for an employee to do, and this understanding of extreme loyalty as harmful rather than helpful is very important for the workplace.
There is no denying the fact that a lot of times our colleagues provide us with warmth and care, and a sense of mutual understanding develops when we work at the same place for a certain amount of time. Employees have been found to be supportive of each other’s good and bad times, but solid friendships have developed out of these ties. A lot of us have been fortunate to have met empathetic and kind people at our workplace who have made our work and lives easier. However, a lot of this depends on the overall culture, the people in the organizations and the kind of relationships that organically develop out of it. Otherwise, it would be best to keep your work and family as separate entities, as they were meant to be.